Alaska may get 8 military cargo planes

Army C-23 Sherpa (Photo by Christopher Ebdon)

Army C-23 Sherpa (Photo by Christopher Ebdon)

The state may be taking possession of eight new airplanes. Actually, they’re 1980s era cargo planes that the Army doesn’t want anymore. A provision in the Defense Bill now before the U.S. Senate offers them to the governor of Alaska. The catch is, the state has to figure out what to do with them — and how to pay for their upkeep. APRN’s Liz Ruskin reports from Washington.

The planes are C-23 Sherpas and they are beloved by National Guardsmen around the country who flew them. The twin-engine Sherpa looks like a flying box and can hold more than 20 paratroopers. They’ve been used to fight fires and deliver disaster relief. In Afghanistan they supplied the Army’s forward bases. Sen. Lisa Murkowski thinks they’re great for Alaska.

“It’s an aircraft that’s as versatile as anything we have out there. It’s a workhorse. It can land on these runways that are gravel runways. A lot of the aircraft that we have can’t land on a gravel runway and we’ve got a lot more gravel probably than otherwise.”

Alaska’s Army National Guard had Sherpas, but had to give them up this fall because the Army retired the aircraft, years earlier than expected.

Three dozen are now mothballed in Oklahoma. A measure Sen. Murkowski authored that is part of the defense bill directs the government to offer eight Sherpas to the Governor of Alaska. But the state would have to pay to maintain and operate them.

So Gen. Tom Katkus, commissioner of the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, is trying to figure out a way to use them that makes economic sense. Katkus is looking at possibly partnering with other agencies, or maybe with private organizations.

“I’m kind of hesitant to speak specifics to this because this is two years ahead of schedule, where we thought we had more planning time. But I would rather get the airplanes and make sure we got them rather than just pass them up where we can never have access to them again.”

One thing is clear: The Sherpas can’t become regular National Guard planes again.  All Guard aircraft are owned by the federal government, which pays for their upkeep. Katkus says the Sherpas would actually belong to the state:

“This equipment truly does become a state asset, just like an airplane for the State Troopers.”

The Pentagon has cut operational support for the Sherpas, including the positions of the people who used to fly and maintain them. Katkus says he doesn’t know yet where the aircraft would be housed. He also says he doesn’t know what it would cost to keep them. The Army’s decision to retire the Sherpas ahead of schedule means the state probably has to take possession of the planes in the next few months, Katkus says, and work out the details later.

“If all of it shows this is not a good decision then we can return those aircraft back to the federal government for divestiture along with whatever plan they had for them, initially.”

While Katkus doesn’t know the cost to maintain the Sherpas, they are relatively cheap to operate. A Sherpa is about a third the cost of either a Pavehawk helicopter or a big C-130 cargo plane, aircraft the Alaska National Guard now flies.

The Senate is schedule to vote on the bill this week. It’s already passed the House.

Here’s a video about the kind of missions flown by these planes when the Alaska Air National Guard were still using them.