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Base's oldest aircraft are GONE!

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- Editors note: This is part one of a three part series.

A war hero, credited with saving the lives of Little Rock Airmen overseas in Somalia over a decade ago, was retired after 34 years of service here recently.

Aircraft 37-888, a C-130E, made its final journey off the Little Rock AFB flightline on its way to Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. to be placed into "temporary, mothballed" status at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center.

Aircraft 37-888 is one of 14 aircraft assigned to the base that were given the designation of "XJR," otherwise known as grounded and non-mission capable because they've exceeded their design lifespan due to Center Wing Box cracks, according to Chief Master Sgt. Bill Goodwin, 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent.

Recent legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2007, allowed Air Force officials to place older Air Force aircraft into mothballed status including 51 C-130Es; however the law stated the aircraft must be 'in a condition that would allow recall of that aircraft to future service."

A viscious cycle on maintainers

These aircraft were grounded from one to three years, and cost the Air Force thousands of dollars a month to maintain.

"The aircraft were a drain on resources and manpower," said Maj. Andrew Phillips, 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron operations officer. "We didn't earn additional manpower--but we had to keep them flyable."

The aircraft ages vary from 30-40 years old, but one thing they all have in common is extremely high flight hours and problems with their Center Wing Boxes--the part of the aircraft that keeps the wings fixed onto the fuselage of the aircraft.

Currently, aircraft are placed into restricted status at 38,000 flight hours and are grounded at 45,000 flight hours. But, one flight hour in the air may actually equal many more than that as determined by crew calculations that factor in multiple variables to include turbulence, cargo capacity and the environment.

"There's huge wear and tear on a Herk," Major Phillips said. "Five flight hours may actually end up eating away 10-15 hours in reality."

The departure

After a "confidence flight" by a Functional Check Flightcrew the Herk was deemed well enough to fly to the Southwestern corner of the U.S.

The aircraft are placed into "mothballed" status because "they could possible get a new wingbox" and return to flying, said Chief Goodwin. And that possibility of returning a 40-year-old airplane to service isn't as far-fetched as it may seem.

Aircraft 67-1855 just returned here in 2005 from the AMARC with a new center wing box, according to Chief Goodwin.

The cost-analysis between flight hours and repairing or replacing the center wing box may not be effective. Currently, a new wing box costs about one year of labor-time and $10 million, whereas the purchase of a new C-130J costs about $66 million--and a new aircraft is in the air.

Mothballing an aircraft is not easy and brings "unique challenges," Major Phillips said.

The aircraft may have been sitting for years, now it's being put through the paces to fly. Airmen are taking fuel samples, bringing up and checking hydraulic pressure and ensuring flight controls work properly.

The 314th Airlift Wing had 10 grounded aircraft, nine here and one at a depot awaiting transfer to the AMARC. The 463rd Airlift Group had four here awaiting transfer.

The aircraft

Aircraft 37-888 is not new to being in the limelight. It's last major 15 minutes of fame were when it was televised internationally on CNN from Africa where it was used in action in Somalia.

"Eight-eight is a war veteran," Major Phillips said jokingly.

"It took fire," Chief Goodwin said reflecting on his time in the 50th Airlift Squadron which was engaged in Somalia at the time. "I remembered everyone worrying about us when they saw it on TV. Fortunately it took care of us."

The Herk is the workhorse of war and the Air Force depends on them heavily, according to Col. John Gomez, 463rd Airlift Group commander. Recently the 61st Airlift Squadron just returned an E model to Balad AB, Iraq to continue carrying passengers and cargo for theater operations, he said.

"The C-130E is needed in theater," Colonel Gomez said. "If you give us 10 more, or 50 more, we'll use them."

According to Central Command, C-130 and C-17s accounted for carrying 720,000 pounds of cargo on 130 sorties and moved more than 2,600 passengers.

The Air Force Fleet Viability Board visited the base Dec. 7 in order to determine the future of the C-130 fleet.

The new home

The AMARC, also referred to as the "Boneyard," is home to many military aircraft that have surpassed their serviceable lifespan and "provides critical aerospace maintenance and regeneration capabilities for Joint and Allied/Coalition warfighters in support of global operations and agile combat support for a wide range of military operations," according to the unit's fact sheet.

The AMARC is aligned under Air Force Materiel Command and is home to many airlift, bomber, fighter and reconnaissance aircraft.
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