Wednesday, March 15, 2006

TOP STORY >> C-130 repair costs rise

Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: The Air Force will have to pay $9 million for each plane to fix microscopic cracks on the wings of its aging cargo fleet, or about $297 million on aircraft assigned to LRAFB alone.

It will cost the Air Force nearly $700 million — $9 million per plane — to repair microscopic cracks in the wings of its 82 aging C-130 cargo aircraft, including 33 assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base. But the repairs would cost much less than what it would cost to replace all the defective cargo aircraft with the new C-130J model, which has a price tag of between $66.5 million and $90 million each.

Little Rock Air Force Base is waiting to hear when Air Mobility Command will budget the time and $297 million to repair the 33 grounded and restricted aircraft stationed at the base, which account for more than a third of the Air Force’s C-130s needing wing repairs are scattered among the units at the base. 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.

“It’s a very big job,” said Capt. David Faggard, chief of the 314th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office. “It’s not like taking the car to the garage. It takes at least six months to replace the wing-boxes.”

It is not yet known when the planes from Little Rock Air Force Base will be repaired.

Once a timetable is announced, the C-130s that get the repair will be flown to Warner Robins Air Logistics Center at Robins Air Force Base near Macon, Ga.

In 2005, Air Force engineers found microscopic cracking where the wings meet the fuselage, an area called the wing-box, on the 40-year-old C-130E 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 retired, leaving 82 C-130s needing the expensive wing repair.

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.
A wing-box repair plan recently released from the 330th Tactical Air Support Command at Warner Robins Air Force Base details 75 wing-box replacements over the next five years, including one wing-box replacement in 2007, four in 2008, 17 in 2009, 18 in 2010, 18 in 2011 and 17 in 2012, leaving seven C-130s needing the repair.

Warner Robins Air Logistics Center is one of the Air Force’s five air logistics centers that has worldwide management and engineering responsibility for the repair, modification and overhaul of the F-15 Eagle, C-130 Hercules, the C-141 Starlifter, all Air Force helicopters as well as all special operations aircraft and their avionics systems.

Just how long the wing-box repair will extend the life of the C-130s is still in question.

Four years ago, a U. S. Forest Service C-130A that had undergone repairs for wing cracks crashed when its wings snapped off as it flew over a wildfire in Walker, Calif.

While Little Rock Air Force Base awaits the fate of its C-130s, it isn’t letting groundings and restrictions slow down the mission of training C-130 flight, maintenance and ground crews for all branches of the military. “The aircraft being restricted and grounded affects us because we’re doing more missions with less aircraft, but we’re still meeting our mission requirements,” Faggard said. “We’re just doing it in different ways, like borrowing aircraft from other bases, such as Keesler Air Force Base. It’s a pretty common practice,” he said.