Peoria Air Force base one of four to be assigned next-gen aircraft

By Tim Alexander for Chronicle Media

The Peoria Air National Guard 182nd Airlift Wing’s aging C-130H transport and cargo planes (pictured) will be replaced by eight new C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. (Photo by SSgt Lealan Buehrer)

The Department of the Air Force selected the 182nd Airlift Wing, based in Bartonville, to receive shipment of eight new C-130J Super Hercules to replace their aging C-130H transport and cargo planes, pending the outcome of environmental assessments. The new C-130J tactical aircraft, which operates on digital rather than outdated analog technology, will be used to “recapitalize” the aging C-130H fleet at each location, according to the Air Force.

“This will be the first time in the 76-year history of the Peoria Air National Guard that we will be getting a brand-new aircraft off the line from Lockheed Martin. It will have the bran- new car smell,” said Rusty Ballard, 182nd Airlift Wing Commander.

The 182nd was selected for the C-130J upgrade via a merit-based site assessment conducted by the Air Force. Doing things the “Peoria way” at the air base — Ballard’s term for going above and beyond in the line of duty — helped the 182nd rise to the top of the potential sites for selection, the commander said.

“We got rewarded for doing things the way we do according to the history and the culture of the Peoria Air National Guard, and we’re very proud of that,” Ballard said. “This is going to guarantee the Peoria Air National Guard will remain in Peoria for decades to come.”

The Air Force cautioned that the “significant” series upgrade to the newer C-130Js will require new flight qualification for pilots and loadmasters currently with the 182nd and the other bases.

“Any excess in manpower due to this shift will be repurposed through the Air National Guard corporate process and will vary by location,” according to an Air Force news release.

Ballard said the 182nd Airlift Wing would lose its flight engineers and navigators.

“As exciting as the news is, it is bittersweet. We will have to ask some crew members to either retire early or retrain to other positions on base,” said Ballard, adding that 182nd operations, air crews and maintenance workers will all need to be retrained to operate and maintain the new aircraft.

“The C-130J model will look almost identical to the C-130H model, but the C-130J is completely different; it’s modernized and more automated,” Ballard said. “All the crew members will have to train for six to seven months to relearn how to run the exact same mission that they are already doing with the C-130H during tactical airlift conditions. All the maintainers will have to go back to school to learn to maintain this aircraft as well.”

The new aircraft are not expected to begin arriving at the 182nd Airlift Wing base until sometime between 2026 and 2030. It is unknown which of the four bases selected will receive the first “tails” when the C-130Js are ready to fly. Before receiving any new planes, the airbases will enter into a six-month conversion status to prepare for the transition.

This means it could be many years from now before any personnel associated with the 182nd will be asked to take early retirement or learn a new skill associated with the C-130J, according to Ballard.

Area elected representatives from both sides of the political aisle have come together to urge approval for the tactical plane upgrade for many years and deserve a portion of the credit for bringing the C-130Js to Peoria, the 182nd commander noted. They include U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who is a retired Air National Guard lieutenant, and Sen. Dick Durbin, among other current and retired legislators.

Many of these same legislators rose to the defense of the 182nd and the C-130J project when, in 2020, then-president Donald Trump proposed the transfer of $1.3 billion appropriated for National Guard and Reserve equipment and $169 million appropriated for Air Guard C-130Js for the construction of the wall on the southern border.

The Department of the Air Force will conduct an environmental impact analysis at each airbase before the final plane assignments are determined in 2025. In addition to the 182nd, the Air Force selected the 103rd Airlift Wing (Hartford, Connecticut), 120th Airlift Wing (Great Falls, Montana) and 133rd Airlift Wing (Minneapolis, Minnesota) as the preferred locations to receive eight new C-130J Super Hercules planes.

Each airplane, or “copy,” of the new C-130J tactical aircraft will roll off Lockheed’s assembly line with a price tag of around $500 million, according to Ballard’s estimate. The C-130H models being replaced at the four air bases will be utilized by other Air National Guard wings, mothballed in Air Force “boneyards,” utilized for parts or auctioned in a military sale to allied countries, he added.