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A Fleet in Need


Like many National Guard assets, the Army Guard’s fixed-wing fleet has pulled double, or even triple, duty amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to supporting their states’ response efforts, the small Guard fixed-wing community has continued their routine domestic and overseas missions.

The planes, 43 C-12 Huron and 10 C-26 Metroliner aircraft, are in high demand, with many also deploying in support of combatant commanders around the globe. But these largely unheralded aircraft face a threat, something that’s unavoidable — time.

Namely, the Army Guard’s fixed-wing fleet is running out of time, says Arizona Army Guard Col. Greg Hartvigsen, a longtime aviator and the chairman of the NGAUS Aviation Task Force.

As aircraft age — some are approaching 40-years old — maintenance and flying costs are increasing, he says. The planes are already well-beyond their expected service life. But the Army, despite starting an effort to replace the C-12s and C-26s years ago, currently has no plans to field a newer plane.

Procuring a new fixed-wing utility aircraft to replace the aging aircraft has been a NGAUS legislative priority since 2019, after funding previously set aside for that effort was re-obligated for the Army’s six modernization priorities.

The Army even had a name for the replacement plane — the Fixed-Wing Utility Aircraft, or FUA.

The aging fixed-wing fleet has seemingly been skipped over in favor of future vertical lift and other efforts that will help transform the Army in the next decade. The Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft may be able to take on some of the fixed-wing mission, but Hartvigsen and other critics say it’s unclear if FLRAA will have the same capabilities as a fixed-wing aircraft and highly unlikely that it would be as cost-effective.

Cost is one of the fleet’s chief attributes. The C-12 and C-26 are cheaper to operate than other aircraft. And they can fly farther (up to 2,025 nautical miles) and faster (about 335 mph) than helicopters.

Hartvigsen says there are multiple commercial fixed-wing aircraft available that could meet key parameters of an FUA, and each could be had for significantly less cost than the FLRAA, which isn’t slated to be fielded to a unit until 2030.

Adapting existing commercial aircraft would be a familiar solution. The C-12 is an adapted Beechcraft Super King Air. The C-26 is based on the Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner. Both are twin-turboprop aircraft introduced in 1972.

The Army Guard’s aircraft are spread across nearly every state and territory, with only Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands lacking a plane. The 53 planes make up more than 40% of the Army’s overall fixed-wing fleet for nonexecutive operational support airlift, which includes 112 aircraft spread across all three components.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, the aircraft have been repeatedly used to move medical supplies and personnel across states, saving time and money.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, the aircraft have been repeatedly used to move medical supplies and personnel across states, saving time and money.

In the early days of the pandemic, they helped move ventilators across the nation, say Army Guard aviation officials. And the aircraft since been used to help staff testing sites and temporary medical facilities, while also supporting food banks and other Guard missions related to the virus response.

To date, the Guard fixed-wing force alone has flown nearly 600 COVID-related missions, moving nearly 2,200 passengers and almost 20,000 pounds of cargo.

The aircraft and their crews have been especially important as the civilian aircraft industry scaled down its operations amid the spread of the virus.

Those missions are in addition to the force’s typical workload. In fiscal 2019, Army Guard fixed-wing units flew more than 1,450 missions supporting more than 6,400 passengers and 505,000 points  of cargo. Approximately 60% of flight hours in past years have been in support of combatant commands or Army Service Component Commands, with crews deploying in support of Africa Command, Central Command and Southern Command, while providing direct support to European Command and Indio-Pacific Command.

The Guard planes are sometimes mistakenly referred to as VIP aircraft. In reality, from 2015 to 2019, only 8% of flight hours were used to move general officers and other senior leaders.

Despite that high demand on the fixed-wing fleet, the Army has iced its competition for replacement aircraft when it moved funding to other priorities. Congress did not backfill any funds for the program because it was not included in the 2020 Future Years Defense Program.

That puts the fixed-wing community in a difficult position.

Parts for the aging planes are getting more costly as there are fewer of the plane’s civilian counterparts in the air and production lines for key components close, officials say.

Most of the aircraft have had significant work done to them to extend their lifespans, but age remains a fleet-wide challenge, with the vast majority already considered past their economic useful life.

The active Army and Army Reserve fixed-wing fleets include some newer UC-35 aircraft. But even those may be approaching the end of their expected service life before a replacement for the C-12 and C-26 is identified.

If no replacement is found in time, the Army could be forced to replace its fixed-wing fleet with civilian contractors or commercial air travel. Both would come at a much higher cost than the existing fixed-wing enterprise.

According to an Army Guard white paper, the cost to cover a mission overseas with two civilian pilots currently costs the Defense Department $1.4 million per year. Two chief warrant officers can perform the same mission for about $200,000.

The author can be reached at 202-408-5885 or [email protected].


The Fixed-Wing Utility Aircraft became a NGAUS legislative priority after the Army put replacing older fixed-wing planes across the Army on hold. The resolution passed at the 142nd General Conference in August calls for the procurement of the FUA to replace the aging C-12 Huron and C-26 Metroliner aircraft to sustain the Army Guard fixed-wing fleet. Furthermore, it calls for distribution of at least one FUA to each state, the District of Columbia, select U.S. territories and the Fixed Wing Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, or FWAATS, Bridgeport, West Virginia.