Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

TOP STORY>> C-130J called ‘magnificent’

Plane performs well, but its future uncertain, general says

BY GARRICK FELDMAN
Publisher

Lt. Gen. John R. Baker, vice commander of Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., flew a new C-130J transport plane to Little Rock Air Force Base on Tuesday afternoon and pulled up between two hangars.

It was a tight fit, but he had perfectly taxied up to a crowd of airmen and local dignitaries who, under overcast skies, watched the arrival of the $66.5 million plane from Marietta, Ga., where Lockheed-Martin manufactures the C-130Js, whose future production is in doubt as the Bush administration is looking to save $5 billion by eliminating dozens of airplanes, ships and weapons programs from the defense budget.

The general, who later told us he had no idea if the C-130J will stay in production, stepped off the plane and looked like he had enjoyed his flight and hoped Lockheed-Martin would keep making the planes.

After the plane’s engines were turned off, Baker addressed the crowd that had gathered in front of the huge C-130J maintenance hangar. Since they are bigger than the old transport planes, the C-130Js need bigger hangars and have their own flight simulator training center not far from the hangar.

Baker said it was good to be back in Arkansas, where he plans to retire someday. Looking like a pilot who couldn’t be more pleased with his new plane, he declared the C-130J “a magnificent machine. It’s performing extremely well, despite what you might have read.”

Recent newspaper reports have pointed out problems with the plane, including engine troubles, as well as an inability to airdrop supplies, discharge paratroopers, conduct search-and-rescue missions and function well in cold weather.
During a press conference, Baker said those problems were cited in a report that is two years old.

He insisted that “85 to 90 percent of the problems have been fixed.”

“Commanders love it,” he added.

A newspaper recently reported that the C-130J was kept out of Iraq because of the alleged flaws, but Baker said that wasn’t true.

“It’s been in combat and is doing extremely well,” he insisted.

He sounded like someone who didn’t want the bean counters in the Pentagon to kill the new plane.

Critics point out that the plane’s cost has gone up more than 30 percent from the original $50 million price tag from a decade ago.

They think the C-130Js are not as good as the old Hercules planes that have flown for half a century, although Baker insists the new planes are far superior to the old C-130s.

Col. Timothy B. Vining, the inspector general with the 314th Airlift Wing at the air base, called the arrival of the C-130J “a great day for our base, our community and our country.”

“The delivery of our second C-130J model represents the continuing evolution of Little Rock Air Force Base and our mission to serve our country,” Vining continued.

“We welcome the magnificent aircraft to our inventory and look forward to using it to train C-130 crew members fully prepared to serve in combat and humanitarian relief missions around the globe,” the inspector general said.

Vining gave the general a ceremonial key “that symbolizes the official delivery of Aircraft 03-3142 to the C-130 Center of Excellence.”

The base should receive five more C-130Js this year, but that could be it, unless Congress gets its way and keeps funding production.

Congress and the Air Force love the plane, arguing that the aging C-130s, many of them 40 years old and grounded because of cracked wings and other problems, are long overdue for replacement.

Baker made the same point, saying that as the old Hercules become less dependable, the military needs a new backup transport plane.

“If we’re going to have problems with the Hercules, we need to replace them with the C-130Js,” he said.

The debate over the fate of the C-130Js continues in Congress and at the Pentagon.

“I have no idea of its outcome,” the general told us.