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Duluth Air National Guard personnel keep their eyes on the new bird as the pilot, Capt. Chris Crabb, taxis one of the new F-16 Block 50 aircraft to a stop at the air base on Tuesday afternoon. Crabb flew one of the four new planes from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to their new home in Duluth. The nonstop flight took nine hours. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

148th gets its new jets

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The first wave of four F-16 Block 50 jets arrived at Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing on Tuesday, signaling a new lease on life for the base.

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The planes -- the first of 18 the military is transferring from the 22nd Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany -- will replace the 148th's current planes, which are slated for retirement.

"Everyone here is just ecstatic that they are going to be landing today," 2nd Lt. Jodi Kiminski said Tuesday morning, noting that their arrival is the result of years of hard work by the base, the community, politicians and other officials.

The 148th flies the oldest F-16 fighters in U.S. military service -- Block 25 aircraft that were built in the early 1980s. The Block 50s are about 20 years newer. The Block 50 jets produce more thrust, meaning they are able to carry more weight and climb faster than the older aircraft they will replace. It also includes greater computer capacity for upgrades. They're worth about $30 million apiece, bringing the total value of the new fleet to roughly $540 million.

The first of the Block 50s landed in Duluth about 1:50 p.m. Additional planes will arrive later this week and during May. It will take about 18 to 24 months for the 148th to convert from the Block 25s to the Block 50s. Pilots and aircraft maintenance personnel are attending technical training for the new aircraft.

The 148th had lobbied for new jets since 1997 and saw new aircraft slip through its grasp on at least three occasions. The military announced in February that the 148th would receive the newer jets.

At that time, 148th commander Col. Frank Stokes said receiving the Block 50s makes the difference between the base closing and "being here until 2020 to 2025 and beyond."

The 148th has about 1,050 active members, including 450 working on a full-time basis. The ninth-largest employer in Duluth, the 148th had an estimated total economic impact of more than $94 million in 2009.

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