DOD retiring famous military aircraft

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Oct. 13--YUMA PROVING GROUND -- Employees working at various test sites throughout Yuma Proving Ground will no longer hear the familiar sounds of either of the two O-2 Skymaster the installation has soaring high overhead.

Originally built in 1967, the legendary plane forged a reputation as a hardy and dependable aircraft for forward observation missions during the Vietnam War. Although the model is now more than 40 years old, they are the only two of this model in the military inventory that still carry out active-duty missions, used at YPG to support test mission.

As of Oct. 1, however, YPG's two Skymasters, the last two in the Department of Defense's inventory, were officially retired and bound for museums.

"They are getting old and difficult to maintain," said civilian pilot Ralph Arnold, who has flown the planes the past six years. "It is sad. We probably just don't use them enough anymore to justify having them anymore."

The plane, with Lt. Col. Steve Milton, commander of the Yuma Test Center, onboard, took to the skies above YPG for the last time Tuesday morning. Milton said it was unfortunate that his first-ever flight in the plane also happened to be its last.

"I'm glad to have the opportunity," Milton said of his flight moments before taking off. "It's taking a seat in history."

Milton said from a historical perspective, it is amazing to think about all the different types of missions the iconic planes have flown on over the years, where they have been and how many different branches of the military have owned them.

About 510 of the O-2 aircraft were built between 1967 and 1970. The aircraft is unique in its design in a couple of ways.

First, its propellers counter-rotate, balancing out the effects of the torque and the p-factor, or aerodynamics. It's "high-wing" design also proved useful for a clear observation of what was below and behind the aircraft.

The second feature of this aircraft that makes it stand out is the placement of its two engines. Instead of on its wings, its engines are mounted in the nose and rear of its pod-style fuselage, which creates a "push-pull" effect.

During the Vietnam War, the aircraft was used as a forward spotter to observe where the artillery was hitting the ground and then call in the ground support jets to complete the missions. It had fixed hard points to deliver rockets, flares and other ordnance for self-defense and to designated targets for air strikes.

Arnold said both of the 0-2 Skymasters at YPG have 10,000 hours of flight time, which he estimates is equivalent to flying about 1.5 million air miles.

"It is a fun plane to fly," Arnold said. "It also sounds really cool going down the runway."

YPG got the planes from Arizona's Fort Huachuca in 1998 when the program in which they were flown was closed. Arnold said Huachuca was going to dispose of them, but YPG said they could use the planes.

Prior to going to Fort Huachuca, the planes were owned by the U.S. Navy, which got them from the Air National Guard, where they wound up following the war.

Arnold said one of the planes will remain at YPG as an exhibit for the installation's Heritage Center museum. The other plane has been offered to the Air Force's museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

"They haven't said yet whether they want it," Arnold said. "If they don't, (the plane) will be disposed of."

Milton said the loss of the Skymasters does not mean YPG is losing the capability to support a test mission with a fixed-wing aircraft. In its place, he said, the installation is using a Cessna, which is faster and can carry more.

With 10 pilots who can fly both fixed-wing and rotor aircraft, the loss of the Skymaster means there is one less plane for the pilots to have to fly on a regular basis to maintain their rating.

"At any given time, the pilots will fly a fixed-wing aircraft in the morning and a rotor aircraft in the afternoon, or vice versa," Milton said.

While the need for supporting test missions with a fixed-wing aircraft has decreased, Milton said, test missions that can be supported with rotor aircraft have actually increased.

James Gilbert can be reached at jgilbert@yumasun.com or 539-6854.

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