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Dave Olson, Published March 20 2013

Happy Hooligans’ future won’t include transport plane

WASHINGTON – The Air Force is sticking to a decision it made some time ago regarding the future of the C-27J Spartan transport plane, and it now appears certain the North Dakota Air National Guard’s Happy Hooligans will not be getting them.

That’s the word North Dakota’s two U.S. senators have received from the Air Force. Both offices expressed disappointment Wednesday.

“North Dakotans are incredibly proud of the Happy Hooligans and its Air Guard community, which is why we are so disappointed that the Air Force is continuing its divesture of the C-27,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in a written statement.

Don Canton, spokesman for Sen. John Hoeven, said Hoeven worked hard to secure authorization and funding for the C-27J and to secure a C-27J mission for the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Wing.

In the end, Canton said, the administration stuck to its plan to discontinue the transport plane.

“That said, the unmanned aerial systems are going to be an increasingly important part of the Air Force,” Canton said, referring to the 119th Wing’s current mission of remote operation of Predator drones.

In addition, Canton said, an intelligence targeting mission planned for the Happy Hooligans remains on track.

Heitkamp said the Happy Hooligans have proved their resiliency, expertise and value to the state “time and time again,” and she vowed to pressure military leaders to select the 119th Wing for future missions.

In addition to its drone mission, the 119th Wing currently operates eight C-21 Learjets.

The C-21 mission, which ends Sept. 30, was originally designated as a temporary flying mission until C-27Js were put into the field.

But according to the statement released by Heitkamp, Air Force Intra-Theater Airlift Working Group plans do not include fielding the aircraft in any Air Force or Air Guard component.

Recent Air Force planning documents call for the 119th Wing to shift to an intelligence mission involving imagery interpretation starting in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

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

However, given the future plans the unit’s numbers are expected to remain the same or grow, according to Capt. Dan Murphy, North Dakota National Guard public information officer.

Murphy said North Dakota’s Air Guard is one of only a handful of Air Guards around the country that will keep their numbers the same or grow.

“A number of states are being reduced,” said Murphy, who added North Dakota officials are optimistic the Grand Forks Air Force Base will be selected as a home for the KC-46A tanker plane.

If that happens, the 119th Wing would become a support element for the tanker, said Murphy, who said transitions are nothing new for the 119th Wing.

He said when the Happy Hooligans lost their F-16 fighter jets in 2005, it marked the end of 50 years of flying fighter planes. That included flying combat air patrols over the United States immediately following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

He said the combat patrols continued for years following 9/11.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555