Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

TOP STORY >> Air base still counting on improving C-130s

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Congress and the Pentagon may shoot down Boeing’s $2.8 billion avionics modernization contract for 222 Vietnam-era C-130 E’s, but the Arkansas National Guard still expects to receive the first two of those planes for further testing by December 2010, according to Col. Jim Summers, the 189th Airlift Wing commander.

Summers said Tuesday he had read news accounts that the upgrades could be cut, but “I’ve not seen anything official. Nobody has told us the program is in trouble.”

Bloomberg News reported last week that the Air Force proposed canceling and cutting back several programs in its next five-year budget plan, including the C-130 E avionics upgrades.

It would reportedly save the Air Force about $345 million in 2011 and the full $2.8 billion through the end of 2015.

Bloomberg reported that the Pentagon ordered the Air Force to cut $24.2 billion from its existing $632 billion five-year plan.

The avionics modification program puts state-of-the-art digital cockpits on 40- and 50-year-old aircraft — cockpits that are more similar to the new C-130Js than the analog cockpits they replace.

Testing so far has been at Edwards Air Force Base, Summers said.

The 189th Air Wing is known as the C-130 schoolhouse. Crews there teach the instructors who teach pilots and crews for U.S. military and allies to fly so-called Legacy C-130s.

Two crews already are qualified to fly as crew members on the converted planes, Summers said.

“We will begin formulating the curriculum,” when the wing gets the two upgraded models it’s expecting, Summers said.

Current plans call for Little Rock Air Force Base’s C-130 schoolhouse to begin training for the enhanced C-130s in 2014.

Summers said that most training for the new C-130J is likely to be done on simulators on the active-duty side of the base.

While those planes will be assigned to the 189th sooner, they will undergo yearlong depot maintenance elsewhere before arriving at Little Rock Air Force Base. After that, crews from the 189th Airlift Wing will begin operational testing and evaluation, including low-level flights and airdrops, he said.

Boeing currently is authorized to build 10 percent of the 222 avionics-modernization kits needed, according to Summers.

He said if the entire program were scrapped, the advanced avionics would be stripped out of the three planes already converted and they would be converted to their original condition.

Summers said he couldn’t speculate how the loss of the program would affect the mission of the 189th Airlift Wing, but that the overall mission would remain the same — teaching those who teach pilots and crews to fly the C-130E, which dates back to the 1960s, and the C-130Hs, which were manufactured in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Both of those planes are in use around the globe, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The C-130 is the premiere medium-sized, medium-distance air- lifter for personnel and material in the world.