Defense Media Network

The Army’s Operational Support Airlift Agency Faces Global Challenges

The U.S. Army’s Operational Support Airlift Agency (OSAA) flies airplanes that aren’t glamorous, hauls people and cargo to destinations that aren’t romantic, and almost never shows up in the news.

“OSAA is an Army field-operating agency staffed by Army National Guard soldiers,” said its commander, Col. Michael E. Bobeck, in an interview. Bobeck said OSAA’s goals include “supporting warfighters overseas and improving priority airlift service at home.”

The official version of OSAA’s mission is a bit more of a mouthful. The agency is charged with, “providing safety, training, standardization, readiness, maintenance, and resourcing oversight for 80 separate units and the approximately 700 personnel assigned [to OSAA], its regional flight centers, and throughout the states and territories executing worldwide missions in support of wartime, homeland defense, and peacetime contingency requirements.”

“We’re UPS and Greyhound rolled all into one,” C-23B Sherpa pilot Warrant Officer Pyke Van Dalsem said in an Army press release.

A big part of OSAA’s future will be shaped by what happens to its biggest and oldest aircraft, the box-shaped C-23 Sherpa, dubbed the “FlyingWinnebago” by troops. Produced by Short Brothers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, powered by two 1,198-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-45-R turboprop engines, and able to haul 8,000 pounds of cargo, the Sherpa is the only cargo aircraft in the Army. It performs cargo, airdrop, and aeromedical evacuation duties to meet state and federal needs.

“We have 42 Sherpas,” said Bobeck. The total, reflecting what is left of the 44 built, includes 13 C-23B, 27 C-23B+ and two C-23C models upgraded with the Proline 21 digital cockpit and avionics suite needed for compliance with Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) navigation.

Jeff Kiecker, a UC-35 mechanic for Alaska Regional Flight Center, reads the maintenance manual while Steve Bennett inspects the engine at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska on May 12, 2008. The Operational Support Airlift Agency’s maintenance is performance by civilians. These at Joint Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, are working on one of OSAA’s four Cessna UC-35A Citation 560 Ultra Vs. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jonathan Steffen.

“We were in the process of upgrading the C-23s,” said Bobeck. “Now, we are moving toward divestiture of the aircraft based on C-27J planning.” Until it receives more explicit guidance and funding, OSAA is currently developing plans for two possible Sherpa outcomes – further upgrade of additional airframes to C-23C standard and full or partial retirement of the fleet.

The C-27J Spartan Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) began as an Army-only program to replace the Sherpas, but was taken over by the Air Force, leaving the Army with no transport aircraft in this category.

OSAA’s most numerous aircraft is the Beech C-12 Huron, based on the King Air 200 series. Also powered by the ubiquitous PT6A, the C-12 carries about 5,000 pounds of cargo or up to a dozen passengers. Bobeck’s OSAA fleet consists of 57 Hurons, including six C-12Ds, forty-six C-12Us and five C-12Vs, the last-named also being upgraded with the Proline 21 kit that is increasingly necessary for GATM-compatible overseas flying. Bobeck would like to see more upgrades. “We have about 20 more years of life on the C-12 fleet,” he said.

Bobeck said his agency also has eleven C-26E aircraft, twin-engine turboprops derived from the Fairchild Metro III-B. “They have new cockpits and they have no structural issues,” said Bobeck. Although the C-26E is unpopular with passengers because it proffers the feeling of being packed inside a narrow tube, it has one of the best safety records of any Army aircraft.

OSAA also operates four Cessna UC-35A Citation 560 Ultra V executive jet transports. The agency isn’t responsible for a separate Army unit that operates two C-37A Gulfstream Vs at Joint Base Andrews-Naval Air Facility Washington and handles VIP travel for leaders like Secretary of the Army John McHugh.

The C-23 Sherpa has long been the Army’s only cargo aircraft but is slated for retirement as the Air Force begins operating the new C-27J Spartan Joint Cargo Aircraft. Photo courtesy of U. S. Army.

“Our organization is ARNG and our people are primarily at Elmendorf, Hood, Lewis and Belvoir, plus state flight detachments ” said Bobeck, referring to bases in Alaska, Texas, Washington state, and Virginia. Maintenance is by civilians and “we’re currently in a transition from one contractor to another.”

OSAA gets from Point A to Point B with almost any cargo that has a “priority” rating, Bobeck said. The “priority air cargo” mission is the Army’s justification for its airlift fleet, distinct from the Air Force’s, and is the source of the PAC radio callsign used by OSAA. The agency also handles priority missions carrying people. “We shuttle wounded warriors from Fort Polk, La., to Fort Sam Houston’s Wilford Hall hospital at San Antonio,” said Bobeck, adding that the emphasis is on speed, safety and efficiency in getting the wounded to the best medical care. Sadly, on occasion, OSAA also transports the remains of America’s fallen soldiers. A Pentagon edict in 2007 transferred this somber mission from civilian to military aircraft.

Bobeck said some of OSAA’s aircraft have defensive systems. They’re the ones that are left in war zone locations overseas, often for up to two years at a time. The emphasis on safety is illustrated, he said, by fact that the Army hasn’t had a Class A fatality in its busy C-12 Huron community since 1995.

The Pentagon hasn’t decided, and Bobeck doesn’t know, exactly when and how the C-23 Sherpa fleet will be phased out. Other sources say the aircraft could be used for another ten years or more without age or fatigue issues. Although unpressurized, the Sherpa routinely operates above 10,000 feet with the crew on oxygen, and is considered the Army National Guard’s answer to missions requiring an aircraft that is capable of faster, higher altitude and longer-distance coverage than helicopters. All of those justifications for the Sherpa fleet will shift to the Air Force when the C-23 is replaced by the C-27J.

Top photo:

  • An Operational Support Airlift Agency (OSAA) Shorts C-23C Sherpa disgorges armed troops at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan in 2010. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...