For months, the men and women of the 135th Airlift Group have been training on their new C27J Spartan turboprops for their deployment this spring to Afghanistan.
Their job: carrying soldiers, equipment and supplies around the war zone as the fighting season resumes.
It's a mission for which the Maryland Air National Guard unit has deep experience. In the last decade alone, members have deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, while also responding to the Haiti earthquake, California wildfires and Hurricane Katrina.
But now, weeks from their departure overseas, they have learned the mission is likely to be their last.
Less than a year after Maryland took delivery of the first of the four C27Js it was set to receive, the Air Force has announced plans to cancel the aircraft as part of broader budget cutbacks. If the decision is approved by Congress, the Air Force will stop buying and operating the turboprops.
That would leave the Maryland Air Guard without the airlift capability it has used to deliver troops, equipment and supplies to isolated terrain in combat overseas and disasters in the United States.
It also would leave the 250 pilots, loadmasters, maintenance workers and other personnel of the 135th Airlift Group without an assignment. It is unclear what will become of the group. The Pentagon is expected to provide more details in early March.
"The biggest thing is we're heading to a deployment," said Lt. Col. Joe Llewellyn, a C27J pilot. "And here you have to have your head straight to go to combat, and then you have to worry about, OK, when I get home, I've got to figure out a job, I've got to figure out this, I've got to figure out that."
The Air Force also announced that it would add an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance group to the Maryland air guard, and expand its network warfare squadron, leaving the possibility that some members of the 135th might find new work in intelligence or cyberwarfare.
But the loss of the aircraft is a blow.
Designed for airlift, airdrop and medevac missions, the four C27Js were intended to replace the eight C130J Hercules planes that the state guard lost in the last round of the national military base realignment and closing process known as BRAC. Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, commander of the Maryland National Guard, had listed acquiring more of the new aircraft among his top five priorities for 2012.
"Four aircraft will be inadequate to perform all missions effectively and may limit available aircraft for support to disasters here in Maryland," Adkins wrote in his most recent annual report to Gov. Martin O'Malley.
O'Malley said in an email to The Baltimore Sun that it was early to assess the full impact of the proposed federal budget, but he added that state officials "are concerned about the loss of the C27J and how it will affect the airmen and their families here in Maryland." He said he was encouraged by the expansion of the network warfare squadron and the formation of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance group.
"The Air Force as a whole, and particularly the Maryland Air Guard, is constantly evolving. The members of the 175th Wing have adapted and transitioned to new missions in the past with great success," O'Malley said. The 175th Air Wing, headquartered at Warfield Air National Guard Base in Middle River, includes the C27J group.
"While some of these changes may be painful to some in the short term, we should embrace this as an opportunity to transition to new missions best suited to the unit and future threats and the challenges of tomorrow," O'Malley added.
But Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett raised the cancellation with Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno at a recent budget hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
"President Obama's new strategy presumes that the Air Force will no longer have to supply deployed Army ground forces in high altitude, rugged terrain such as Afghanistan where the C27J provides superior, cost-effective intratheater delivery of vital supplies," the Western Maryland Republican said after the hearing.
"Another consequence of the decision to eliminate the C27J is that it leaves the Maryland Air National Guard as well as Air Guard units in seven other states without the planes to perform their mission responsibilities to deliver relief supplies for natural disasters in the United States."
Without the C27J, Maryland would have to rely on other states to airlift personnel, equipment or supplies in an emergency.
The Maryland Air Guard continues to fly the A10C II Thunderbolt, a jet used to attack tanks, armored vehicles and other ground targets that Marylanders have flown in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the future of that plane, which was developed in the 1970s, might also be limited; the Air Force is cutting five A10 squadrons around the country.
Maryland Col. Scott L. Kelly does not expect the state to get unmanned aircraft, given FAA rules and the busy airspace in the National Capital Region.
Kelly is the commander of the 175th Air Wing, which also includes the A10C group. He sees the loss of the C27J and the addition of intelligence and cyberwarfare personnel reflecting a larger shift in the Air Force.
"I can't predict what's going to transpire budget-wise in aircraft building," he said, "but we may have perhaps seen our last manned fighter already built" — the state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighter.
"I'm telling our troops that I see the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance group] and network warfare expansion as, at least in my eyes, something that's going to keep this wing and this air guard viable for many years in the future," Kelly said.
For now, Kelly said, his greatest concern is "the people side of the equation" — the 250 members of the 135th Airlift Group and the personnel who support them. "They all have faces and lives and families."
Kelly said some of the guard members have computer and other skills from their civilian lives that could help them adapt to new opportunities with the ISR group or the network warfare squadron.
Others, including pilots who want to continue to fly, could seek opportunities elsewhere in the guard, in Maryland or beyond.
Lt. Col. David DeBorger, a pilot and instructor, sees a potential new role for himself in the new intelligence and cyberwarfare missions.
"I always thought I'd be flying airplanes, but at my point in my career, I had to figure out what I'm going to do next," he said. "So for an old guy like me" — he's 45 — "this may be a great opportunity to transition to another career that's going to be easier for me to have a follow-on after I get out of the Air National Guard."
Lt. Col. Julie Curlin, a pilot who commutes from Tampa, Fla., to command the 135th Maintenance Squadron of the 135th Airlift Group, held out hope the decision wasn't final.
One of the last of the Maryland pilots to train on the C27J, she was getting checked out on the new aircraft at Warfield last week.
"We're still fighting to keep them, so that's obviously what we're looking forward to, is this aircraft staying here in some kind of role," she said. "We would be really sad to see this go."