Leader Blues

Thursday, July 27, 2006

TOP STORY>>C-130's could fly 40 years longer

By SARA GREENE
Leader staff writer

The C-130 transport plane has been flying longer than most airmen have been alive, but now a defense contractor say it could nearly double the plane’s life expectancy.

Boeing announced a new program Wednesday that will extend the service life of C-130 aircraft up to 30 years at a fraction of the cost of a new cargo plane.

Boeing says its C-130 total life extension program addresses several aircraft modernization needs, including avionics, wiring, structures and systems. Key benefits include a center wing box solution, a comprehensive avionics modification and compliance with 21st century civil aviation standards.

The C-130 avionics modernization program is part of the overall avionics improvement package. The new avionics system features digital displays and the 737 commercial airliner’s flight-management system, both of which provide navigation, safety and communication improvements to meet com-munication, navigation, surveillance, and air traffic management requirements.

The C-130 avionics modernization plan provides upgrades for C-130s at one-seventh the cost of a new cargo plane, or about $10 million to $15 million, compared with a basic C-130J aircraft costing between $65 million to $90 million.
Although Boeing has previously made improvements on C-130s, the airplanes are manufactured by Lockheed, which also can modernized the planes.

Last year, Air Force engineers found microscopic cracking where the wings meet the fuselage, an area called the wing box, on the 40-year-old C-130 E and 20-year- old H models. After maintainers evaluated the 450 C-130s in the fleet, the Air Force grounded nearly 100 aircraft with the cracks. Of those, 18 were permanently re-tired, leaving 82 C-130s needing wing-box repairs, including several at Little Rock Air Force Base.

The Air Force put weight, altitude and flight time restrictions on aircraft that might develop the cracks based on wear and tear, such as the number of hours flown, maintenance issues and the more demanding tactical flying of wartime maneuvers.
Of the 314th Airlift Wing’s 42 C-130s, 12 are restricted and eight are grounded. Of the 463rd Airlift Group’s 30 C-130s, two are restricted and five are grounded.

All of the planes, grounded and restricted alike, have to be kept ready to fly, costing the base $22,000 per month to maintain planes that never fly, according to recent reports.

The 330th Tactical Air Support Command at Robins Air Force Air Force Base issued a wing-box repair plan earlier this year to fix the problem on 75 planes over the next five years.

Boeing said based on the aircraft’s condition, such as level of corrosion or fatigue cracks, the total life-extension solution allows wing-box upgrades without having to remove the box from its structure. Currently in development and entering the testing phase, the C-130 wing-box solution will save both time and money, Boeing said.

The enhanced digital avionics increase situational awareness for the warfighter compared to old analog cockpits, increasing information available to aircrews at a glance, simplifying tasks and decreasing workload, Boeing said.

Upgrades also allow additional flexibility in assigning aircrews regardless of the model design type. In addition, the C-130 improvements meet Special Forces requirements, while the basic C-130J requires additional mission equipment enhancements, the company said.