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Fargo Guard base expects new cargo planes by 2011

FARGO, N.D. - Fargo's Air National Guard base, once in danger of losing its flying mission, expects to receive new cargo planes around 2011. C-27J Spartans were selected this summer as part of a joint Army and Air Force program. In Fargo, the pla...

FARGO, N.D. - Fargo's Air National Guard base, once in danger of losing its flying mission, expects to receive new cargo planes around 2011.

C-27J Spartans were selected this summer as part of a joint Army and Air Force program. In Fargo, the planes will provide a more traditional counterpart to the base's new unmanned aerial vehicle operations.

Called joint cargo aircraft because they'll be used by both military branches, the planes can be used to transport goods inside war zones, such as from a main base to a forward operating base. They also have a host of stateside applications.

But the cargo planes aren't on the runway yet.

"The final hurdles seem to be in Congress," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States.

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A Senate committee wants the Air Force to run the program, which is now set for Army management, the association said. A House committee wants to hold off until it receives more reports.

A manufacturing firm that lost the bid to manufacture the joint cargo aircraft is protesting the decision.

As a result, Goheen's Washington, D.C.-based association alerted its members to contact Congress to make sure the program moves forward without delays.

"This is very important to the Guard," Goheen said.

The association says North Dakota is one of eight states pursuing the joint cargo aircraft to replace missions lost during the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure decisions.

The 119th Wing in Fargo retired its F-16s early this year. It was given an unmanned aerial systems mission and the promise of the joint cargo aircraft.

North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy said that although the House's defense authorization bill requires several airlift studies, he hopes there will be no delays.

Sen. Kent Conrad's office doesn't expect delays, and Sen. Byron Dorgan said he's working with his colleagues on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to make sure the program can move forward.

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Delays are "something you worry about," said 119th Wing Commander Bob Becklund, especially because the Air Force is ordering 24 of the planes at first.

But he and another North Dakota National Guard official said the state is well-positioned to receive the planes.

For one, Fargo is strategically located within one of eight Federal Emergency Management Agency zones, Becklund said. The planes are expected to be placed throughout the zones.

In addition, Fargo's Air Guard was given C-21s as a bridge mission until the cargo aircraft arrive. The planes, similar to a Lear business jet, arrived in Fargo early this year.

"It would be unusual for them to highlight the 119th with a bridge mission and not have something at the end of the bridge," said Col. Pat Martin, chief of the joint staff at the North Dakota National Guard's joint force headquarters in Bismarck.

Having the C-21s ensures the base can continue building on its decades of aircraft maintenance and pilot experience, Becklund said. Without the C-21s, the base would need years to recover once it receives a new mission.

Still, he said, decisions haven't been finalized.

"You can look at thumb-tacks on the map, and Fargo's on there right now," he said. "You hear 2011, but I don't know that that's been decided yet."

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The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Duluth News Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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