Decommissioned Army planes headed for Alaska -- then maybe back Outside

Sean Doogan

The state of Alaska is set to take possession of eight C-23 Sherpa aircraft this summer, planes that were part of a group of more than three dozen C-23s recently sent to Fort Sill, Okla., for demilitarization after the Army announced it was divesting itself of the aircraft last year.

The move to give the planes to the state rather than sell them off came in an amendment to the 2014 defense appropriations bill submitted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Murkowski said the planes are uniquely fitted to Alaska's needs: They are capable of handling up to 8,000 pounds of cargo, can carry up to 30 passengers and -- most important in Alaska -- can land and take off on short gravel runways.

But Murkowski's gift didn't come with the millions of dollars per year that it would cost the state to operate, maintain and hangar the aircraft. So the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs is asking commercial aviation companies if they want to lease the planes in exchange for time in the planes or in other similar aircraft.

A request for proposals to lease the C-23s went out in April. And while the state said it has uses for the planes here in Alaska, it has not ruled out the option of letting the leasing company use them in other parts of the world -- as long as the state gets flight time in similar aircraft.

"We want to make sure we allow the maximum flexibility in the RFP for whatever company would win the bid," said McHugh Pierre, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

The C-23 Sherpas were built in Northern Ireland by Short Brothers Aviation. They are boxy and long, earning the planes nicknames like "flying bus" and "flying salmon." The only fixed-wing aircraft flown in the U.S. Army, and later the Army National Guard, the Sherpas were decommissioned as a cost-saving measure last year. Until December 2013, the Alaska National Guard had eight of the planes. Murkowski's amendment gives the state control of those aircraft rather than having them sold off at auction by the military.

If the state can't find someone to take on the cost of maintaining and operating the planes, though, it will have to decide whether to fund their operation or give them back to the Army.

"That would be the last option for us," Pierre said.

Pierre said the planes could be used by a variety of state agencies. With a 30-person capacity, they might be valuable for the Division of Forestry to haul wildland firefighters to rural areas of the state, for disaster relief, or for assisting the Alaska State Troopers.

The first C-23 is scheduled to arrive in Alaska in June, with the remaining seven to follow over the summer months.

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