Groundings may revive production

The indefinite grounding Friday of older C-130s at Little Rock Air Force Base and elsewhere could be the impetus needed to override the Pentagon decision to stop production of the C-130J, the latest model.

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

===The grounding and flight restriction by the Air Force Friday of a large number of older C-130Es for possible wing cracks may provide an opening big enough to fly a new C-130J through, according to some members of the Arkansas congressional delegation.
=== Production of the C-130J, the latest incarnation of the venerable warhorse transport plane that has carried men, munitions and other cargo in operations dating back to the Vietnam conflict, was cut almost completely out of President Bush's 2006 defense budget. The Air Force has 32 of those planes built by Lockheed-Martin and was expecting another 42, but they're now on hold. The base has three, two of them on loan.
=== Now, with a large percentage of C-130Es, some 40 years old, grounded or reserved for conditional use, Senators Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln and Congressman Vic Snyder say the Pentagon and the president may be reconsidering.
=== At Little Rock Air Force Base alone, 15 of the 75 C-130s are grounded pending inspection and repair and another 22 are restricted regarding the weight of the load they can carry, according to Tech Sgt. Vicki Johnson, a spokesperson.
=== Virtually all C-130 flight, maintenance and ground crews for all branches of the U.S. military are trained at the base. In recent years, the Air Force has been preparing the base to train C-130J crews. "In the Senate Armed Services Committee in the last few days, Gen. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, says the Pentagon is rethinking those cuts," according to Pryor.
=== "Curtailing the production could cost more than they anticipated," Pryor said. He cited the cost of maintaining an older, less efficient fleet and the need to modify other aircraft.
=== "A lot more cost involved," said Pryor. Sen. Warner of the Armed services Committee was "astonished at the notion to cut back production."
=== "There's not much savings (in discontinuing the program)," said Snyder, and other than the C-130J, there's nothing else in the research and development pipe-line to move men, munitions and other cargo onto fairly short, rough air strips in current or possible theaters of operations.
=== "Anything else is years away in development," he said.
=== "The Air Force decision to ground aging C-130s only amplifies the need to accelerate production of the newer C-130Js," Lincoln said Tuesday. "I will continue working with the entire Arkansas congressional delegation to ensure that modernization of the C-130 fleet moves forward with a new degree of urgency. The vital role performed by C-130s in airlifting supplies to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan should be testimony enough to the value of Little Rock's airlift training wing."
=== "There is no other vehicle on the drawing board that would replace the C-130," said Pryor. "It has a lot of capabilities‹it can take off and land on short air strips, carry heavy loads, fly low and for huge distances. If we cut the (C-130J)program completely we don't have the capability. If we're moving toward a lighter, more agile, more lethal force, the C-130J is the perfect delivery vehicle (for putting troops and material into war zones.)"
=== "When they announced they wanted to cut it out, it didn't make any sense," Pryor said.
=== The C-130 was the last plane out of Saigon and the first plane into Baghdad. "The Pentagon has no fall back. The C-130E has been a very good aircraft, but it's reached its age and use limit."
=== The C-130J has all new avionics, is more fuel efficient, flies higher and faster with a smaller crew and because it's new, it requires much less maintenance, Pryor said.
=== "The bean counters in the Pentagon don't always understand the strategic needs. We need to make sure we're meeting strategic needs and logistical needs."
===Pryor said we may have the best equipped, best trained soldiers in the world, but "If we can't get them to the theater, it won't do much good. The C-130 is the key delivery vehicle. "If they do cut the program, in a very few years, we'll regret that."
=== Which C-130s to ground and restrict was determined by using a mathematical formula that factored in each airframe's age, hours flown and nature of the missions, said Johnson, the base spokesperson. "Some aircraft have experienced severe cracking in certain fatigue-critical locations of the wing.
=== The increase in the number of cracks and the severity of the cracking caused engineers to reevaluate the service life expectancy of the center wing box," Johnson said. Johnson said the 22 planes currently restricted in use could be used for aircrew training and proficiency flying, including limited low-level flying and airdrop. "This is all safety driven," said Capt. John Sheets.
=== "People are the primary asset. Aircraft are secondary. You can still look out over the skies of Arkansas and see the C-130 doing its training mission," Sheets said.