Sowela welcomes E-8A J-STARS jet

Published 4:43 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The E-8A Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft has been brought to its new home, Sowela Technical Community College.

The aircraft’s retirement from the U.S. Air Force was celebrated Tuesday with a Fly-In Ceremony at Chennault International Airport.

It will be integrated into Sowela’s aviation maintenance program. Chancellor Neil Aspinwall said that the moment the aircraft landed was momentous but sad, as its flight from Fort Moore, Ga. to Chennault Tuesday morning was its last.

“It’s not everyday that you get a $35 million J-STARS Boeing 707 donated to a college aviation program. … It’s good to have some history, some memories of the last flight, seeing the plane touchdown. The students will be able to work on one of the last, great surveillance jets.”

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To honor the jet’s service and history, Chennault held a water cannon salute, in which two large arcs of water were shot into the air to recognize the decommission of the plane.

The $35 million modified Boeing 707-300 series jet was donated to Sowela –the largest donation in the school’s history – following the dissolvement of the E-8 Joint Stars fleet.

The fleet was developed over 30 years ago as an “airborne middle management amongst ground targets” that emulated other aircrafts across the world, said USAF Lt. Col. Aaron W. Quinn, chief, Joint STARS Branch.

The donated aircraft was deployed in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm while the E-8 Joint STARS program was still in development. It also was deployed in 1995 for Operation Joint Endeavor. It was used for command control, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance to “monitor, target and attack adversary surface forces.”

Following its time in action, it was modified to be a pilot trainer aircraft, used especially for takeoffs and landings, he said.

“I know it will continue to find great value in a new, different training mission, and continue to build on its already impressive legacy.”

Acquiring the aircraft took approximately a year and a half, Aspinwall said.

Since many Sowela aviation maintenance students go on to work for major aircraft industries like Boeing, Delta and United, a large aircraft like the Boeing 707 is vital to flesh out the students’ experience.

The aircraft includes engines and systems that are commonly used in commercial airlines.

Isabel Gonzales, a Sowela student in her last year in the aviation maintenance program, said that she was drawn to the career path because of the globe-trotting nature of aircrafts.

“We are taking care of something that goes up in the air and takes people places around the world.”

Another student in the program, Jack Iguess, said he just watched Top Gun one too many times. His love for aircrafts was nurtured in him at a young age. That passion has carried him through life. Before Sowela, he worked on flight decks in the Navy.

“I’ll never not be in aviation in some capacity.”

The E-8A Joint STARS aircraft will aid them in gaining tactile experience with a jet of its caliber and allow them to earn necessary industry certifications, in addition to being “a lot of fun to work on,” Gonzales explained.

“The best thing about it is that it is really going to benefit us after we are done with the program, because we are going to get certifications for working on it in school that are going to be carried over when we go in the job market,” said Iguess.

The inventory of aircrafts at Sowela is extensive, they said, including a Skymaster 337, Boeing 727, Cessna Citation Jet and Piper Arrow.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, said he is constantly inspired by the growth exhibited by Sowela and Chennault. The attainment of the aircraft is yet “another tangible example” of their growth, he said.

“The moment you get stagnant, the moment you start resting on your laurels, the moment you’re OK with the status quo is the moment you start to sign your death certificate, and for me, Sowela and Chennault and this relationship between the two is the antithesis of stagnation and status quo.”

E-8A will remain a live aircraft at Sowela, and will be painted and refinished with the Sowela logo in the coming months.