On the ground or in the air, the C-130 Hercules is not a beautiful thing. Thick as a maiden aunt, it's workmanlike, built for strength not grace. Watching the C-130 fly is something like the old saw about the bumblebee: you don't know exactly how it does it, but it does.
While the C-130 doesn't have the flash and sex appeal of other planes in the Air Force arsenal, the 70 C-130s stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base have been a godsend to Jacksonville. Home to the only formal C-130 training school in the world, the C-130 Center for Excellence, LRAFB's importance as a pilot training hub has so far made it immune to the waves of base closings that have washed over the country, decimating airbase towns where the whole economy is built around feeding, housing, or entertaining military people.
Last Friday, one could imagine a sigh of relief from the city of Jacksonville and the blinding airstrips of the Little Rock Air Force Base when the latest and most advanced model of the C-130 -the C-130J-30 - touched down there for good, with more of its high-tech sisters on the way. The 48th Airlift Squadron, stationed there, is the first active duty unit in the Air Force to take delivery of the C-130J. The decision to station the first active duty C-130J at Jacksonville - and a $3.6 million dollar Congressional appropriation for hangar modifications and for a new training facility just to train pilots on the new model - are widely seen as an Air Force commitment to the LRAFB.
Even with a 15-foot fuselage stretch over its older cousins, the C-130J-30 still looks like a flying carp. Inside that rotund skin, however, beats the heart of a 21st century warrior. New digital avionics and liquid crystal displays lighten the crew load from five to three. Six-bladed composite props and four Rolls-Royce engines (with a thousand-horsepower-per-engine upgrade) mean the plane can fly 40 percent higher (26,000 feet), 20 percent faster (410 mph), and 40 percent farther (2,417 miles, with 35,000 pounds of payload) on a single tank of gas, and can take off and land on shorter airstrips.
A little more than 70 of the older C-130 E and H-models are stationed at Jacksonville. It's an aging fleet, with some of the planes dating back all the way to the Vietnam War. "The newest bird was brought here around 1994," said information officer Lt. Jon Quinlan. "Some of them are pretty old, exactly [how old] I don't know. I know they're older than me. Some of them are 20 or 30 years old, some of them might be older than that."
Quinlan said that the current plan is to place seven C-130Js at Little Rock Air Force Base by 2005. They'll be the only J-models operating with active-duty units in the Air Force, though Quinlan said the long term goal is to phase out E and H models entirely. So far, the military has received 32 J-models from manufacturer Lockheed Martin, and has 46 more on order, at a price tag of $48 million per plane. The Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the Italian Air Force have also placed orders for J-model C-130s. Because the J-model is so different from its predecessors, Quinlan said, pilots of E and H-model C-130s will have to be retrained before flying the C-130-J, and new pilots who make the marks to fly the J-model will be trained specifically to fly it.
"The J-model is essentially a completely different aircraft," Quinlan said. "New pilots who are coming in are going to be selected for the J-model based on test scores. But with only seven in the active duty air force, they're going to get as many people in them as they can."
U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder of Little Rock worked hard to get the J-model stationed at the Little Rock Air Force Base. He sees the decision to build a J-model training facility in Jacksonville as a long-term commitment to the base and the community. "I think that all the resources that are being put into the buildings and simulator and all these facilities are a concrete signal from the Air Force that the Little Rock Air Force Base is a very strong part of their mission. The fact that the J model is going to be based there is them telling us that Little Rock Air Force Base is a great training area."
Snyder knows that the Little Rock Air Force Base wasn't always on such a solid footing. Around 1997, Snyder heard rumblings that C-130 training at Jacksonville was about to be the latest casualty in the Republican Revolution. "In a moment of candor, a high-ranking general confided to people in Central Arkansas that Newt Gingrich [then a representative from Georgia] and Trent Lott [a Mississippi senator] were trying to make a run at the training mission at Little Rock Air Force Base and get it moved to their state," Snyder said. "I got President Clinton aware of that, and his administration aware of that. I had multiple conversations with secretary of the Air Force."
Snyder's time paid off. Not only did the C-130 Center for Excellence stay in Jacksonville, Snyder pointed out that in the past six or seven years, the Air Force has lavished a "building boom" on the Little Rock Air Force Base. "The bottom line is, I think it was a wake-up call for everyone, including the Air Force, that there was a political threat to a really, really good base and the really good training that occurs there," Snyder said. He believes the construction of the C-130J training facility and simulator is a further sign of how much Jacksonville means to Air Force brass.
"I think this whole process caused the Air Force to really recognize how valuable the Little Rock Air Force Base was," Snyder said. "The J-model training site there is just recognition of the confidence the Air Force has in the Little Rock Air Force Base and how important it is to our national security," he said. "Everything going on in Iraq and Afghanistan is dependent on C-130s to move people and personnel around. When I was in Iraq a few months ago, how did we get moved around? It was C-130s."