The ungainly C-23 Sherpa transport does not look like a major player
in combat operations in Iraq, but—plane for plane—it
has hauled more cargo and troops than any aircraft in the war zone.
C-23 has evolved as a small hauler for the Army,” said Col.
Paul Kelly, chief of the National Guard Bureau’s Aviation
and Safety Division in Arlington, Va.
The Sherpa, however, is aging and has other limitations, and the
Army has decided to develop a replacement. It intends to spend up
to $4 billion for a platform called the future cargo aircraft, which
would be larger than a Sherpa but smaller than a C-130.
Initially, the Army plans to buy 33 of these aircraft exclusively
for the Guard, at a cost of $1 billion. That number, however, could
grow. The Army has identified a requirement for 128 cargo aircraft,
At press time, the Army was expected to release a draft request
for proposals to build the 33 new aircraft, with a final request
to follow in the fall. “We’re moving at a very accelerated
pace,” Kelly said. The contract could be awarded by early
2006, with delivery of the first aircraft in late 2007 or 2008,
Thus far, two teams of contractors have announced their intention
to compete. In February, Alenia Aeronautica North America formed
a joint venture with L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, called
Global Military Aircraft Systems, to market Alenia’s C-27J
Then, in May, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company
(EADS) North America and Raytheon Company partnered to offer EADS’
CASA CN-235 and C-295 transports.
Alenia’s C-27J is based on an earlier model, the C-27A, which
was sold to the Air Force. The C-27J is an upgraded model designed
with the participation of the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company,
using engines, propellers and flight systems installed in Lockheed’s
larger, longer range C-130J. For this reason, it often is called
a “Baby Herc” or “half a Herc.”
Italy and Greece have each ordered 12 for their military services.
Bulgaria has bought eight, and the aircraft is competing for orders
in Canada and Portugal.
The Spartan, with a flight ceiling of 30,000 feet, can cruise higher
than the Sherpa, which is limited to 20,000 feet. It also can fly
longer, with a ferry range of 3,200 nautical miles. The C-27J can
carry up to 68 troops, 36 stretchers or more than 23,000 pounds
For payload, the Spartan cannot match the C-130, which can move
up to 128 troops, 97 stretchers or 42,000 pounds of gear. However,
it can use much shorter airfields, landing in as little space as
Whether EADS offers the CN-235 or the C-295 will depend upon the
specifics of the Army requirements, said Ralph D. Crosby Jr., EADS
chairman and CEO.
The two are quite different aircraft, he told reporters. The CN-235,
which has been chosen as the maritime patrol aircraft for the Coast
Guard’s Deepwater program and is in military service in more
than 20 other countries, is the smaller of the two. With a length
of 70 feet, it can carry a 13,600-pound payload or 51 troops and
can land on a 2,365-foot runway. The C-295, by comparison, is 80
feet long. It can transport 71 soldiers or 20,400 pounds of cargo
and land on 2,395 feet of runway.
Both teams emphasized the cargo-loading capabilities of their aircraft.
Alenia said that military vehicles—including combat-ready,
hardtop Humvees—can drive on and off the Spartan in minutes.
EADS said the C-295’s fuselage is similar to that of the Chinook,
allowing the transfer of palletized cargo between the two without
the need to change the payload in height, length or width.
EADS stressed that, if it gets the contract, more than 30 percent
of the aircraft parts will be made in the United States. The final
assembly site would be decided after the contract is awarded, Crosby
said. EADS recently completed a facility in Mobile, Ala., “to
service its growing American customer base,” according to
a company statement.
In June, EADS also announced that Mobile—with existing runways,
a skilled aerospace workforce and a deepwater port on the Gulf of
Mexico—had been selected as the site for U.S. production of
its candidate for the KC-330 advanced aerial refueling aircraft
that the Air Force would like to build. The service had planned
to lease Boeing 767s for that role, but the Defense Department cancelled
the controversial deal after allegations of improper influence peddling.
GMAS, the Alenia-L-3 joint venture, also is scouting out locations
for U.S. facilities, said Alenia’s communications chief, Ben
Stone. In July, GMAS said that it would open an office in Huntsville,
Ala., to service Army aviation customers. Huntsville is home to
the Army Aviation and Missile Command.
The two European manufacturers have teamed with U.S. firms to help
them comply with “Buy America” laws that require that
at least 50 percent of all work on defense contracts be done within
the United States. Both Alenia, a subsidiary of Italy’s Finmeccanica
Group, and EADS, an international consortium with headquarters in
Amsterdam, Munich, Paris and Madrid, have pledged that their aircraft,
if selected, would be assembled here.
