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Patrick Springer, Published March 07 2013

Happy Hooligans’ manned flying mission in doubt

FARGO - The Happy Hooligans find themselves waging an “uphill battle” to maintain the Air National Guard wing’s manned flying mission here.

The Air Force continues to press forward with plans to scrap the C-27J Spartan transport plane, which was to be the 119th Wing’s next flying mission, Air Guard and congressional sources said Thursday.

The 119th Wing in Fargo was notified about a year ago that its flying mission would shift to an intelligence mission largely involving imagery interpretation.

The Happy Hooligans now fly the C-21 Learjet and Predator drones, which complement the planned intelligence mission.

The C-21 is a twin turbofan aircraft that can fly eight passengers, intended as a “bridge” mission between F-16 fighter jets pilots once flew and some other flying role.

“Optimistically, I’d say we still have a bit of an uphill battle,” Col. Rodney Gibney, commander of the 119th Wing, said Thursday. “But we have a very active and committed governor and congressional delegation” working to maintain a flying mission.

Planning documents from the Air Force now call for the 119th Wing to shift to the intelligence mission in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

About 200 of the estimated 1,000 members of the 119th Wing are pilots and maintenance crews for the C-21.

If that mission goes away, most of those personnel would have to be retrained for an intelligence mission but staffing levels would not be reduced, Gibney said.

North Dakota officials, including the state’s congressional delegation, keep pushing for a continued manned flight mission for the Happy Hooligans.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., met Thursday with the acting undersecretary of the Air Force to urge implementation of the C-27J flying mission.

However, “the Air Force has been consistent in saying it’s not going to adopt the C-27J,” said Don Canton, a spokesman for Hoeven.

“We have made the case aggressively that it’s a good aircraft,” more fuel-efficient and flexible than the larger C-130 transport that the Air Force favors, Canton said.

“The Air Force has not made any final decisions on the future of a manned mission at Fargo,” said Whitney Phillips, communications director for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “Sen. Heitkamp will continue to urge and advocate based on our top-notch facilities and proud history of the men and women of the 119th Wing.”

On March 17, North Dakota National Guard leaders and supporters of the state’s air bases and members of the congressional delegation will meet with top Air Force officers.

Late last month, Hoeven met with the commander of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command to make the case for continued missions in Fargo and at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Hoeven pressed for the

C-27J Spartan mission and a continued Predator drone mission.

Similarly, Heitkamp said in a statement issued Tuesday that she is committed to continuing a manned mission with the 119th Wing, which she said would make a great home for the C-27 mission and to continue its current C-21 mission.

If the Happy Hooligans were to lose their manned flying mission, the North Dakota Air National Guard would become the only state Air National Guard without a flying role.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522