Tuesday, April 12, 2011

TOP STORY >> Upgrades sought for base

Leader executive editor

Rep. Tim Griffin says he is a deficit hawk, but when it comes to national security, he wants to spend more, not less.

The freshman Republican told the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council luncheon Monday at the Jacksonville Community Center that he wants to ramp up the avionics-modernization program to improve older C-130s and add another flight-training simulator at the base.

The AMP program retrofits older C-130s with digital navigation and communication equipment similar to what is found on newer C-130Js, including better night vision.

In addition, the base has eight flight simulators that train more than 1,800 students annually, many of them from overseas. There’s so much demand for the simulators to train both domestic and foreign crews, Griffin said another simulator would speed up training, create more jobs and pump money into the local economy.

A simulator costs about $31 million, half the cost of a new plane, and saves millions of dollars in fuel a year.

Griffin called the modernization program “a national-security priority.” He said Lockheed’s foreign customers often ask to train their crews at LRAFB’s Center of Excellence.

“We want the best training for our people, but there’s not enough capacity on the simulators,” Griffin said.

“C-130s and AMP funding are absolutely critical to the modernization program,” the congressman said.

He said Tennessee has tried to get a training mission with a simulator, but he believes a centralized location here was more efficient. He said after his speech that the state could consider partially funding such an expansion at the base.

Griffin, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said budget uncertainties affect military readiness, making it more difficult for Pentagon officials to plan ahead and secure funding for avionics modernization, which is now piece-meal.

The Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing at the base has three modified C-130 AMP aircraft on the base ramp and two at the depot having the AMP package installed. Eventually, the 189th will have all of its C-130H aircraft converted to the AMP, according to John R. Oldham, chief of public affairs at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Some 220 C-130s nationwide will be upgraded in the coming years, Oldham said.

In the meantime, Boeing has been awarded an additional $31 million contract from the Air Force to continue modernizing C-130 cockpits.

Boeing announced last month that it will upgrade two more C-130s with avionics-modernization program kits. Pilots will train with the new equipment at Little Rock Air Force Base.

The aircraft upgrade includes a glass cockpit with a heads-up display that overlays flight information on the cockpit window so pilots can keep their eyes on the flight path. The upgrade also comes with six flat-panel, full-color displays and night-vision capability.

Air Force personnel at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia will begin installing the kits next year with onsite support from Boeing.

In addition, the Pentagon recently signed an eight-year contract with Lockheed for $270 million to operate the simulators at the base.

According to the Air Force, one hour of flight in a C-130 costs about $4,750 for fuel and maintenance. But an hour of flight in a C-130 full-motion simulator costs about $700, resulting in an annual savings of 3,600 flight hours and $17.1 million at the C-130 Center of Excellence here.

The push for more modernization comes at a time when the base is spending some $80 million on new construction with an additional $90 million in the pipeline.

Col. Mike Minihan, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, told council members the tempo at the base keeps increasing.

“We will do two weeks of flying in four days,” the commander said as hundreds of airmen prepare to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The 41st Airlift Squadron and its all-new C-130Js are setting records for airdrops in Afghanistan.

The squadron, which has been at Kandahar airfield since March 2009, previously set a record of 51 airdrop missions in January. The unit beat that record last month by completing 72 airdrops of almost 1,100 bundles weighing more than 1.5 million pounds. It is expected to set another record this month.

Col. James R. Summers, commander of the 189th, said he would be retiring and will relinquish his command to Col. Harold S. Eggensperger on May 15. Eggensperger is commander of the 189th Operations Group.