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The ballroom of the historic Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City was filled with a sense of South Dakota exceptionalism Friday as state and community leaders formally celebrated Ellsworth Air Force Base’s new mission.

Last week, the Air Force announced that Ellsworth will be the first base to receive the new B-21 Raider bombers when they’re ready to be flown sometime in the mid-2020s, and Ellsworth will also be a training base for the planes. The B-21s will eventually replace the aging B-1 bombers currently flown at Ellsworth.

Attendees at Friday’s gathering included Ellsworth’s commander, the state’s entire congressional delegation, the governor and the mayors of Rapid City and Box Elder, along with approximately 200 other people.

The main dignitaries took turns speaking and sounded similar themes.

“From the time I was a little girl I knew South Dakota was special,” said Gov. Kristi Noem, “but today, the entire country knows that South Dakota is special. We have the best base in the nation, filled with the best airmen and women in the nation.”

Evidence to support that claim was revealed by Ellsworth’s commander, Col. John Edwards, who said he was notified Wednesday that the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth was selected by Air Force Global Strike Command as the recipient of this year’s Brig. Gen. Frederick W. Castle Memorial Award, given to the top bomb wing in the command.

The addition of the B-21 operational and training missions to Ellsworth is the capstone achievement of a 14-year-long effort to safeguard the base and its local economic impact after the base was considered for closure in 2005. Besides obtaining the B-21 mission, other major developments at Ellsworth since 2005 have included the addition of an Air Force financial services center and a drone unit, an expansion of the base's training airspace, and the removal of numerous structures from the base's accident potential zones.

Several speakers Friday reflected on how far Ellsworth has come since it was threatened with closure.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, who was governor in 2005, recalled speaking with someone that year who said South Dakota had “a heck of a hill to climb” in its effort to escape the national base closure list.

“In South Dakota, we’re not afraid of hills,” Rounds said. “And in fact, we’re not afraid of mountains, because this is the one state in the nation where we carve mountains, and not just a little bit but the whole thing.”

Rounds described the B-21, which is still under development, as the “most sophisticated, technologically advanced aircraft that has ever been developed.” It’s coming to Ellsworth, he said, because the base was chosen as the best place in the nation to help B-21s reach their full potential.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson praised the team of federal, state and local officials who’ve helped Ellsworth become the strengthened base it is today.

“The B-21, that is a heck of a powerful weapon,” Johnson said, “but the powerful weapon that is worth celebrating today just as much is that team.”

Scott Landguth, executive director of the Ellsworth Development Authority, reserved special praise for one member of that team. Reflecting on the journey from Ellsworth’s threatened closure 14 years ago to the B-21 announcement, Landguth said, “Most of that is due to one person, Senator John Thune.”

Noem also singled out U.S. Sen. Thune, saying he was the person who “stood up and fought harder than anyone else” to save Ellsworth from closing.

Thune challenged everyone in the ballroom to resist resting on laurels.

“Let’s enjoy it,” Thune said, “and then let’s get ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work, and get ready for the B-21 so we can be the home of the Raider.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills."