|C-5 upgrade might not fly in Congress Decision will affect future of Dover AFB|
September 21, 2009
By JAMES MERRIWEATHER
The News Journal
DOVER -- A week ago Sunday, the pilot and crew of a new C-5M Super Galaxy, the souped-up version of the giant cargo aircraft that has been whining over Dover for more than 38 years, set out to see what the new plane could really do.
Carrying a payload of 176,610 pounds, the aircraft, dubbed "The Spirit of Normandy," climbed to an altitude of 41,188 feet in 23 minutes and 53 seconds, a new world record for jets weighing 551,155 to 661,386 pounds. In rising to that height so quickly and flying horizontally when it got there, the C-5M broke seven other records and set first-time standards in 33 categories that had not been documented previously.
So far, only three C-5 Galaxy aircraft have been retrofitted with new avionics and new engines to become C-5Ms, and all three are assigned to Dover Air Force Base.
The planes essentially are demonstration aircraft, intended to show the worthiness of equipping all 111 of the jet aircraft in the Air Force's C-5 fleet with new avionics.
Lt. Col. Scott Erickson, who has been flying the C-5M since the first one was delivered to Dover in February, is sold on the modified aircraft. He serves as chief of C-5M training for Reserve pilots at DAFB and was the pilot of the record-breaking Sept. 13 flight.
"We're in a familiarization period with the M model, and ground crews, flight crews and everybody are using this time to get familiar with the aircraft," Erickson said a few days after the 90-minute flight that may prove to be historic -- provided the records are certified by the National Aeronautic Association, the arbiter of U.S. records.
"This is all a good part of the process, for us to explore the full envelope of the aircraft."
Count Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and lots of other congressmen among those who aren't likely to be impressed with the C-5M accomplishments. They're resisting the Obama administration's call for a shutdown of the assembly line for Boeing's C-17 Globemaster III, describing that newer, smaller plane as the best alternative for the military's airlift needs while sending signals that the C-5 modernization program may be cut short.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Air Force has enough C-17s -- if congressional designs come to pass, the fleet will total 223 aircraft, up from an original order of 180. Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has amended the administration's spending plan for the year that begins Oct. 1 to include $674 million for three new C-17s. The Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Inouye, went the House panel one better, agreeing unanimously to provide $2.59 billion for 10 additional C-17s -- in addition to eight aircraft included in a supplemental fiscal 2009 spending bill signed by President Barack Obama in June. Both committees deleted $91.4 million requested by Gates for shutting down Boeing's C-17 assembly line.
The administration requested $606.9 million for C-5 modernization, but the House committee cut $56.6 million as "funding ahead of need," while the Senate panel cut $45.1 million for the same reason.
Murtha, acknowledging that the jobs of constituents figured in his support for C-17s, noted in a speech at a technology conference in March that one Air Force official had described the C-17 as the "backbone of the nation's strategic air mobility fleet."
"It's time to re-evaluate how large of a C-5A fleet we need," he said, casting a cloud over plans for installing new avionics in the oldest C-5s, "and the committee is looking into the cost of continuing to operate these legacy aircraft."
Inouye offered even more ominous remarks as his committee began its rewrite of the administration's military budget proposal, which was unanimously approved by the committee on Sept. 10.
"The administration has recently been provided with authority to retire the aging, hard-to-maintain, and often broken C-5A force," Inouye said in a statement.
"We expect that in re-examining its airlift fleet, the Defense Department will eventually conclude that purchasing additional C-17s and maintaining the strategic asset of a hot airlift production line is the right solution."
Advantages of C-17
The C-17, deployed in June 1993, is cherished for its ability to use relatively short, unimproved runways, and typically, it's much more reliable than the aging C-5s, the first of which was deployed in 1969. The C-5's redeeming quality is its size, which makes it able to haul more cargo than the C-17. The C-5, for instance, can carry two M-1 Abrams tanks, the Army's main battle tank, while the C-17 can carry just one.
With the C-17s having proved their worth, the C-5 came under attack in the mid-'90s from congressmen and others as a maintenance nightmare. At the time, reliability rates were measured as low as 50 percent, meaning the planes were fit to fly only about half of the time -- even as some planes were cannibalized for parts to keep other planes flying. However, Lockheed Martin, the C-5 manufacturer, asserted that the frames of even the oldest C-5s were good for up to 40 more years and persuaded Congress to embrace the avionics modernization program in 1998. The engine replacement plan was approved a few years later.
From the start, Delaware's congressional delegation, spearheading an effort among C-5 supporters, has helped keep the modernization program on track against long odds through three administrations.
The avionics work is being done by Lockheed teams hosted by DAFB and Travis Air Force Base, Calif., with the planes being flown to Lockheed in Marietta, Ga., for installation of the new, more powerful GE commercial engines. In starting the avionics upgrade program in 2004, Lockheed said it would take on up to 18 local workers at Dover.
