The sounds of the C-23 Sherpa are now a thing of the past as the Army National Guard bids farewell to the venerable aircraft after two decades of service.
The box shaped aircraft described by many as a “work horse” is now heading into retirement. Throughout its operations in the Army Guard, the Sherpa has been used in response to natural disasters and war missions, said Army Maj. Matthew Moore, chief of future operations with the Operational Support Airlift Agency, adding that it was also a widely used aircraft to support parachute-drop training missions for all components of the Army and special operations organizations.
The Sherpa, a fixed wing aircraft, was introduced to the Army Guard in the early 1990′s and has been flown in countless missions in both stateside and overseas operations, including the 1991 Gulf War and more recently during operations in Iraq.
“The C-23 provided limited rear support during the Persian Gulf War,” said Moore. “However, it saw continued action from 2003 through 2011 in Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn, often moving half-a-million pounds of cargo a month.”
The aircraft has seen continued use in other missions as well including in Egypt as part of the Multi-national Force and Observers peacekeeping mission.
“I was fortunate enough to ferry the first C-23 through Israel to El Gorah, Egypt,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Clarence Shockley, an instructor pilot and instrument examiner for the OSAA, adding that the mission was two-fold: first to use the C-23 as an observation platform for the MFO observers to monitor military activity on the Sinai to ensure compliance with the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and, second, to provide transportation to personnel and cargo from different locations throughout the region.
The Sherpa was no stranger to disaster response or providing assistance to other countries around the world.
“The C-23 provided disaster relief during hurricanes, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, forest fires, flooding, blizzards and the earthquake in Haiti, and was also used during the (2010) Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia,” said Shockley.
The Sherpa was a versatile aircraft and was used to do things other cargo aircraft could not do, said Shockley.
“A C-130 (Hercules aircraft) simply cannot land at every location,” he said. “Sometimes a CH-47 (Chinook helicopter) is too expensive to operate for a light load. It was another tool that was cost effective in homeland defense, disaster preparedness and the Global War on Terrorism.”
But for Shockley, one of the best things about flying the Sherpa was that, “it was a very stable instrument platform,” and the crew stations were comfortable.
Now with the aircraft at its final destination and set to be retired, Shockley said he has many personal memories about the aircraft.
“My first deployment, in 1999, was to Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, for disaster relief after Hurricane Mitch devastated much of the coastal regions of Central America,” Shockley said, adding that during his time in Honduras, he flew the Sherpa to haul disaster relief supplies, medical personnel, engineers and construction equipment throughout Central America.
Other moments stand out as well. Shockley recalled a flight in 2009 from Greenland to Iceland when a cockpit side window blew out.
“It was a little noisy and cold, but where are you going to land when you are over the North Atlantic? We landed in Keflavik, Iceland, without any problem,” said Shockley.
Being a pilot of the Sherpa also sparked an interest in the aircraft in Shockley’s son Conor.
“You see, the first time Conor was in a C-23 he was barely one year old,” said Shockley. “He was bundled up in a snow suit at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, and sitting on my lap. He would reach up to the yoke and try to move it.”
Throughout the years, Shockley continued spending “Sherpa time” with Conor and Erin, Shockley’s wife, adding that the “toddler grew into the small boy and each visit to the Sherpa was not complete without a thousand questions that only a young boy could ask.”
Sixteen years after first introducing the aircraft to his son, Shockley and his son recently had their final “Sherpa moment” together.
“As Conor sat in the cockpit one last time, he looked around with a smile on his face and I realized that the little boy had grown into a young man but the enjoyment he once had for sitting in Dad’s airplane was still there,” Shockley said.
The last Sherpa’s journey to its final destination to the United States was not easy.
Shockley, who was part of the crew that flew the final Sherpa in the inventory on its final mission, said that electrical issues and inclement weather caused several delays in getting the aircraft home from Egypt.
Still, Shockley said was glad to have flown the Sherpa this last time.
“It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to fly the last Sherpa into retirement and the greater privilege was to have served as a crewmember with those hard working quiet professionals,” said Shockley.
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