As industry insiders await the request for proposals, they wonder
whether other manufacturers will enter the competition. Speculation
centered on the Boeing Company, which makes commercial airliners,
such as the 767, and a variety of military aircraft, including the
mammoth C-17 Globemaster transport and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor
John F. Manning Jr., deputy manager of Washington operations for
Boeing Integrated Defense, said he did not know of any interest
on his company’s part in the project. Another industry official,
who asked not to be named, noted that Boeing did not have a small,
fixed-wing transport in production, ready to be offered.
Nevertheless, the official said he wouldn’t be surprised
to see the company join one of the two teams already in the competition.
“Boeing certainly has a lot of expertise in maintaining and
supporting transport aircraft and training their crews,” he
The Sherpa—named for the Himalayan mountain guides—was
launched in 1974 by Shorts Brothers Ltd., of Belfast, Northern Ireland—and
served initially as a regional airliner. Two decades ago, the Air
Force began using it to ferry spare parts around bases in Europe.
That program ceased in 1990, and the service transferred its C-23s
to the Forest Service and the Army National Guard.
The Guard acquired 44 of them for use in theater airlift, airdrop
and airborne medical evacuation, Kelly said. In 2001, one crashed
during bad weather in Georgia, killing 21 crewmembers and passengers.
“There’s no conclusive evidence of what happened,”
The short, blocky Sherpa is not considered a thing of beauty, as
National Defense learned on a recent flight. “Most pilots
will defend their aircraft to the death,” said the pilot on
that flight, Col. Scott D. Wagner, commander of the Pennsylvania
Army National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility at Fort
Indiantown Gap. That’s not usually the case with the C-23.
In fact, confided the flight engineer, Sgt. Bob Wilson, “We
call them ‘sky pigs.’”
Recently, however, the Sherpa has earned respect by taking some
of the load off of the Air Force’s busy fleet of C-130 Hercules
transports, delivering troops and cargo into and out of difficult,
unimproved airfields and carrying heavier loads than many Army helicopters,
With a length of 58 feet, the Sherpa is 40 feet shorter than the
C-130, but its belly can hold 30 troops, four small pallets or 18
casualties on litters. That’s more than can fit into a UH-60
Black Hawk helicopter.
“In Iraq, any C-23 has hauled more troops and cargo than
any one aircraft of any other type,” he said. “The Sherpa
can transport personnel and equipment more efficiently than a CH-47
(Chinook helicopter) or a UH-60, allowing those two platforms to
concentrate on their combat roles.”
The Air Force, Reserve and Air National Guard have more than 500
C-130s, but they are so busy in Iraq that ground forces are required
to book flights five days in advance, said Chief Warrant Officer
Jack Carman, a C-23 flight instructor at the Fixed Wing Army National
Guard Aviation Training Site in Bridgeport, W.Va.
“The Air Force has its own priorities,” Carman said.
“We have to have our own transports.”
Also, with snipers and bombs threatening Iraqi streets and roads,
the Sherpa has become an attractive alternative to moving troops
and supplies by truck or Humvee.
“We have three missions,” Wilson said. “We can
ferry troops or cargo, and we can do para drops, with individuals
or loads.” The Sherpa is equipped with roller pallets, a winch
and a ramp door on the back to facilitate loading and unloading
of cargo and personnel.
As demonstrated during the flight, the ramp can be lowered in flight,
enabling paratroopers to jump and cargo to be airdropped. The operation
is performed by the flight engineer, wearing a harness attached
to the inside of the plane’s fuselage to keep from falling
The Sherpa fills “a very small niche, but it’s an important
one,” Wagner said.
Kelly agreed. “The C-23 does a pretty good job,” he
said, adding, “but it has its limitations.” One of them
is the size of its payload. A C-23 can carry a maximum of 7,100
pounds, only a fraction of the 42,000 pounds that can fit into a
Also, Kelly said, “the Sherpa has no air pressure, so it
has a hard time with altitude.” It can fly no higher than
12,500 feet. As a result, the aircraft is not being used in mountainous
Afghanistan, and its utility is limited in some parts of the United
In addition, said Carman, the C-23 requires a longer runway than
the C-130. The Sherpa “is advertised as a [short takeoff-and-landing)
aircraft, but it’s not even close.” With a maximum load,
it can take as long as 5,000 feet to land, about 2,000 feet more
than a C-130 would take, he said.
The Sherpa has a range of only 669 nautical miles, compared to
2,835 for the Hercules, making “getting it to theater ...
a major project,” Carman said. “You have to stop in
Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Greece,
Egypt and Saudi Arabia before you land in Kuwait. It’s basically
a tour of the Old World.”
Finally, Kelly said, “the Sherpa is an old plane. The Army
is faced with putting a lot of money into it, or buying a new aircraft.”
The plan is to buy a plane using existing technology, rather than
an entirely new design. “Everything in this aircraft is supposed
to be commercial, off-the-shelf technology,” Kelly said.