Just Plane Old: The Air Force's Aging Fleet




 
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February 28th, 2007  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: Just Plane Old: The Air Force's Aging Fleet


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
February 27, 2007
Pg. 1

By Dave Montgomery, Star-Telegram Staff Writer
WASHINGTON At a time when the nation is at war on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force is also battling another enemy age.
The average age of military aircraft in 1973 during the Vietnam War was nine years. Today, the average is 24 years, and venerable planes like the KC-135 Stratotanker and the B-52H Stratofortress are well into their 40s, nearly twice as old as some of their pilots.
"These are geriatric airplanes," says Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former F-15 Eagle pilot who is now deputy Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Today, nearly four years into the Iraq war, more than 800 aircraft 14 percent of the fleet are grounded or operating under flying restrictions. In turn, overall combat readiness has declined by 17 percent, in part because of "the aging fleet and our ability to get those airplanes in the air," Maj. Gen. Frank Faykes said a budget briefing early this month.
The age issue has become a source of alarm for the Air Force leadership, which is pushing against rising budget pressures to modernize and restock the fleet.
"It was a looming crisis," says Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "And now, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a looming disaster."
Deptula recites a personal vignette to illustrate the problem.
In 1979, when he was a young pilot at Kadena Air Base in Japan, he flew a fresh-off-the-assembly-line F-15 just as the superhot fighters were entering service. Twenty years later, he was flying the same jet to enforce a no-fly zone over Iraq when half the lights in his cockpit suddenly flashed on, signaling a serious malfunction.
"I had never seen anything like this," he recalled. After he landed, the maintenance team discovered that decaying insulation around the emergency-light wiring had disintegrated, causing a short.
"The question is what's going to go wrong next," the three-star general said. "We have never flown fighters this old. If you're driving a 28-year-old car, you can expect some problems. And 28-year-old cars don't go flying around at 700 miles per hour and pull 9 G's."
There's an epilogue to Deptula's story. His son followed him into the Air Force and is now flying the same vintage F-15s piloted by his father.
Tragic consequences
With the Air Force in its 60th-anniversary year, anecdotes like Deptula's echo throughout the service, sometimes with tragic endings.
In 2002, Maj. James Duricy died after he ejected from his F-15 when it lost part of its tail while flying over the Gulf of Mexico out of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The Air Force subsequently replaced vertical stabilizers on nearly half its F-15 fleet after discovering that so-called water intrusion was causing internal corrosion.
Nearly every other legacy aircraft in the fleet manifests the wear and tear of years in most cases, decades of service. Moreover, the aging process accelerates dramatically for the fighters, tankers, transports and helicopters pressed into action in Iraq or Afghanistan, often because of the added stress of combat maneuvers or the sandy, wind-tossed environment of the Middle East.
The F-15, once the world's premier aircraft, is the equivalent of a racehorse past its prime. It was built to fly at Mach 2.3 nearly 2 1/2 times the speed of sound but pilots are now ordered to never exceed Mach 1.5 on training missions, to avoid overtaxing the aging aircraft.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon, which generated thousands of jobs for defense workers at the west side aircraft plant in Fort Worth, is also showing its years. Its manufacturers first General Dynamics and later Lockheed Martin sold 2,230 F-16s to the Air Force from 1978 until the service stopped buying the fighter in 2005.
The single-engine fighter was intended to be the lightweight, less expensive companion to the F-15 and was "not designed to have a long life," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. But the F-16 fleet now has an average age of 17.1 years, and the fighter has been plagued by age-related engine problems and metal fatigue in its airframe.
Consequently, the Air Force has sought to extend the F-16's life through structural modifications aimed at keeping it in service through the next decade. The work is being done at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, under a $1 billion program called Falcon STAR.
Maintenance challenges
Keeping flying clunkers aloft also presents big challenges for maintenance crews. Maintenance costs have increased 38 percent from 1996 to 2006, says retired Col. Mark Johnson, the Air Force's deputy director of maintenance. Maintenance man-hours have increased by 50 percent, compared with flying hours. The workload for heavy repairs is up 41 percent.
After more than a century of flight, what to do about old aircraft both military and commercial has increasingly become an aviation focal point. The Aging Aircraft Laboratory has been in operation since 2002 as part of the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.
Old aerial behemoths like the C-130 Hercules and KC-135 Stratotanker are perennial targets of concern. After discovering cracks in the wing boxes of older C-130s, the Air Force grounded those transports that had passed 45,000 flying hours and ordered restricted missions for those with at least 37,000 hours.
The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, has made replacing the 48-year-old Stratotanker one of his priorities. The Boeing Co. and its European rival, Airbus, are competing for a contract that could ultimately be worth $100 billion to build a new tanker fleet.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram last week, Moseley warned that the Air Force will need a lot more money to revitalize its aircraft. The Air Force has proposed a $154 billion budget for fiscal 2008, including $17 billion related to the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has already told Congress that it really needs $17 billion more. To buy new aircraft of all types, the Air Force is likely to need an additional $20 billion per year or more beyond its projected budgets for 2008 and beyond, Moseley said.
High on the priority list are Lockheed Martin's next-generation fighters, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, also known as the joint strike fighter.
Some critics suggest that the Air Force's problems are largely of its own making, because for two decades its leaders have focused almost solely on developing and now acquiring the F-22 at a cost approaching $40 billion.
Leaders in the Democratic-controlled Congress acknowledge the problems but have also indicated that supporting troops in the field takes priority over costly acquisition programs. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees tactical aircraft programs, said in a phone interview that he plans to take a hard look at the Air Force's spending request.
"The days of rubber-stamping, the days of winking and nodding and once-over-lightly are over," he said.
Staff writer Bob Cox contributed to this report.
March 4th, 2007  
A Can of Man
 
