Air Guard prepares with future uncertain

Nine airmen clad in olive-drab flight suits look up from their notebooks and paper forms as Maj. Chuck Williston begins to speak.

“Today we’re going from Bagram Airbase to Ramstein, Germany,” he announces, beginning the briefing. “It’s going to be a seven-hour flight.”

The members of the 142nd Aeromedical Squadron were at the Delaware Air National Guard’s base near New Castle, not in Afghanistan. And they were flying to Virginia Beach and back, not Germany. But they were preparing to go aloft this night to practice the same mission they’d be performing if they were deployed – loading war zone casualties onto a C-130 cargo airplane for transport to clinical care.

Downstairs, in flight operations, Lt. Col. Dan Sheridan of the 142nd Airlift Squadron reviewed the flight plan with his co-pilot and navigator. Long, folded flight path charts were spread out before him on a high, wide table, a dark blue representation of the state of Delaware painted in its center.

“When we get down there, it’s pretty stiff winds,” the former Navy helicopter pilot told 1st Lt. Chris Farrell, the co-pilot, referring to their planned turnaround point for the two-hour mission. He took special note of a large Atlantic Ocean Navy training area. “You know the Whiskey areas at all, off Virginia Beach? It’s called Whiskey 50,” he said. “All the [Navy] F-18s fly out there at all different altitudes. … So you want to minimize our footprint coming through.”

Other than training flights like this one, the Delaware Air National Guard won’t have much of a footprint outside the state in 2014 – certainly not in Afghanistan, where U.S. involvement in the war is still slated to come to an end in December.

Only time will tell, however, if they’ll be called upon in response to a state emergency. It’s another reason why the medics, the flight crew and the crew chiefs need to keep their skills honed.

“We only have routine patients coming,” Williston told the medics-in-training, litter-borne mannequins with make-believe maladies and vital signs. But the team would practice an “ERO,” or engine running onload, meaning the “patients” would be staged behind the idling C-130 and, on a signal, hustled across the runway, up the airplane’s tail ramp and secured onto metal stanchions lining the cabin’s center.

It was 5:55 p.m. Thursday. Two crew chiefs were already out at the C-130, preparing it for the mission. Having reviewed procedures and individual responsibilities, the medical team went down to gather its gear and head out to the aircraft, as did the flight crew.

Like the state Air Guard’s other C-130H2s, this one is old by military aircraft standards. Built in the 1980s, its age shows most vividly in the cockpit, where multiple dozens of dials and gauges seem dated compared to the digital avionics and glass heads-up displays that have become the modern norm.

Those are features on the C-130J, a $90 million-plus replacement that Guard officials say they need to avoid becoming obsolete in 2020, when a digital air traffic control system will become the world norm.

Inside the C-130’s spartan cabin, all silver and gray metal and red web seats, the medics scramble about, setting up the stanchions on whose brackets the litters rest and strapping equipment cases to the deck. The sun has set. Inside the cockpit, Sheridan speaks through his headset to a crew chief outside to ensure no one is near the propellers.

“Clear number two?” he asks. “Number two is clear,” comes the response. Sheridan moves the throttle. “Two is turning,” he announces. Soon, the aircraft is awash with noise. The roaring engines make the flight deck vibrate.

Out on the airfield, four medics are kneeling beside the litters, about 100 feet behind the lowered ramp. At a thumbs-up signal, three lift a litter and walk rapidly toward the ramp at a semi-crouch, the backwash blowing their hair straight back. “Come to me! Come to me!” another medic shouts, indicating which side of the stanchion they should come to.

Within a couple of minutes, the last litter is carried aboard. Even before it is secured, the ramp is raised and clacks into position. At 7:45 p.m., right on schedule, the aircraft begins noisily taxiing toward its assigned runway.

A few minutes later, the aircraft comes to a halt. The medics wait. Shortly after 8 p.m., it starts moving again – back toward its parking spot.

There’s a maintenance issue. The throttle handle for engine No. 3 “was walking.” Too loose, in other words, not a good thing. The mission is scrubbed.

All military aircraft eventually wear to the point where it becomes too expensive to repair them. They break more frequently, and parts become scarce as assembly lines close down.

“Just like your car at home,” Sheridan said. Even an endless supply of spare parts, however, wouldn’t keep the Air Guard flying past 2020.

There’s a stopgap measure that would forestall the need for new C-130Js: funding for a C-130 modernization program that would allow the state Air Guard’s aircraft to keep flying past 2020. At about $150 million total to upgrade its eight aircraft, that’s obviously the “cheaper of the two options,” Sheridan noted. Funding for that program, though, was halted in fiscal year 2013 and has not been restarted.

Not changing anything, Guard officials and other members acknowledge, would be the end of the line for the Air Guard’s flight mission and the roughly 1,100 guardsmen who are part of it, as it will for Air Guard squadrons in 15 other states – and Air Force Reserve units in nine states – who also operate older C-130s.

“The biggest thing is the jobs, the potential job loss,” Sheridan said. “We’ve got a great group of people, well-experienced. With the two wars, you don’t have a better, more experienced fighting force than you do right now. To lose that, that corporate knowledge, and not have that pass on to another generation of fliers is a huge detriment.”

“The value that the taxpayers get from what we do is hard to quantify, and it’s kind of, you don’t miss it until it’s gone,” said 1st Lt. Alex Sutherland, a C-130 navigator, a position that along with that of flight engineer that does not exist on the J model. “And that’s when the costs come into perspective. So I hope that we’re able to maintain the assets that we need to fill the missions that arise all the time.”

“This is still a capable airplane,” said Sheridan, who flew aging CH-46 helicopters during his Navy days. “A new airplane [the J model] would eliminate two crew positions [navigator and flight engineer]. But it’d still be able to continue our mission of airlift, and for the [medics] to do their job as well.”

Contact William H. McMichael at (302) 324-2812 or bmcmichael@delawareonline.com. On Twitter: @billmcmichael.

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