FORT WORTH (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry and other officials Wednesday promised to ratchet up pressure to keep eight Air Force planes used for disaster relief from being moved from Texas to Montana, a proposal Perry called "one of the worst decisions" the federal government has made in some time.
The eight C-130 Hercules planes now based at a naval air station in Fort Worth would be shifted to Montana in two years due to Air Force budget cuts. The planes are often used to ferry personnel and supplies to disaster zones. Perry and other Gulf Coast governors have protested that moving the planes would delay response times in urgent situations.
Perry, a former C-130 pilot, said he could now call on the planes to be deployed to a hurricane zone in a few hours instead of the days he said it could take to mobilize them from Montana.
"You try that with the regular Air Force 130s," Perry said, standing in front of one of the gray, bulky planes. "It doesn't happen with just one phone call."
If the planes are moved, the state National Guard would likely respond to future disasters with helicopters, which can't carry as much cargo or perform the same type of evacuations, said Maj. Gen. John Nichols, chief of the Texas National Guard.
"The states may have to pay for it," Nichols said. "Why would a state go out and have to buy its own airplanes when you have a National Guard?"
But Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, in an interview with The Associated Press, defended the planes' move and denied it would take much longer to mobilize them. Schweitzer said Montana and surrounding states in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest have their own share of natural disasters — from forest fires to floods — when the C-130s could be used.
"In a place like Montana, we have a long distance from place to place with not a lot of infrastructure in between," Schweitzer said. "Our distances are a greater challenge than in Texas."
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said the state's congressmen and senators were united in trying to save the planes from being moved. Granger, chairwoman of a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees defense funding, said she hadn't gotten adequate answers from Air Force officials about the move, which would require the construction of new hangars and training of pilots in Montana.
Granger said she would seek to add a provision to the Air Force's next budget barring the move. Officials have also sent letters calling on the department to reverse the decision.
"It's not just these C-130s," Granger said. "The overall plan for the C-130s doesn't make sense to us. And not just me, the entire subcommittee."
The C-130s have carried more than 3,100 people and delivered more than 900 tons of emergency supplies along the Gulf since 2005, and were among the first into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, according to a letter that Gulf Coast governors sent to Obama last month. The planes also evacuated 800 hospital and nursing home patients before Hurricanes Ike and Gustav made landfall in 2008.
National Guard spokeswoman Rose Richeson could not immediately provide a cost estimate on moving the planes, but said "hard choices" went into the decision. As part of the moves, Fort Worth's Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base will get nine to 11 MC-12W Liberty planes used for intelligence and surveillance, she said.
Perry, a Republican who ran in the Republican presidential primary to challenge President Barack Obama this year, acknowledged he has had disagreements with federal officials before. "But moving aircraft that are so vital to a hurricane-prone part of the United States, the Gulf Coast, almost a thousand miles away ranks as one of the worst decisions and ideas that I've seen out of Washington in some period of time," Perry said.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, said he would work to make sure Texas had the C-130s whenever they were needed.
"I get a call from the governor of Texas that they need some help, I'm going to hang up the phone, call my adjutant general and say, 'Fuel 'em up, baby,'" he said. "We governors, we work together."
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