Air Force Works to Extend Life of C-130 Fleet

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The U.S. Air Force is working to extend the service life of its fleet of C-130 combat delivery aircraft by replacing center wing boxes on some of the planes and adding new avionics, electronics and instrumentation, service officials told Military​.com.

The modernization effort encompasses maintenance and technological improvements to the older C-130 H-model planes as well at the more modern C-130J aircraft, said Col. Robert Toth, division chief for special operations, rescue and trainer programs.

The Air Force now operates 362 C-130s, including 260 H-models and 102 more modern J-models. Overall, the services’ fiscal year 2015 budget calls for the delivery of 134 J-models and maintenance of 194 H-models for a total force size of 328 C-130s, service officials said.

The service eventually expects to buy a total of 168 J-models at an estimated cost of $15.8 billion, according to Pentagon acquisition figures from December. About $10 billion of that has already been spent on the program.

Compared with the legacy H-models, J-model aircraft are configured with more powerful engines and modernized cockpit technology, avionics and instrumentation, Toth added.

Unlike the older 1970s-era gauges built onto the H-model planes, the C-130Js are configured with digital moving maps, upgraded flight management systems and instrumentation on glass displays, Toth explained.

The C-130J aircraft have a better short take-off-and-landing ability, climb rate and range compared to the H-model planes, he said.

Ongoing upgrades to the C-130H aircraft add an additional 40,000 hours of flying time to the plane and extend the life of the H-model aircraft out to 2040 or 2045, Toth added.

“We look at compliance issues for airspace requirements, obsolescence issues and look at overall modernization and structural integrity issues of the aircraft to keep the planes flying for the next 30-years,” Toth said.

One of the key elements of the modernization effort includes replacing the center wing boxes of the aircraft, the part of the aircraft’s structure which sits over the fuselage and ties the two wings together.

“It is the key element to hold the wings onto the airplane. Over time, cracks in the wing box could create structural failure of the wings,” Toth added.

Engineered to take-off, land and operate in more rugged environments, the propeller-driven C-130s have been work horse aircraft over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan; they regularly transport supplies such as ammo, food, water and medical supplies to forward-operating troops located on small bases in or near difficult or mountainous terrain. C-130s are engineered to conduct air drops in areas where a landing strip is not available.

“They are transport aircraft for moving equipment and forces to forward operating bases. C 130-s go to remote airfields and airfields that are small. They can operate in terrain that is too difficult for the bigger strategic airlifters to get into,” Toth said.

Unlike C-17 jet engines which have large spaces where rocks, dirt and debris could enter and get caught, C-130 propeller engines have a much smaller opening, making them more able to land in an austere environment, said Lt. Col. Grant Mizell, C-130 program element monitor.

“Jet engines are primed for high speeds and high altitudes — but they burn a lot more gas. They have space where the engine can suck up rocks and debris. A propeller is fuel-efficient at lower altitudes and slightly slower speeds and it can land on a dirt runway. There is a small opening in the engine so you don’t suck up a whole bunch of debris,” Mizell said.

Some of the C-130s are also being outfitted with improved, crash-worthy seats and defensive systems such as infrared countermeasures designed to better protect them against ground attacks.

Also, the aircraft are being engineered to be fully compliant with domestic and international FAA airspace requirements by 2020, Toth said. This means improvements to radios, communication equipment, navigation technology and flight management systems, he added.

The upgrades are described at communication, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management, or CNS ATM.  The new radios will give air traffic control a better way to monitor aircraft, he explained.

Some of the work is being done at Warner Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, Toth said.

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