Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

TOP STORY >> Smaller airlifter sought

By SARA GREENE AND JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writers

Faced with spending either $9 million for wing-box repairs for the Air Force’s aging fleet of C-130E and H model cargo aircraft or spending $60 to $90 million per plane for the new C-130J model, Defense Department officials are looking at smaller cargo aircraft to augment the fleet.

“An aircraft that would carry about two-thirds the amount of cargo as a C-130 and be able to land between 2,000 and 2,500 feet is what we need,” said Gen. Norton Schwartz, commander of the U.S. Transporta-tion Command, during a recent visit to Little Rock Air Force Base.

During a recent interview with The Leader, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. said a smaller version of the C-130 would be even better suited to the kind of military actions currently being fought in the Middle East.

“It would be a twin-engine plane, about two-thirds the size of the full-sized (C-130) plane and capable of hauling about one-third the cargo,” Pryor said, adding the smaller plane was the Army’s idea, but there currently was no design or production in sight.

WEAR AND TEAR

“For a lot of missions it would make sense,” Pryor said. “I’d like to make sure it comes to Little Rock Air Force Base.”
“The Air Force has a lot of decisions (to make),” said Cong. Vic Snyder, D-Little Rock. Snyder serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

He said not only were so many C-130s grounded or restricted for wing-box problems, but the harsh climate was tough on all the transport planes supporting the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That includes the larger C-5 and the C-17.

He said he believed there would have to be a major procurement of some sort, but that a decision was “a ways down the line.”

A smaller cargo aircraft is an “upper level project,” said Capt. David Faggard of the 314th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office. Faggard said since such a plane doesn’t exist yet, it would be difficult to comment on its abilities or impact to Little Rock Air Force Base.

BRAC

Regardless, new planes would be welcome at the base and in the community.

The Base Realignment and Clo-sure Commission’s final recommendation calls for an increase of only six C-130s at the base, and an early estimate of 4,000 new jobs has been reduced to 300 to 600.

According to Schwartz, the military would need a mix of both small and large cargo aircraft to ensure that commanders have access to the right capabilities to achieve their specific mission.

“Big airplanes like the C-5 and C-17, medium airplanes like the C-130 and smaller airplanes like the light-cargo aircraft—it would be great if the avionics in them were similar, if a pilot could get out of a C-130 and get into the light-cargo aircraft and be able to fly it,” Schwartz said.

C-5 CRASH

On Monday a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft crashed during takeoff near Dover Air Force Base, Del. All 17 airmen aboard, members of the 436th Airlift Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 512th Airlift Wing, survived the crash.

“The C-5 and the C-130 are two totally different airlifters,” Faggard said. “We’re all waiting to hear what happened, but right now we’re concerned about the airmen and their families.”

While the concept of a light-cargo aircraft is being considered, the clock is ticking for the fate of Little Rock Air Force Base’s aging C-130 fleet. In 2005, Air Force engineers found microscopic cracking where the wings meet the fuselage, an area called the wing box, of the 40-year old C-130 E and 20-year old H models. After maintainers evaluated the 450 C-130s in the fleet, the Air Force grounded nearly 100 aircraft with the cracks. Of those, 18 were permanently retired leaving 82 C-130s in need of a $9 million wing repair.

WING BOX CRACKS

The Air Force put weight, altitude and flight time restrictions on aircraft that might develop the cracks based on wear and tear and such things as the number of hours flown, maintenance issues and the more demanding tactical flying of wartime maneuvers.

“If you replace the wing box of a 40-year-old plane, you still have a 40-year-old plane,” Faggard said. “It’s really hard to say how long a wing box repair would extend the life of a C-130. It’s like taking a 1950s or ‘60s car and putting new shocks on it. Other components...will fail.”

Of the 314th Airlift Wing’s 42 C-130s, 12 are restricted and eight are grounded. Of the 463rd Airlift Groups 30 C-130s, two are restricted and five are grounded. All the planes, grounded and restricted alike, have to be kept ready to fly, which according to recent reports, costs the base $22,000 per month to maintain planes that never fly.

REPAIR PLAN

A wing-box repair plan recently released from the 330th Tactical Air Support Command at Robins Air Force Base details 75 wing-box replacements over the next five years including one wing-box re-placement in 2007, four in 2008, 17 in 2009, 18 in 2010, 18 in 2011 and 17 in 2012, leaving seven C-130s needing the repair. It is not yet known when the planes from Little Rock Air Force Base will be repaired.

Once it is announced which planes get fixed, the C-130s will be flown to Warner Robins Air Logis-tics Center at Robins Air Force Base near Macon, Ga., one of the Air Force’s five air logistics centers that has worldwide management and engineering responsibility for the repair, modification and overhaul of the F-15 Eagle, C-130 Hercules, the C-141 Starlifter, all Air Force helicopters as well as all special operations aircraft and their avionics systems.

Capt. David Faggard of the 314th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office contributed to this story.