Tuesday, September 20, 2016

TOP STORY >> Air base expo thrills crowd

Leader staff writer

Zach Wacaster, a ninth grader at Magnet Cove High School, and his mother Wendy Wacaster found a shaded seat on a lowered loading ramp of a C-17 cargo plane. Sarah Potter positioned herself and her two children as near to the Little Rock Air Base runway as possible.

Potter wanted her kids “to see where daddy works” and one of the C-130s he co-pilots, while the Wacasters wanted the opportunity to see the large transport plane up close at Arkansas Military Expo on Saturday, along with 30,000 other visitors.

Wendy Wacaster explained that the C130s often fly over their home in Magnet Cove and she suspects it’s one of the Air Base’s flight paths.

Zach Wacaster was surprised at the C-130s size, saying, “They’re bigger than I thought.”

According to the Air Force base public affairs office, “The C-130 is a cargo aircraft capable of operating from rough, dirt strips and is the prime transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.”

It can accommodate a wide variety of oversized cargo, from utility helicopters and six-wheeled armored vehicles to standard palletized cargo and military personnel.

The Air Force base is home to about 50 C-130s, including 40 bigger, more powerful state- of-the art C-130Js.

The C-130, along with the C-17, were open for tours at the military expo in Jacksonville.

The C-17 is the military’s second largest aircraft, and the C-17 Globemaster III is the Air Force’s newest, most flexible cargo aircraft. It’s capable of a rapid delivery of troops or cargo, and can be used as tactical airlift, for airdrop missions or medical evacuations.

It was the first open house in four years and marked the Air Force’s 69th anniversary. Col. Charles E. Brown Jr., 19th Airlift Wing commander, said, “It was time.”

Brown said the expo brought together “all facets of our mili tary, our reservists, our citizen soldiers, our Guardsmen, our active duty, our civilians and our contractors and showcase what they bring to the fight on behalf of the state of Arkansas and the nation each and every day for the expo.”

Brown said the Air Force is celebrating its 69th anniversary this year.

Mary Claire Durr was part of the Beebe High School ROTC team that demonstrated their marching skills.

“I’ve had so much fun,” she said after her team had finished.

Her mother, Margo Hum-phrey of Beebe, was happy that the Air Force base was showcasing its assets.

“The military is a big part of the Arkansas community,” she said.

In fact, according to the base’s 2015 economic impact statement, they are worth about $511 million to central Arkansas and employ about 12,600 people.

Humphrey is the wife of Col. Dennis Humphrey, who is the commander for the Army National Guard Marksmanship Training Center.

“It was a good event,” he said.

There were approximately 30 different types of aircraft on display at the expo, from the latest unmanned aircraft to old World War II Warbirds — this term is used for retired military aircraft that have been restored to flying condition.

Sgt. Jesse Brown, operator, and Sgt. Dee Mathis, maintenance, were available to talk to the public about the surveillance applications and capabilities of one of the military’s smaller unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft known as a drone.

The craft has a 14-foot wingspan and the operator, sitting at a computer screen, can push it to altitudes of 15,000 feet.

It has a camera that combines color and infrared technologies, and “At 3,000 feet, I can read a newspaper,” Brown said about the drone’s capabilities.

It can also be used for search and rescue.

A few feet away, the maintenance crew of an unmanned drone, an MQ Predator, with a wingspan of 55 feet and cruising altitude of 25,000 feet talked about the growth potential of unmanned aircraft whether used in military or civilian applications.

“It’s one of the best ways to save lives,” one crew member said.

The early morning’s low cloud cover lifted and by early afternoon, the sun beat down on the estimated 30,000 visitors from around the state.

The cloud cover kept the planes grounded, but base personnel had planned for such a contingency, Brown said.

They had numerous activities designed to keep visitors busy, and Brown said it was the state’s largest public military event since 2012.

The expo had assets from the Air National Guard, other active duty bases and Army National Guard partners, including remotely piloted aircraft, artillery equipment, a T-6 aircraft from Laughlin Air Force Base, military vehicles such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV/Humvees), as well as a Blackhawk helicopter.

The air base’s canine unit from the 19th Security Forces Squadron, showed their stuff.

The expo also included static displays, and about 40 vendors.

In addition to military displays and activities, nearby community members like Cabot’s fire department participated in the event.

Fire Chief Phil Robinson brought the department’s 1949 pumper truck, and said, “If we had to use it, it could pump water.”

The old truck was also an attraction, especially to the younger crowd like Wesley Richardson, who said, “It’s really cool.”

He also noted that its long seat was more like a couch and there were no seatbelts in the truck.

Robinson said people love to take photos of their kids by it.

Inside, an open airplane that served as display area and a cooling station, 4-year-old Broden Scott was fascinated by the M240B machine guns on display.

The kids could actually look through the gun sites, and Broden’s dad, Glen Scott, a C-130 loadmaster, said, “He’s having a good time.”

Since the base’s runway is being rebuilt for about $108 million, they had to forego their traditional air show that included certain aircraft demonstrations, including the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.

These aircraft require runways longer than the 6,000 feet currently available, but the work has not curtailed routine training flights, according to Brown.

The runway was built in the 1950s and needed a major overhaul.

Brown said the airshow is a big draw, and he hopes the renovations will be done in time for the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels to make a possible appearance by 2018.

The work has half of the runway closed, but there was enough open to accommodate smaller craft, paratroop demonstrations and a C-130J cargo drop demonstration.

The show also included a six-ship Little Rock C-130 formation flight, an Arkansas Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter demonstration featuring the fast rope teams from Camp Joseph T. Robinson, a Helo Hoist maneuver and a parachute demonstration with personnel from Fort Smith.

Crowds seemed enthralled as announcer Jerry Homsely offered commentary, much like an announcer at a baseball game, about various aircraft, including an original T6 Texan that buzzed overhead, pointing out the pilot’s impressive aerial feats such as barrel rolls and other training maneuvers.

The T6 was a basic flight training aircraft.

In addition to military exhibits and demonstrations, there was a kids zone and other activities and attractions such as Arkansas Circus Arts stilt walkers, a rock-climbing wall, a petting zoo, nine large infatables, two giant slides, a bounce house, obstacle course, jousting and more.

Brown said he was pleased with the event, which was at least nine months in the making, “I am having a blast.”

More so, the community was able to see how their tax dollars are being spent, he said.

Janice Burlison, who had traveled from Heber Springs that morning to attend the expo, was sporting a military lapel pin that Navy Recruiter Petty Officer 2nd Class Elton Jefferson had given her.

She in turn was going to hand it to her 94-year-old father, Lloyd Crockett, who had served in the Navy during World War II.

She wasn’t disappointed that she had made the 90-minute drive, saying, “I love it.”