Local Guard lands a sweet new ride

Aircraft: The 135th Airlift Group is the first of the country's National Guard units to be given the newest, most up-to-date of the military's cargo planes.

May 01, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

This year's model features more horsepower and gets better gas mileage. It sports the latest bells and whistles. Climb in and get a whiff of that new-car smell.

But this is not Detroit's latest dream machine. It's an update of one of the Air Force's workhorse transport planes -- and the Maryland Air National Guard is the first Guard unit to get one.

As the new C-130J Hercules roared above the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, one Guard pilot compared the $53 million plane's performance with the unit's stable of older C-130Es.

"It is," said Capt. Joe Brophy, "like the difference between a 1999 Corvette and a 1955 Corvette."

The C-130J, to be christened the Pride of Baltimore II in ceremonies today, is the first of eight scheduled to arrive over the next year and a half at the Warfield Air National Guard Base at Martin State Airport in Middle River.

Some political maneuvering by Maryland's representatives in Congress, and recognition that the state air guard's planes are among the oldest in the country, prompted military leaders to choose the 135th Airlift Group as the first National Guard unit to receive the planes.

Eventually, the updated Hercules planes will replace the Maryland unit's C-130Es, which have flown missions from Honduras, where they brought supplies to victims of Hurricane Mitch, to Bosnia, where they dropped meals to hungry civilians.

But don't look for the 135th to be part of any call-up of reserve units for the fighting in Kosovo.

"It's very unlikely, because we're headed into this conversion period," said Brig. Gen. David A. Beasley, commander of the guard's 175th Wing, which includes that 135th Airlift Group and the 104th Fighter Squadron.

Of a possible call-up of the 104th -- which flies the A-10 Thunderbolt II jets used to attack tanks, and recently returned from deployment in Kuwait -- Beasley said only, "We're always ready."

The C-130 is known as a cargo aircraft, designed to move people, supplies and equipment from place to place, and sometimes to drop them from the sky with precision. From the outside, the new plane looks like the older ones, except for propellers that have six blades instead of four.

Under the hood, however, the new plane has the old one beat. It's more than 20 percent faster, with a maximum speed of about 373 mph; it is 15 percent more fuel-efficient, meaning it can fly to Europe without refueling; and its engines generate 30 percent more thrust. It can even airdrop small vehicles by parachute.

The interiors also are improved in the new plane. The cargo area of the new C-130J is outfitted with computer-operated locks that stow pallets. A winch used to pull cargo through the plane's wide rear ramp is stored neatly below deck.

And compare the cockpits: A C-130E built in 1963 is outfitted with switches and dials, a wall of circuit breakers and a work station for a navigator; the C-130J has no need for a navigator -- computers take care of that task.

"The new plane's taking away my job," said Capt. Gary Schropp of the 135th Airlift Group. "That's why I have to go to flight training."

Schropp was among a group of airmen gathered around a conference table yesterday to map out an afternoon flight for the C-130J.

Maj. Dana Pratt, who would pilot a C-130E "chase plane" for the maneuver, suggested that everyone stay out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport airspace and head toward the Bay Bridge.

"It's a piece of cake, down over the water," he said.

The pilots took their places.

At the stick in the new C-130J were Capt. Joe Jarboe and Maj. Ted Oesterle, active-duty airmen from the Defense Logistics Agency base in Marietta, Ga., where Lockheed Martin built the plane. They belted themselves into an "all-glass" cockpit, where dials and maps are generated on computer screens.

The screens were full of computer-generation shorthand such as "PREV PG" and "NEXT PG." Above the pilots' heads were glass screens, much like TelePrompTers, which allowed them to check attitude, altitude, speed and direction without looking down.

They roared down the runway and into the skies above the Chesapeake. The plane cruised at about 215 miles an hour, 1,800 feet above the sun-sparkled water.

"Check your altitude," a recording of a female voice said at one point.

The plane passed the Bay Bridge, then banked to the right and flew over Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy. Later, it flew above the farms of the Eastern Shore.

Brophy, the Maryland Air Guard pilot, watched closely as the pilots from Georgia flew the new plane. He knows he has much to learn before he is ready to fly the new model.

"Excited about the challenge," he summed up his feelings on learning to pilot the plane. "That's the best way to say it."

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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