CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle
Lt. Gen. Michael. W. Wooley, Commander of Air Force Special Operations Command talks to the media at Cannon Air Force Base.
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer
Lt. Col. Bob Monroe maneuvers through the dark chambers of the monstrous aircraft as if he were in the living room of his home.
Resting an arm against the seat he sits in to pilot the AC-130U gunship, he tries to demystify the aircraft — its snaking wires, its multiple computer screens, the hundred and one knobs that line the dashboard.
Monroe and a cast of Air Force Special Operations personnel introduced themselves to news media Saturday at Cannon Air Force Base. In addition to the gunship, a state-of-the-art CV-22 Osprey, a helicopter/airplane hybrid, and an MC-130H Combat Talon II were on display.
“We have all the best toys,” Monroe said from the cockpit of the plane.
A crew of 13 is needed to fly the gunship, and a support staff of 25 keeps it humming. The heavily armed plane is part of the Air Force Special Operations arsenal. The plane has sophisticated radar and sensor systems, which afford Monroe intimate snapshots of the terrain he flies over, usually in the dark of night.
In order to have access to the best, Monroe volunteered for Air Force Special Operations, an elite group that relies on unconventional methods to defeat enemies. He is now a member of the 4th Special Operations Squadron.
The Air Force pilot, who always keeps a knife hidden under the pant leg of his uniform, doesn’t know yet if he will be transferred to Cannon Air Force Base. But it is a possibility, he said.
Pentagon officials announced some assets stationed at the 16th Wing in Hurlburt Field, Fla., will be transferred to Cannon within the next two years. The change in mission at Cannon will keep the base from closing, as recommended by the Department of Defense in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process.
Future aircraft and personnel will be split between the two installations, according to an Air Force press release. A list of aircraft and personnel destined for Cannon has not yet been finalized, Air Force officials said.
Generally, the crew of special operations aircraft undergo 18 months or more of intense training, crew members said. They are usually the first on the ground in conflicts, and are deployed primarily to support other special operations forces in the Army, Navy and Marines, crew members said.
Capt. J.D. Shell, also of the 4th Squadron, has served in Iraq six times.
“At times, it can be a mental strain,” said Shell, standing across from one of the side-firing guns in the AC-130U. It resembles an overgrown accordion, a massive mound of metal that can shoot 1,800 rounds of ammunition per minute.
Though Shell and other crew members said their jobs carry stress, they also said they love the aircraft they fly and their mission in the war on terror.
U.S. Special Operations Forces are poised to grow by 15 percent in the next few years, and are vitally important in the war on terror, according to Department of Defense documents.
Air Force Special Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Michael Wooley said his command is eager to begin training at Cannon, although he does not have many details concerning specific personnel, aircraft and training that will take place at the High Plains base.
“We have been looking to establish a base west of the Mississippi for years. You have no idea how excited we are to have that dream of many, many years come true,” Wooley said.
“Clovis and Portales, in particular, are world-renowned for their support of the military men and women who live, work, play and pray in this area.”
Before any aircraft can be transferred to Cannon, an environmental impact study of the 16th Wing’s use of Cannon and Melrose Bombing Range must be completed, according to an Air Force press release. That study is projected to consume 15 to 18 months, the release indicates.