So far, 55 C-5s -- including all 50 C-5Bs, 49 of which are slated for new engines -- have been equipped with new avionics. Last month, the first C-5 -- the first "B" model to roll off the assembly line in 1985, which was based at Dover -- was "inducted" into the regular re-engining production line and is expected to be returned to the base in a year or so.
If current plans hold, two C-5Cs, modified to carry outsized loads for NASA, and one "A" model also will get new engines by 2016.
"The C-5's wings and fuselage were carefully evaluated and examined by experts, who concluded that there's another 30 to 40 years of useful life in the basic airframe of the C-5," U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said in a telephone interview.
"The C-17 is a great airplane, but we don't need to continue to run the C-17 production line indefinitely. Parts for the C-17 are built in probably close to 45 states, and a lot of representatives and senators see it as a jobs program. The C-5M carries roughly twice as much cargo and flies almost twice as far without refueling, and we can modernize anywhere from two to three C-5s for the price of one new C-17."
The Air Mobility Command, DAFB's parent organization, lists the cost of C-5 modernization at $90 million per plane in "fiscal 2009 constant dollars." The cost of a C-17 is listed at $202.3 million in "constant fiscal 1998 dollars."
Delaware's delegation continued to push for C-5 modernization even after DAFB was scheduled in 2002 to get 13 C-17s, the last of which was delivered last October. Dover retained 18 of the C-5B aircraft, first deployed in 1986, as 18 older "A" models were assigned to National Guard units around the country.
Better for DAFB
U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., said DAFB supporters always had their eyes on the C-17, but wanted to modernize the C-5s as well.
"The C-5M program was essential in maintaining the C-5," Castle said, "and I think we've been successful. I rely on experts at DAFB in reaching that conclusion.
"We're very content to have that mix of C-5s and C-17s, and I'm delighted that the president is recommending continuing the C-5 modernization because that, in my judgment, means DAFB remains that much more viable."
Now, Carper said, it's up to Lockheed to blunt arguments from critics by living up to promises made to win grudging congressional approval for the modernization program.
"The key is for Lockheed to deliver what they're contractually required to deliver," he said.
"They need to deliver C-5Ms at the agreed-to price, and those aircraft have to meet a high rate of mission capability, in excess of 75 percent. If Lockheed does their job, it makes my job a whole lot easier."
No firm reliability measurements are yet available, but Steve Knoblock, Lockheed's lead C-5M test pilot, said anecdotal evidence suggests that the airplane is measuring up to the mission-capable rate quoted by Carper. With the spotlight shining brightly on the plane's performance capabilities, Knoblock said, it should be noted that increased reliability was the main objective of the modernization program.
"Those airplanes have been flying every week, as scheduled, and pretty much on time," he said of the C-5Ms.
Erickson, the lead Reserve pilot trainer at DAFB, agreed. "The flight cancellation rate, anecdotally, is markedly improved," he said.
But still, it's the modernized C-5's engines, widely used on commercial aircraft, that have DAFB's pilots singing its praises. Lockheed credits the engines with empowering the Super Galaxy to climb higher and faster than so-called "legacy" C-5s while carrying more cargo over longer distances.
C-5M has more thrust
Accomplishing one notable feat in May, a C-5M bearing a crew from Dover and 90,000 pounds of cargo bound for Iraq flew nonstop to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, skipping the normal fueling stop at Rota, Spain. According to Lockheed, the aircraft consumed 13 percent less fuel than what would have been used by other C-5s, saved 30,000 pounds of fuel by eliminating the stop, and was able to complete its mission in two days instead of the customary three.
"You're talking about saving two or three hours of ground time, five hours with descent," Erickson said.
"If we needed to, we could get cargo into Iraq. That's something nobody else is going to do without a tanker" for refueling.
The four new turbofan engines are credited with increasing thrust by 22 percent, which, in Knoblock's words, "is like adding a fifth engine to a B model." It's those engines, Erickson said, that make the C-5M a joy to fly.
"Very much," he said when asked if he liked flying the new plane. "I don't know of many pilots who would turn down extra thrust."
With that, Erickson, Knoblock and four other crewmen departed from interviews in the 436th Airlift Wing's operations center to check out the capabilities of the only "A" model modernized for testing purposes, which was delivered a week or so earlier. Plans were for a local four-hour instrument training mission featuring tactical maneuvers and touch-and-go landings.
As an aside, Erickson said the C-5M's new engines meet the highest standard for aircraft quietness, offering a major benefit for people who live in or near flight paths and get regularly rattled by the distinctive high-pitch whine of departing C-5s.
"The C-5M is the quietest plane at Dover Air Force Base now," Erickson said. "It's even quieter than the C-17s."
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