How Did a Small College End Up With a Military Cargo Plane?
It wrote a two-paragraph letter to the Pentagon
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
If you find yourself in the northeast corner of Arkansas, you might catch a glimpse of a small, gray military cargo plane. But this former U.S. Army cargo hauler doesn’t ferry American troops around anymore.
The C-23 Sherpa is property of Black River Technical College, a relatively small institution with around 2,500 students. The Pentagon turned over the aircraft through a program set up to help police departments and police academies get relatively easy access to surplus military gear and vehicles.
How easy? A simple, two-paragraph letter was all the U.S. military’s Defense Logistics Agency needed to justify Black River’s request, according to documents War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
As part of the so-called “War on Drugs,” Congress in 1989 included a special provision in the defense budget for the Pentagon to hand over military equipment to state and federal law enforcement groups.
These agencies were — at first — only supposed to receive gear that would help stem the flow of illegal narcotics. Nearly a decade later, legislators expanded the program to cover any law enforcement activity, with special considerations given to countering drug traffickers and terrorists.
This arrangement is widely referred to as the “1033 program,” in reference to the exact line in the defense budget for the 1997 fiscal year.
“This law allows transfer of excess Department of Defense property that might otherwise be destroyed to law enforcement agencies across the United States and its territories,” the DLA’s Law Enforcement Support Office explains on its official website. By 2016, “the program … transferred more than $6 billion worth of property.”
But the 1033 program has become controversial, particularly after heavily armed police clashed with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Investigative journalists quickly began to dig into just what the Pentagon had been handing out and to whom. The Defense Logistics Agency too — under public pressure — began publishing data on the law enforcement deals. The DLA’s records cover a multitude of different items across thousands of individual requests.
The Pentagon gave weapons, armored vehicles and aircraft to police departments and other law enforcement groups — including police academies and university police departments — across the United States. In March 2014, Black River asked for and got a C-23B+ Sherpa through the 1033 program.
Derived from the Shorts 360 Skyvan, the plane has a top speed of just over 290 miles per hour and can carry up to 20 passengers. Crews can load pallets of cargo through a rear ramp.
However, the Pentagon’s data doesn’t offer any specifics on why agencies make requests in the first place, or what it necessarily takes to acquire hardware through the 1033 program.
As it turns out, Black River described its need for the $5.3 million cargo plane with a standard government form and letter less than 100 words long.
“The C-23 Aircraft we requested will be used in a variety of ways,” Steve Shults, the director of Black River’s Law Enforcement Training Academy, wrote in a memo justifying the transfer. “The … Academy will use the airplane for hostage training, drug courier training, dignitary protection training and criminal take-down training.”
According the DLA’s data, Black River sent this message six months after the Pentagon shipped the plane.
On the request form submitted in December 2013, Shults specifically requested only one of the twin propeller engine C-23s. However, Black River agreed to consider an alternative aircraft if the Pentagon did not have any Sherpas available.
Shults pointed out that the plane could, in a disaster scenario, help rush injured people to hospitals, or ferry supplies into the Pocahontas-Paragould area. Black River’s two campuses are inside the New Madrid seismic zone and thus vulnerable to earthquakes.
The college’s aviation program would maintain the aircraft. “Other areas of usage are being explored,” Shults added.
In the application, Shults indicated that Black River is not located in what the federal government considers a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.” If it were, this would give the academy special preference for gear under the 1033 program.
Black River did not respond to phone calls and emails asking for details about how students were using the Sherpa, or if the college even still had the aircraft. On the application’s line asking for “anticipated annual flight hours,” Shults wrote “unknown.”
The C-23 was not Black River’s first request for Pentagon assistance. As of July 1, the college received equipment on nearly 80 occasions during the past four years. These deals included shipments of pistols, rifles, trucks, camouflage nets and other gear.
Through the 1033 program, Black River also got — oddly — 50 armoires and 90 night stands, according to documentation released by the investigative journalism collective Muckrock. But the C-23 is by far the most expensive single item the college ever acquired from the DLA.
It may prove to be one of the most controversial.
It is entirely likely Black River’s application was among those that prompted significant changes to the military-to-police equipment pipeline. In a May 2015 report, the federal government’s Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group specifically recommended putting aircraft such as the C-23 on a “controlled equipment list.”
Requests for any kind of controlled gear would need a “detailed justification for acquiring the controlled equipment, including a clear and persuasive explanation of the need for the equipment and the appropriate law enforcement purpose that it will serve,” the working group urged.
“An … application for controlled equipment should describe any previous instance in which the controlled equipment was used in a manner that deviated from the detailed justification.”
To address public concerns, Pres. Barack Obama subsequently penned an executive order putting these changes to the 1033 program into place. We don’t know if Black River submitted any additional documentation regarding its C-23 in light of these new policies.
“There is … equipment that may be needed in certain cases, but only with proper training,” Obama explained in a speech on May 28, 2015. “We’re going to ensure that departments have what they need, but also that they have the training to use it.”
We’ll be sure to update this story if we get any new details about how Black River has been using its Sherpa.