Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

TOP STORY >>C-130J mission grows

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor

Col. Rowayne Schatz, commander at Little Rock Air Force Base, brought a mixed-bag of good and bad news to a membership luncheon of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

“It’s great to be back,” said Schatz, who previously was commander of the 50th Airlift Squadron at the base and in 1998 won the Gen. Smith Trophy for best airlift squadron in Air Mobility Command.

The good news included the announcement that more C-130Js are headed for the air base, and funding for an air education center is winding its way through Congress, making construction of the center possible in two years.

“We’ll see more C-130J training at Little Rock Air Force Base,” Schatz told Jacksonville chamber members at the community center.

Also on the positive side: Air crews from Little Rock Air Force Base have replaced dangerous truck convoys for the delivery of weapons and supplies. The military instead relies more on air drops, replacing some 6,300 convoys in recent years, saving countless lives, Schatz said.

“Roadside bombs are the number one killer of U.S. forces in Iraq,” said the colonel, who is being promoted to general.
Schatz told the chamber that when he was deputy director of U.S. military forces in Qatar in 2005, he helped institute the air drops to reduce the number of convoys traveling overland.

The bad news was Schatz’s confirming that the housing privatization program has halted on base because the developer has run out of money, and the near certainty that the base will not get a new generation of small cargo planes, the C-27J Spartan.
But Cong. Vic Snyder, the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, believes LRAFB would be a good place for many of those smaller transport planes, which will be developed jointly by the Air Force and the Army.

In a statement to The Leader on Tuesday, Snyder said, “Little Rock Air Force Base is a great place for cargo plane training. It is the schoolhouse for the C-130J and would be a fine training site for the joint cargo plane. The Air Force knows of the high quality of LRAFB and of the interest of the Arkansas delegation in having this new plane training occur at Little Rock, but it will be an Air Force decision.”

Schatz said the C-130J mission continues to grow, with 10 of the modern planes now assigned to the base, while at least 13 more are scheduled to arrive there in the future, bringing their total to almost one-fourth of the nearly 100-strong fleet at the base.

The modernization program means more squadrons and personnel at the base, Schatz said. Some 200 more airmen have moved to LRAFB since the last round of base closings and realignment.

More C-130Js could come here as their cost continues to drop from the current $60 million price tag because more foreign countries are buying them, according to Capt. David Faggard, chief of public affairs at Little Rock Air Force Base, who attended the luncheon with Schatz. The other bit of good news the commander shared with the chamber was funding for the air education center outside Little Rock Air Force Base, a joint project of the Air Force and the city of Jacksonville. The 2008 military budget going through Congress includes $9.8 million for the center. The city will contribute $5 million toward the project, which will offer college-level courses to both military and civilian students.

Access for civilians to attend classes at the air base has become more difficult since heightened security went into effect after 9/11. Community and military leaders have pushed for the joint education center since then just outside the base facing Hwy. 67/167.

The bad news was that LRAFB will not see another generation of cargo planes, the C-27J Spartan, made by the Italian airplane manufacturer L-3 Communications Integrated Systems.

“That mission will not come to Little Rock,” Schatz told the Jacksonville chamber.

One reason is the success of the C-130J program, which takes up space at the base and in the skies around LRAFB. The Air National Guard and Reserves, as well as the Army, will instead get the two-engine joint-cargo planes, Schatz said. As for the stalled housing privatization program on base, Schatz said American Eagle, the developer, along with its partners, has been unable to pay subcontractors. Contracted to build some 640 new homes and renovate 730 old homes at the base, American Eagle has not gone beyond building a town center and a fraction of the new homes.

“We’ve got 25 new houses the last three years,” the commander said. “I see whole new developments going up in three months in Sherwood.”

“All construction has halted on base in the last three months, until we can work this thing out,” Schatz said. “We’ve got a lot of empty lots.” American Eagle is likely to sell to another developer, who could then resume construction, Schatz said. The company is in trouble at several bases, he added.

He said privatization seemed like a good idea: “Instead of using military money, we’d let contractors have free land and have them take the monthly housing allowance,” the commander said.

But it didn’t work out that way. “They messed up. They’re two years behind,” Schatz said.

He said providing good housing and education are two of his goals while he’s commander at the base for the next two years, as well as helping service members and their families while they’re deployed overseas, Schatz said.

The base deploys some 700 airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan — both from the 314th Airlift Wing, which he commands and is responsible for training C-130 crews, and the 463rd Airlift Group, which is part of Air Mobility Command stationed at the base and is a guest tenant there. The 50th Airlift Squadron, which Schatz had previously commanded, are part of that group, as are the 61st and the 41st Airlift Squadrons.

The last is the newest squadron at the base — the Black Cats, which recently moved here from Pope Air Force Base as part of base realignment and closure and is known as the “J squadron” because all of its planes are C-130Js. The squadron has three C-130Js and is scheduled to receive 13 more. The 314th Airlift Wing has seven C-130Js, which are used for training purposes.

Schatz said the main mission of the base is to train C-130 crews, but airmen will remain in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said 130 airmen returned from Balad, Iraq, Saturday night.

“My focus for the next two years is to make Little Rock Air Force Base better and better,” Schatz said.