Lt. Col. Scott Smith will convert from an F-15 pilot to a C-130 pilot to accommodate the Montana Air National Guard's new flying mission. (Rion Sanders / The Great Falls Tribune)
The mission change at the 120th Fighter Wing of the Montana Air National Guard is picking up the pace.
About half of the F-15 fighter jets have left for Fresno, Calif., and the C-130 cargo planes that will be replacing them won’t be flying in Great Falls until next spring, but the aviators on Gore Hill are preparing for the transition.
Lt. Col. Scott Smith is the first of the fighter pilots headed to Little Rock Air Force Base for C-130 pilot training. He starts his seven-month training course next week.
The Cascade native has been with the Montana National Guard for 23 years. He joined as a senior in high school as an enlisted airman and started in maintenance. He graduated from Montana State University in 1994 and two years later was selected for pilot training.
He went to training in 1997 and started flying the F-16s in 1999.
When the wing switched to the F-15s, he attended training in 2008 to make that transition.
“It’s bittersweet. There’s a long history in fighters, and it’s sad to see them go,” Smith said. “But we’re starting a new era. I’m sure we’ll do great at this.”
Comparing the fighters to the C-130 is “apples and oranges,” Smith said.
Most of the F-15s at the 120th are single seat jets. They have a few two-seaters that are typically used for training.
In a C-130, it’s a five-person crew comprised of two pilots, a navigator, a flight engineer and a load master.
The fighter pilots are used to flying with a wingman, but are essentially on their own in the jet.
“The crew concept will be a challenge, but a good challenge,” Smith said.
Training for the MANG pilots is longer than usual since it’s essentially combining two training courses into one, Smith said. Typically, a C-130 pilot would complete initial pilot training, then spend five months in the C-130 to fly right seat, which is the co-pilot slot. After completing 1,000 flight hours in the right seat, they’d go back to training to move into the left seat, or lead pilot slot, Smith said.
Since all of the pilots at the 120th have more than 1,000 hours, they’re doing all the training at once to fly in the left seat slot.
The primary mission for C-130s is moving people and cargo. But, MANG is exploring the options for adding a firefighting mission, said Maj. Cody Smith, spokesman for the 120th. The C-130s currently slated to come to Great Falls are not equipped for firefighting, but that capability could be added later.
But the training will last over the holidays and Smith will be away from his wife and three kids.
They aren’t too happy about it but understand, Smith said.
This is the second time he’s been gone for more than five months in the last five years for training. He was also deployed for alerts in Hawaii and Alaska and deployed to Iraq.
“It’s our job and our livelihood, but the families take a hit every time you do this,” Smith said. “The families suffer the most.”
He plans to come home as often as he can, especially for Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said.