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Final C-130 planes fly out of 167th Airlift Wing

February 05, 2006|By KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

Armed with cameras, airmen in camouflage, flight uniforms and bomber jackets paid their respects to an old friend Saturday.

A cold rain fell as the last flights of the 167th Airlift Wing's C-130 airplanes left from Martinsburg, bound for Charleston, W.Va. The unit, which has flown the cavernous troop and equipment haulers since 1972, already has begun training for the arrival of an even larger aircraft - the C-5 Galaxy - later this year.

Many called the planes friends and workhorses.

"Today, you are the greatest C-130 unit in the nation. Tomorrow, you'll be the greatest C-5 unit in the nation," said Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard.

Tackett and U.S. Senators Jay Rockefeller and Robert C. Byrd addressed the new mission during a send-off that lasted about an hour. About 1,100 guardsmen were expected at the ceremony, public affairs officer Lt. Andy Schmidt said.

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The arrival of the C-5 airplanes will set the mission of the Martinsburg base apart from Charleston's 130th Airlift Wing, which also flies C-130s, Tackett, Byrd and Rockefeller said. According to information provided by the base, nine of the 167th Airlift Wing's complement of 12 C-130s now will serve the Charleston unit, while three other planes went to an Air National Guard unit in Peoria, Ill.

Tackett said with the same plane in two places in the state, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission likely could have recommended the guard units in Martinsburg and Charleston be consolidated.

"Anytime you take the C-130s, which are excellent aircraft, and you put in the C-5 ... you're basically saying that unit's going to be there awhile," Rockefeller said.

The transition will bring more than $50 million a year to the area and more than 200 more full-time jobs to the base, Byrd said.

"One of those giant airplanes is here today. Look at its size. Man, oh man, look at the size of that thing. Let us marvel at its enormity. What a plane," Byrd exclaimed before the hangar's huge doors even had opened to reveal three departing C-130s and one visiting C-5, big enough to swallow at least one of the planes it would replace.

As he showed off the interior of the C-5, flight engineer Gary Miller shared memories of one of his most emotional flights. He and his crew helped return children to Minsk from Belgium, where they had been evacuated after the Chernobyl accident in Russia.

"I was like ... tears in my eyes, just knowing that those kids were going back to that atmosphere, but they're kids like any other kids. They're in the back throwing pillows around, raising all kinds of Cain," Miller said.

Miller, who took a demotion from senior master sergeant to master sergeant to move from a unit in Massachusetts and help with the transition, said he has just 3 1/2 years of service left until he turns the mandatory retirement age of 60.

"But if something happens in the world, we're usually there," Miller said. "I guess that's why I don't want to quit."

The C-5s could carry 144 Volkswagens or six Greyhound buses, Miller said. A C-130 could fit in the dead-air space inside the tail, he said.

For Chief Master Sgt. Dannie Ritenour and others who have worked on the C-130s, the decision to change planes inspired mixed emotions.

The plane has a "very good air frame," Ritenour said. It also has some less-than-comfortable characteristics, he said.

"Noisy, shaky, a good trash hauler," he said.

Inside the hangar, Wendy Tomczak studied the back of a digital camera as one plane after another taxied and took off, a quiet ascent leaving behind memories of roaring engines and missions past.

"I plan to start wearing a black armband. I'm very sad," she said. "That's my favorite airplane - always will be. They're slow, they're noisy, they're a little dirty, but they get you where you need to go."

Lettering spelling out Martinsburg was painted across the planes' tails.

"Oh, the maintenance guys are really unhappy because they love their airplanes and they work hard on them." Tomczak said. "We've got first-class, world-class, maintenance. It's kind of like your own kids, and they grow up and move away."

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