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Ventura County

Air National Guard Wing Gets a Lift From 1st New Cargo Plane

Aviation: The C-130J Hercules is part of an updated fleet that will expand the Port Hueneme unit's firefighting response.

June 03, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new firefighting and cargo plane has the 1,200 men and women of the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station flying high. The arrival of a $70-million C-130J Hercules, dedicated Sunday at the air station in Port Hueneme, marks the first step in modernizing the unit's aging fleet. Eleven more are expected to arrive over the next few years.

The planes will enable the unit to be more responsive to calls to fight fires throughout the West, officials said. Pilots are being trained on the new aircraft, which arrived in Ventura County two weeks ago.

"This should keep us going for another 40 years," said Col. Ed Bellion, vice commander of the California Air National Guard's 146th Airlift Wing. "It's like celebrating when you get a new car."

Officials said the plane is the first new aircraft to join the wing in its 80-year history and is part of an effort by the federal government to upgrade the nation's four firefighting air guard units. The others in Cheyenne, Wyo., Colorado Springs, Colo., and Charlotte, N.C., already have the new planes, Bellion said.

Eventually, the unit's existing Hercules fleet--which came into service in 1961 and 1962 and are older than most of the pilots flying them--will be replaced by these larger, faster models, said Lt. Julio Bermejo, a spokesman for the Channel Islands station.

The airlift wing, a reserve unit of the Air Force, assists the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Forestry in fighting forest and brush fires by dropping retardant on rugged terrain difficult to reach by land. The wing, which is stationed next to the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center, has flown more than 5,000 firefighting missions since 1974.

When not battling blazes, the craft will serve as a cargo transport for military missions, Bermejo said. The C-130J, which is 15-feet longer than a previous J model, is the latest in a line of C-130 planes built by Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga.

It requires only three crew members instead of five and can fly up to 21% faster, said Master Sgt. Michael Drake, a spokesman for the air wing. In addition, its cruising altitude is 40% higher and its climbing time has been cut in half.

"It's a point of pride," Bermejo said. "We're getting this plane and the next generation of firefighting equipment. It means we'll be in the community for a long time."

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