BEZMER AIR BASE, Bulgaria — As U.S. and Bulgarian military forces conducted the annual two-week joint training exercise Operation Thracian Spring, the appearance of a new guest garnered some special attention.
A J-model C-130 Super Hercules aircraft, the newest member of the Hercules family, arrived in Bulgaria March 6 on loan to Ramstein’s 37th Airlift Squadron from the Rhode Island Air National Guard. Ramstein is scheduled to receive 14 brand new J-models over the next 12 months starting the first week of April.
Their arrival will simultaneously mean the departure of Ramstein’s current fleet of E-model C-130s, whose average age is 40 years old.
After a long tradition of flying the aging C-130s, Ramstein air crews have a particular interest in getting their first glimpse of the new, technologically advanced version of the Air Force’s workhorse.
“It’s going to be a great day when these guys get their new airplanes, I’ll tell you that,” said Lt. Col. Joe Francoeur, a RIANG instructor pilot and executive officer. “This is the premier tactical airlifter right here. Not that the E-model’s a bad airplane, but this thing is fantastic.”
The Rhode Island aircraft and crew are helping the 86th Airlift Wing prepare for their upcoming transition, and the new horizons the modern airplane will bring.
“It’s about a 20 percent increase in capabilities all the way around,” Colonel Francoeur said. “The J-model is roughly 20 percent faster, it goes up to the 30,000 feet range where E-models are struggling in the 20s. We can carry two extra pallet positions, we can drop about 20 percent more equipment and we can carry about 20 percent more paratroopers to the fight.”
Many Ramstein aircrew members have already attended J-model school at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., but need the help of Colonel Francoeur and his colleagues to requalify or update their currency in the aircraft.
“They have a lot of guidance and J-model experience already,” Colonel Francoeur said. “We fly the airplanes the same way; we talk the same language. Our real role is to offer some advice on how to employ for mission purposes.”
Capitalizing on the opportunity to requalify was Lt. Col. Craig Williams, 37th AS director of operations, who is no stranger to the J-model.
In 2003, Colonel Williams was the assistant director of operations for the new 48th Airlift Squadron at Little Rock AFB when the J-model was introduced. He flew more than 700 hours in the aircraft while stationed at Little Rock, but has only flown E-models for the last six months.
“This is the only certified heavy aircraft where a heads-up display is the primary flight display,” Colonel Williams said. “It allows you to keep your eyes up looking out for traffic. The situational awareness is awesome. After 10 hours, I didn’t want to go back.”
Even though many aircrew members from the squadron have been through training, there are still things that can’t be learned before flying the J in an operational setting.
“After training, it still takes you a few hours to get comfortable,” Colonel Williams said.
The most conspicuous difference can be found in the acceleration for take-off, he said.
“It’ll throw you back in your seat. The sim doesn’t reflect that.”
The unit is also fortunate to have previously qualified load masters. Master Sgt. Kyle Gurnon, C-130J load master for the RIANG, is on hand to add some real-world know-how to the school-house knowledge Ramstein aircrews already have.
“They’re very professional, and I don’t think they’ll have any problems transitioning to this airplane,” Sergeant Gurnon said. “They’ll be busy because everybody wants this plane in the desert now.”
Because the aircraft relies on computer systems and carries fewer crew members, J-model aircrew who are experienced in the E will find a big difference in their day-to-day duties, which now require a greater knowledge base in aircraft systems.
“It was an adjustment in the beginning. It’s just a little more workload for each crewmember,” Sergeant Gurnon said. “Once you get the hang of it, you get the flow down and it’s not that difficult.”
The man-versus-machine rivalry has become a point of interest in Bulgaria – conducting two-ship flights between an 86th E-model and a J-model for the first time, the aircraft have had a chance to compare capabilities directly.
Flying over a drop zone, both aircraft parachute a 15-pound sand bag down to represent heavy equipment with the winner being the bag that lands closer to a given point.
“It’s a professional pride issue – they do their calculations with a computer; we do ours with a navigator,” said Maj. David Morgan, a C-130 E pilot with the 37th AS and operations mission commander for the exercise.
Major Morgan is the third in a family line of Hercules pilots, beginning with his grandfather in the A-model Hercules back in the 1950s. “We’ve been having a little competition, but we haven’t beat them yet. They’ve been 20 to 30 yards closer most of the time.”
Though the transition to a new aircraft creates an atmosphere of excitement, after so many years working with the E-model, many aircrew members are sad to see their old faithful work partners retire.
“The E-model was born in the early ’60s, and it’s flown every day since,” said Senior Master Sgt. Brandon Broughman, 37th Airlift Squadron superintendent, and E-model loadmaster since 1988. “This aircraft has spanned generations. We know that progress is inevitable, but the biggest thing I’ll miss is the camaraderie.”
Sergeant Broughman said working in a crew and knowing he was a part of a team of experts who were all working toward the same goal has always been his favorite part of the job.
The first J-model aircraft built for Ramstein is set to arrive on station April 7.
“It’s big news in USAFE to have a new aircraft,” said Sergeant Gurnon, who will stay in Europe with the RIANG for the next six weeks. “New equipment brings a new attitude. We’ll be here, and we’ll get them going.”