Air Force relocating gunship training away from Florida panhandle’s crowded airspace

News


The U.S. Air Force has selected Kirtland Air Force Base’s 58th Special Operations Wing as the future home for its AC-130J Ghostrider aircraft and training force, which will relocate from Hurlburt Field in Florida’s Panhandle.

The move will start in June 2022 and will involve seven AC-130J aircraft and 372 positions, Col. Mike Curry, wing commander of the 58th Special Operations Wing, or SOW, told a news conference Tuesday morning.

The mission of the 58th SOW is to provide training in the areas of rescue, survival, evasion, resist‒ance, escape as well as “distinguished visitor airlift.” The AC-130J aircraft provides close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance in support of special operations around the world.

“This additional assignment amplifies the relevance and importance of the 58th Special Operations Wing and Kirtland Air Force Base,” Kirtland Partnership Committee Executive Director Dominique Foley Wilson told the Journal.

The decision to relocate the aircraft and personnel from Florida was made in part to consolidate the training for this aircraft at one special operations location, Curry said. The 58th SOW already does training in variations of special operations C-130J aircraft that are similar to the AC-130J gunships.

A U.S. Air Force sensor operator with the 4th Special Operations Squadron, watches as maintainers with the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit work on the brand new AC-130J Ghostrider at Hurlburt Field, Florida, March 8, 2019. This gunship is Hurlburt’s first Block 30 addition and comes equipped with the Precision Strike Package, which includes a mission management console, robust communications suite, two electro-optical/infrared sensors, advanced fire control equipment, precision guided munitions delivery capability, as well as trainable 30 mm and 105 mm weapons. The Block 30 AC-130J is the replacement aircraft to the 4th SOS’s AC-130U Spooky and will eventually replace all AC-130s in the Air Force Special Operation Command’s arsenal as the most modernized gunship to date. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michelle Di Ciolli)

More than 10,000 air crew members are trained annually through the 58th SOW.

Additional factors in the relocation involve the increasingly crowded airspace around Hurlburt, the similarities between New Mexico’s terrain and the geography of many of the places where the aircraft is deployed, and the proximity to two training ranges: the Melrose Air Force Range and White Sands Missile Range, Curry said.

Offensively, the AC-130J has more firepower. In addition to small-diameter bombs and air-to-ground Hellfire missiles, it has 30- and 105-millimeter cannons guided by precision laser and GPS guidance systems.

Each of the highly modified AC-130J aircraft was built at a cost of about $115 million. It has engines that allow it to stay in the air longer without refueling, while providing better fuel economy. It also has the ability to fly higher, carry more weight and engage targets from longer distances, Curry said.

Two high-fidelity, high-definition sensors allow the aircraft to better locate targets, “and know what they are so we can protect our troops, which is the whole mission of the AC-130J – protecting our ground forces,” he said.

The AC-130J fixed-wing aircraft is the fourth generation of the gunship that was first used in the Vietnam War.

More recently, it has been operating in Afghanistan, Curry said.

Sherman McCorkle, founder of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, a community-based advocacy organization that highlights and supports the work done at the base, said, “For more than the past 30 years, Kirtland has provided pilot training opportunities that are unmatched anywhere else in the U.S.”

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