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The Conclusion of Conversion

  • Published
  • By by Master Sgt. Nathan Clark
  • 145th Airlift Wing

Three years ago the 145th Airlift Wing embarked on a journey, the likes of which the Charlotte base had not seen in over forty years. In October of 2017, the unit started the process of conversion, moving from the C-130 Hercules, to the C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, a process that formally concluded on October 1st, 2020. 

Aircraft conversion is the process of divesting one type of airframe from a base and introducing a new one. “This involves not only switching planes, but getting personnel trained to operate and maintain a new aircraft,” explains Lt. Col. Robert G. Gatti of the 156th Airlift Squadron and the Officer in charge of overseeing the Wing Conversion. “Additionally, we updated our facilities to support the new plane, and purchased new equipment required to operate them.”

The mission of the 145th Airlift Wing is to provide operational support to Air Mobility Command and the Air National Guard via strategic airlift. Because of this mission, the type of aircraft used plays a key role. The C-17 Globemaster III has a larger cargo area than the C-130 Hercules, with almost a 300% increase in carrying capacity. Moreover, the globemaster, true to its name, can make cross-oceanic trips in a non-stop single flight, which allows for worldwide employment.

While the process is worth it, it has not all been easy. “Transition has presented plenty of challenges along the way,” said Lt. Col. Gatti. “One of the biggest challenges to aircrew readiness has been the eighteen-month arrival delay of our new simulator.”

The simulator is, or rather will be upon completion, a state-of-the-art replica of a C-17 Globemaster III cockpit, that pilots can use to train without requiring the use of an actual aircraft. It is a feature that increases training safety for new pilots and saves on resources in the long run. The simulator is estimated to be complete sometime in 2021; until then, the unit has been able to utilize a similar facility in Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, for their aircrew and maintenance technician training.

People might assume that aircraft conversion might only affect the pilots and the aircrew but that is certainly not the case for the 145th Airlift Wing.

“Technicians were greatly impacted by conversion due to the new/advanced requirements, procedures, and support associated with the C-17,” said Lt. Col. Gatti. “The rest of the wing truly has developed an entirely new mindset toward aircraft operations, maintenance, and support. Deployments, and the associated medical and training readiness requirements, processes, and procedures are now constant in order to accommodate the strategic airlift mission.”

Despite construction delays, and training challenges, not even the introduction of COVID-19 in early 2020 was able to stop the units exit from conversion. The aircrew and maintenance technicians responded to reduced training opportunities by advocating for Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC) missions in an effort to ensure that their aircrews were still operating in the worldwide airlift system. By doing this, the 145th maintenance technicians gained invaluable experience through TACC support, and the aircrew remained on track with their training requirements, despite a global pandemic shutting down a significant amount of international travel.

For some it has been a seamless transition, for others it has been a long three years, and for Lt. Col. Gatti one thing he would change if he could go back to day one is to have a more pragmatic approach to budget and costs associated with the new facilities. “In the end they required more resources than originally planned, which did cause delays and impacted the original progression,” said Gatti. For those who would follow from other units in the future he imparts this advice, “Identify key requirements for equipment, construction, manning, and training. Visit other bases with the similar airframe to see what works and what doesn’t. Engage with other bases who have also recently converted to a new airframe or mission, to evaluate lessons learned.”

By converting to the C-17 Globemaster III, the 145th Airlift Wing has increased its strategic viability and capability in the support and defense to the State of North Carolina and of course the United States. The Wing has also enhanced and bolstered its strategic and operational relevance to the National Guard and Air Force as a whole and being finished with conversion is only the beginning of what lies ahead for the Wing.

“We will continue to grow and become more experienced in this new mission,” said Gatti. “While we have exited conversion, change and challenge are constant. Therefore, a unified focus and cohesive support from all the Airmen of the 145th is even more vital now than ever before to our continued success; we are at the end of the day, one team, one fight.”