The buzz of propellers drifted down over the airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground as the stubby gray plane came into view. The loadmaster from the Maryland Air National Guard crew dropped the rear hatch open. One by one, six soldiers filed out of the airplane and into the sky.
Special Forces soldiers with the Maryland National Guard spent the day Friday jumping out of the new C-27J Spartan, one of four the Guard will begin deploying to Afghanistan next year.
The twin-engine turboprops, which may be used to transport cargo or troops, replace the Guard's eight C-130J Hercules. Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, the adjutant general of the Maryland Guard, described the C-27J as "ideal" for supporting state officials during natural disasters and other emergencies.
But even as soldiers train on the new aircraft, its future is unclear. Earlier this year, the Defense Department cut the number of C-27Js it planned to purchase from 78 to 36.
And with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta now charged with cutting $460 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next decade, the entire program is under review.
Adkins said the Maryland Guard would continue to train and prepare to deploy the aircraft until it receives different orders.
"We're waiting to see," he said. "In our business, you've just got to continue to drive on until things change. Nothing is done until it's done."
In his annual report to Gov. Martin O'Malley last year, Adkins identified the acquisition of additional C-27Js as a priority for the Maryland Military Department. Four aircraft, he wrote, would "be inadequate to perform all missions effectively and may limit available aircraft for support to disasters here in Maryland."
"The issue about having eight is just economy of effort," he said Friday. "It just makes sense to consolidate eight together instead of having four."
Developed by Lockheed Martin and the Italian manufacturer Alenia, the C-27J Spartan is designed for airlift, airdrop or medevac missions. It is capable of short takeoffs and landings, which allow it to reach airfields that are inaccessible to larger aircraft.
It can carry up to 46 paratroopers or 60 troops.
Maryland Guard members with the 20th Special Forces Group practiced high-altitude, low-opening jumps from the aircraft Friday. They exited the plane at 14,000 feet and fell through space for a minute before opening their parachutes at 4,000 feet and steering toward a target on the ground.
"It's a nice platform," one Special Forces officer said after his first jump. He declined to give his name for security reasons.
Maryland was the second state guard to get the new aircraft, after Ohio. Crews from the Maryland National Guard are in Afghanistan now flying with their Ohio counterparts on that state's planes.