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Minnesota Air Guard will get 'Super Hercules' transport planes

The 133rd Airlift Wing will receive eight new C-130J aircraft to replace aging fleet, a crucial step for maintaining Air Guard's mission in Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS — In a testament to persistence and bipartisan teamwork, Minnesota's 133rd Airlift Wing will keep flying. And with modern aircraft to boot. 

That Air National Guard unit has been selected to receive eight new C-130J "Super Hercules" tactical transport planes to replace its aging fleet of C-130H "Hercules" aircraft. It's a major milestone that ensures the 133rd will keep moving cargo, airmen, and soldiers instead of being relegated to a mission that doesn't involve the unit's current skill set.

It will probably be a couple of years before the first "Super Hercules" arrives at the MSP Joint Air Reserve Station, but they'll be a welcome upgrade over the current planes that have been in use since the mid-1990s for military transport, humanitarian and disaster relief missions.

Guard leaders said it was critical to upgrade to the next generation of C-130s because the active duty US Air Force has already transitioned to that model.

"It’s bigger, it’s faster, it can carry more, it has more capabilities," Brig. Gen. Daniel Gabrielli told the media at a press conference Friday.

"It's 15 feet longer. I can carry 128 people as opposed to 90 people; 92 paratroopers as opposed to the old 65. It does air medical evacuation missions. And it will carry 97 litter stanchions as opposed to the old 72."

Gabrielli said it was also important to upgrade to the next generation of C-130s because the active-duty US Air Force has already transitioned to the J model. The advanced avionics of the "Super Hercules" will also be essential for situations when the 133rd is deployed for federal missions.

Team effort

The state's congressional delegation had been involved in a mammoth, bipartisan effort for years in Washington to convince the military's top brass to continue funding for C-130 transport missions in general and to help Minnesota's 133rd modernize its fleet.

"I think there were times when people thought we wouldn’t need these kinds of planes, that there would be a new kind of cyber warfare only," Sen. Amy Klobuchar told reporters.

"And I think we’ve learned the opposite, that our technological supremacy and the way we’ve developed this aircraft and the way we know how to use them, maintain them, has made all the difference."

Sen. Klobuchar added language to the National Defense Authorization Act to require the Air Force to keep at least 271 C-130s in the air.  She acknowledged it was a team effort. As control of the US House and US Senate changed throughout the past decade, Democrats and Republicans pressed the issue and inserted congressionally directed funding into Dept. of Defense Appropriations bills.  

US Rep. Betty McCollum kept the pressure up when she chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in the last Congress.  US Rep. Brad Finstad, a freshman Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, pressed Defense Dept. officials.

US Rep. Tom Emmer, the current House Majority Whip, personally spoke to U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall about the need to keep the C-130 mission and to upgrade the 133rd's fleet.

"The C-130J is among the most advanced aircraft in the world, and this investment will provide the brave men and women of the 133rd with the capability you need to carry out your missions," Emmer told reporters and the airmen who watched from the wings.

"The arrival of these new C-130Js is a sign of our nation's continued commitment to the Minnesota National Guard."

Sen. Tina Smith said she began working on the C-130 issue back when she was Gov. Mark Dayton's chief of staff ten years ago. It remained on her radar as she became lieutenant governor and eventually a US Senator.

"The air mission you all provide is essential and exceptional," Smith told the airmen.

"With this announcement, the United States Air Force recognizes the talent and the dedication of this unit and commits to the future of this flying mission."

Fierce competition

Keep in mind the J models cost $116 million dollars each and the Air Force budget will support only so many planes. Minnesota was in competition with seven other air bases across the country and failure would've jeopardized the 133rd's future and 1,200 full- and part-time jobs connected to the mission.

"When we learned that we might be at risk we really amplified what it is that the 133rd does," Maj. General Shawn Menke, the Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, explained.

"The personnel readiness, the maintenance readiness, the deployability, the medical readiness. We went on an education campaign."

He said one of the selling points was the work ethic of Minnesotans. Another key is the unit's location, at MSP Airport, a major national hub that draws many pilots who can fly for commercial airlines while serving in the Guard.

"When you can have a viable flying unit in a major airline hub here you have a breeding ground for pilots," Gabrielli remarked.

"They’re gonna come here, get their Delta job off duty, look for a Guard unit. They’re going to naturally come to places like this."

Rep. Finstad praised Gen. Menke for his ability to promote the 133rd as attitudes about the military transport mission kept shifting in Washington.

"Thank you, General Menke. You’re a master at marketing, a master at persistence, a master at communication and, quite frankly, a master at compassionate teamwork," Finstad exclaimed.

US Rep. Pete Stauber told the airmen in the hangar that his wife served many years in Duluth's Air National, the 148th Fighter Wing.

"You are the best and the brightest and that’s why it was easy to fight for you in Washington," Rep. Stauber remarked.

"It was a task we all came together on, to make sure that when we ask you to defend our nation, or go into a disaster zone, that you have the best aircraft we could possibly give to you."

Rep. McCollum, who couldn't attend Friday's event, said in a statement to the media she was happy her efforts to secure funding had not fallen on deaf ears.

"The 133rd Airlift Wing is an integral part of our state, the Air National Guard, and our country's security. And it exceeds readiness and effectiveness in service to the nation’s air forces."

Gov. Walz, who was in Japan Friday, also released a statement reacting to the good news.

"C-130 aircraft are critical assets that our Minnesota Air National Guard use to transport cargo and passengers, whether it is in support of missions abroad or offering support here at home during times of floods, hurricanes, and other emergencies. These upgrades will help ensure our Minnesota Air National Guard is equipped to answer the call to serve our state and country."

The other three lucky guard units getting those J models are in Hartford, Connecticut.. Peoria, Illinois.. and Great Falls, Montana.

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