Leader Blues

Thursday, September 07, 2006

TOP STORY >>C-130J fleet is evaluated

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor

A team from Edwards Air Force Base is evaluating the four C-130J transport planes at Little Rock Air Force Base as the Pentagon seeks to determine if the planes are combat-worthy. Although two C-130Js are assigned to the war in Iraq, critics inside and outside the Pentagon say the new aircraft has fallen short of expectations, although top Air Force generals insist the planes have performed well.

Brig. Gen. Kip Self, commander of the 314th Airlift Wing at the base and a supporter of the C-130J program, told members of the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council on Monday that the evaluators findings are crucial to the future of the C-130Js. “I’m a C-130J pilot. I love it,” the general said, although he has also flown the larger C-17s as well as helicopters.
While Air Force officials believe the C-130Js are a big improvement over the older C-130E models, Pentagon auditors have been critical of the plane’s performance and cost.

More C-103J evaluations are scheduled for Alaska in December to see how the C-130Js assigned here perform in the cold.
Inspectors had found problems with the planes in the Middle East, where sand interfered with their performance, but Self said those problems have been fixed.

A Pentagon inspector-general’s report last year criticized the Air Force’s purchase of 50 transport planes without a set price during contract negotiations with Lockheed-Martin of Marietta, Ga., the plane’s manufacturer. The C-130Js cost about $67 million each, or about $17 million more than what the plane’s supporters said they would cost a decade ago.

Critics say Lockheed could set its own price in a cost-plus contract, even though the plane has had problems in combat several years after delivery of the first aircraft. Self believes the planes are a big improvement over the older C-130Es, which have been the workhorse at LRAFB for decades. Three more J model planes are scheduled for delivery to the base in December, but their future depends on the outcome of the auditors’ report.

“We’re not limited to seven,” Self said, explaining that he expected more C-130Js would be assgned to the base. The challenge is to make sure Congress and civilians in the Pentagon approve the C-130J as “a weapons commodity,” Self said.
Some community council members voiced surprise that the C-130J, whose production has been on-again and off-again, has yet to receive the go-ahead for more orders and whose combat-worthiness is still under review.

Self said the new planes “are a hybrid” between the C-130Es and the C-17s. While the C-17s can carry huge amounts of cargo into a theater, the C-130s can hop around in war zones indefinitely. Besides two C-130Js, the Air Force has sent 64 C-130Es to Iraq, several of them from LRAFB.

Self told the community council that the older C-130Es have a maximum flight-life of 45,000 hours. They can be refurbished for $10 million each, but the general wondered if it might not be more cost-effective to buy more C-130Js. Lockheed Martin has sold more than 50 C-130Js to the U.S. military, in addition to foreign markets, but their domestic production has slowed.
Self said the new planes have a better view for the pilots and take off faster than the old planes.

The new plane can cruise at 30,000 feet with a range of 3,000 miles. It can deliver 39 percent more paratroopers or 50 percent more payload and needs a three-person flight crew as opposed to the five-person crews on the older planes.
According to Lockheed-Martin, the C-130J has all-new avionics, as well as more powerful engines, six-blade propellers, 50 percent greater range with a standard load, 25 percent higher cruising ceiling, 50 percent faster time-to-climb, 12 percent increase in maximum speed and 17 percent greater fuel efficiency.

The C-130J has room for eight pallets instead of the six on the old planes, Self said. The maximum takeoff weight is 164,000 pounds, with a maximum payload of 48,000 pounds. The plane can fly 660 kilometers-an-hour and takes off or lands on runways as short as 1,500 feet. Lockheed Martin says overall, the C-130J boasts a 50 percent improvement in reliability and maintainability and 68 percent reduction in maintenance man-hours.