MANG selected for new aircraft after years of modernization efforts

The Montana Air National Guard is getting eight C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.

The newer planes will replace the 120th Airlift Wing’s aging fleet of C-130H model aircraft.

Sen. Jon Tester made the announcement on the new planes Sept. 14 after years of working to secure the newer aircraft for MANG.

The 120th transitioned from fighter jets to the C-130, the first of which arrived in Great Falls in 2014.

“I am so proud of our airmen and how they have performed in the C-130 mission,” Maj. Gen. Pete Hronek said in a release. Hronek is the adjutant general of the Montana National Guard. He was the 120th commander when the unit transitioned from fighters to the cargo mission. “Through their dedication to mission accomplishment, success during deployments, and outstanding inspection results, they have shown the Air Force and Air National Guard they are deserving of the C-130J’s to proudly defend our nation and state.”

Earlier this year, the director of the Air National Guard approved eight bases as potential locations for the newer model aircraft and Great Falls has been selected as a preferred location, according to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office.

The Air Force said the basing decisions are pending the outcome of environmental assessments.

The Air Force said the upgrade requires new flight qualification for pilots and loadmasters transitioning to the new aircraft.

“Any excess in manpower due to this shift will be repurposed through the Air National Guard corporate process and will vary by location,” according to the Air Force.

The Air National Guard will analyze each unit to determine the sequencing timeline for the arrival of new aircraft.

The Air Force will now conduct the environmental impact analysis at each location, which are expected to be completed in fiscal year 2025 before a final decision is made, according to the Air Force.

Gen. Buel Dickson, the assistant adjutant general for the Air National Guard in Montana, said that the new planes will ensure the unit’s longevity for at least 15 years with a single airframe.

He said that the conversion will lose some positions within the air and maintenance crews, but those airmen will be moved to other positions within the unit.

It will be the first time in MANG’s history that they have an entire fleet of new airplanes, Dickson said, and the new planes will integrate better with the Air Force when the unit deploys and for domestic operations.

Dickson said the Air Force will conduct the environmental assessment to ensure nothing has changed, but he doesn’t anticipate any problems. Then they’ll move into conversion preparation and plan to get at least some of the training for air crews and maintainers completed before the new planes arrive sometime between fiscal years 2026-2028, depending on production.

The new planes have different engines and avionics than the model the unit is currently flying so crews will go for training at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, Dickson said.

The unit had been flying the 1970s model of the C-130 until 2021, when the unit received eight newer H models brining the average age of the planes to 1992-1993, Col. Trace Thomas, 120th commander, told City Commissioners during the summer of 2021.

120th Airlift Wing upgrading C-130 fleet

In 2020, the 120th Airlift Wing of the Montana Air National Guard was one of eight bases nationwide on the shortlist for the newer planes.

The unit was not ultimately selected for the J model aircraft. At the time, the Air Force was planning to shutter some cargo units, putting the 120th at risk, Tester said in 2020.

Some C-130s from Montana Air National Guard transferred abroad

Earlier this year, MANG’s fleet of H models were upgraded from four-blade to eight-blade propellers.

Tester is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and said he secured more than $1.7 billion in funding for 16 C-130Js in the current appropriations package and $1.8 billion in funding for 16 C-130Js for the Air National Guard in the previous year’s appropriations package.

During a 2021 Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on Navy and Air Force weapons systems divestments, Tester secured a commitment from the Air Force that they wouldn’t decommission MANG’s C-130H aircraft fleet without first consulting with and receiving agreement from the state of Montana, according to Tester’s office.

Tester questions Air Force on C-130, MANG future [2021]

“I’ve fought for years to bring new C-130Js to the Montana Air National Guard because they are the perfect fit for Montana–and they can carry up to 45,000 pounds of cargo, can be used to fight wildfires and can conduct search and rescue operations. It’s a big plane with a big mission — and it’s the right fit for a big state like Montana,” Tester said in a release.

Great Falls not selected for new C-130 model aircraft; Tester asks Air Force for more information regarding basing decision

The U.S. Forest Service owns the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, which are placed into C-130s for wildfire suppression operations.

In recent years, there’s been no move by the Air Force or the Forest Service to install MAFFs on MANG aircraft.

Sen. Steve Daines said in a release that, “were in not for the leadership of Maj. Gen. Hronek and his entire team, this would not have been possible. Our airmen and facilities are second to none in the country so I cannot think of a better place for this new and improved version of the C-130.”