The United States’ first, and so far only, operational C-27J Spartan Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) arrived at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport, Ohio on Sept. 17, 2010.
The twin-engined, turboprop airlifter, designed to haul combat cargo “the last tactical mile” to troops in combat, is among 38 the Pentagon will acquire, a decline from a once-planned purchase of 78 aircraft. The Mansfield airplane, serial no. 08-27014, will be the first of four assigned to the 179th Airlift Wing, Ohio Air National Guard (ANG), commanded by Col. Gary A. McCue.
The wing’s flying unit is the 164th Airlift Squadron, led by Lt. Col. Rob Schuett. The C-27J is the first new aircraft to be assigned to an ANG unit without ever serving in the active-duty force. Aircraft 08-27014 is still painted with a “U. S. Army” legend, reflecting a now-defunct plan to have the Army operate the planes, which was followed by an equally defunct scheme to have the Army and Air Force use them jointly. The ANG will now operate all C-27Js.
In a telephone interview, McCue, 45, expressed confidence in meeting the challenge of becoming operational in an aircraft that is not without controversy.
“You won’t find a more dedicated and squared-away unit than Mansfield,” said McCue. “We’ve been up against BRAC [the base realignment and closure process], looked into the abyss, and survived. Every day I drive in, I see an airplane on the ramp and we once felt there was a possibility they could close our base.” In 2005, the Mansfield base was ordered to close by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Because of support from community and government leaders, the commission awarded a new mission to the base. Critics argue that creating six ANG C-27J units with four planes each plus additional aircraft as spares amounts to a jobs program to please Capitol Hill lawmakers.
Mansfield is in competition with the ANG base at Key Field, Meridian, Miss., to become the formal training unit (FTU) that initially prepares pilots, loadmasters and maintainers for C-27J operations. Once an FTU is announced, the current training facility operated jointly with the Army and contractor L3 Systems at Warner Robins, Ga., is expected to shut down. Soon thereafter, maintenance of the C-27J is expected to shift from civilian contractors to blue-suited Air National Guardsmen. Meanwhile, Mansfield has been tasked with deploying to the overseas war zone as early as March of next year. McCue said the unit will be ready.
In May 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates transferred the C-27J program from the Army to the Air Force, ending hopes that the Spartan would directly replace the Army’s 42 C-23B/C Sherpa airlifters. “They bought too much car,” said McCue, a long-time C-130 Hercules veteran, referring to the Army’s C-27J purchase that has since become an Air Force buy. “The C-27J looks, smells, and flies like a mini-Herk. The C-27J is two or three times the airplane the Sherpa is.”
Having deployed to the combat zone in his wing’s now-departed C-130H Herks (which were since transferred to another Guard unit in St. Joseph, Mo.), McCue speaks with authority of the controversial “last tactical mile” the C-27J was built to cover. Is the ability to bring smaller cargoes more quickly to ground troops in combat worth investing in a new aircraft when the job could be performed by a C-130? McCue thinks so.
“It’s about control,” said McCue. “It’s about who owns and operates it. We worked for a CAB [an Army combat aviation brigade] with two of our Mansfield C-130Hs at Camp Speicher, Iraq, near Tikrit, from October to December 2009. It looked and smelled like our normal mission, but we were commanded and controlled by the Army.”
McCue said the two service branches are still “wangling” about the close-in, tactical airlift mission, which airmen insist is an Air Force job. “The ‘last tactical mile’ is an Army term saying the Army should control airlift on a day-to-day basis,” said McCue. “Air Force culture is about efficiency. The Army is about effectiveness. So the Army cares less than we do whether it’s a C-130 or a C-27J that flies a close-support mission. We aim, every day, to jam everything we can on a C-130 and fill it: it’s a moving truck. Any moving truck that is less than 100 percent full is inefficient. In Iraq, where the flying environment is mostly benign, we can focus on being efficient. In Afghanistan, where there’s more shooting going on, it’s more important to be effective. The C-27J offers that.”
Mansfield held a ceremony to welcome the C-27J last August 14 but did not actually “own” an aircraft until September 17. The ANG wing’s sole initial crew made their first operational flight on September 21 – a local mission.
McCue acknowledged that delivery of his first – and so far, only – C-27J was late. “We’re to get the next three C-27Js some time over the next six months by spring.” McCue said his target date for initial operating capability (IOC) is June 12, 2011 – after an overseas deployment. “We’re in uncharted territory,” said McCue. “Each day, as things unfold, we have to react. In the military we’re trained to think ahead. It’s hard to do that when you don’t know what is going to happen next. No one has ever done what we will be doing: You take folks, you plop them in an airplane, and they go to the desert.”
Uncharted territory or not, McCue said the 179th Wing can do the job, “We have our Ph.D in tactical airlift here at Mansfield. Our pilots and loadmasters have thousands and thousands of hours of tactical airlift experience. Our C-130Hs didn’t have digital cockpits and the C-27J does but that’s not an issue. Some of our pilots have glass cockpit experience because, as part-time Guardsmen, they fly for the airlines.”
McCue emphasized that the C-27J is inexpensive to operate and is ideally suited for “partner nations” that might work together with the United States on future military or humanitarian airlift missions. He cited the West African nation of Senegal as an example of a stable, thriving nation that probably wouldn’t bother to invest in a second-generation Hercules but might gladly buy into the less costly C-27J.
The delivery to Mansfield, the further deliveries to come, the FTU selection expected in January, and the pending combat deployment, all follow a crowd-pleasing performance by a company-owned C-27J at this year’s Farnborough, England, aerospace trade show.