 
Maybe we need to make airplanes again if there's no suitable replacement that doesn't cost a trillion dollars apeice.
March 4th, 2007  
MontyB
 
 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Team Infidel
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
February 27, 2007
Pg. 1

By Dave Montgomery, Star-Telegram Staff Writer
WASHINGTON At a time when the nation is at war on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force is also battling another enemy age.
The average age of military aircraft in 1973 during the Vietnam War was nine years. Today, the average is 24 years, and venerable planes like the KC-135 Stratotanker and the B-52H Stratofortress are well into their 40s, nearly twice as old as some of their pilots.
"These are geriatric airplanes," says Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former F-15 Eagle pilot who is now deputy Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Today, nearly four years into the Iraq war, more than 800 aircraft 14 percent of the fleet are grounded or operating under flying restrictions. In turn, overall combat readiness has declined by 17 percent, in part because of "the aging fleet and our ability to get those airplanes in the air," Maj. Gen. Frank Faykes said a budget briefing early this month.
The age issue has become a source of alarm for the Air Force leadership, which is pushing against rising budget pressures to modernize and restock the fleet.
"It was a looming crisis," says Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "And now, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a looming disaster."
Deptula recites a personal vignette to illustrate the problem.
In 1979, when he was a young pilot at Kadena Air Base in Japan, he flew a fresh-off-the-assembly-line F-15 just as the superhot fighters were entering service. Twenty years later, he was flying the same jet to enforce a no-fly zone over Iraq when half the lights in his cockpit suddenly flashed on, signaling a serious malfunction.
"I had never seen anything like this," he recalled. After he landed, the maintenance team discovered that decaying insulation around the emergency-light wiring had disintegrated, causing a short.
"The question is what's going to go wrong next," the three-star general said. "We have never flown fighters this old. If you're driving a 28-year-old car, you can expect some problems. And 28-year-old cars don't go flying around at 700 miles per hour and pull 9 G's."
There's an epilogue to Deptula's story. His son followed him into the Air Force and is now flying the same vintage F-15s piloted by his father.
Tragic consequences
With the Air Force in its 60th-anniversary year, anecdotes like Deptula's echo throughout the service, sometimes with tragic endings.
In 2002, Maj. James Duricy died after he ejected from his F-15 when it lost part of its tail while flying over the Gulf of Mexico out of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The Air Force subsequently replaced vertical stabilizers on nearly half its F-15 fleet after discovering that so-called water intrusion was causing internal corrosion.
Nearly every other legacy aircraft in the fleet manifests the wear and tear of years in most cases, decades of service. Moreover, the aging process accelerates dramatically for the fighters, tankers, transports and helicopters pressed into action in Iraq or Afghanistan, often because of the added stress of combat maneuvers or the sandy, wind-tossed environment of the Middle East.
The F-15, once the world's premier aircraft, is the equivalent of a racehorse past its prime. It was built to fly at Mach 2.3 nearly 2 1/2 times the speed of sound but pilots are now ordered to never exceed Mach 1.5 on training missions, to avoid overtaxing the aging aircraft.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon, which generated thousands of jobs for defense workers at the west side aircraft plant in Fort Worth, is also showing its years. Its manufacturers first General Dynamics and later Lockheed Martin sold 2,230 F-16s to the Air Force from 1978 until the service stopped buying the fighter in 2005.
The single-engine fighter was intended to be the lightweight, less expensive companion to the F-15 and was "not designed to have a long life," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. But the F-16 fleet now has an average age of 17.1 years, and the fighter has been plagued by age-related engine problems and metal fatigue in its airframe.
Consequently, the Air Force has sought to extend the F-16's life through structural modifications aimed at keeping it in service through the next decade. The work is being done at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, under a $1 billion program called Falcon STAR.
Maintenance challenges
Keeping flying clunkers aloft also presents big challenges for maintenance crews. Maintenance costs have increased 38 percent from 1996 to 2006, says retired Col. Mark Johnson, the Air Force's deputy director of maintenance. Maintenance man-hours have increased by 50 percent, compared with flying hours. The workload for heavy repairs is up 41 percent.
After more than a century of flight, what to do about old aircraft both military and commercial has increasingly become an aviation focal point. The Aging Aircraft Laboratory has been in operation since 2002 as part of the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.
Old aerial behemoths like the C-130 Hercules and KC-135 Stratotanker are perennial targets of concern. After discovering cracks in the wing boxes of older C-130s, the Air Force grounded those transports that had passed 45,000 flying hours and ordered restricted missions for those with at least 37,000 hours.
The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, has made replacing the 48-year-old Stratotanker one of his priorities. The Boeing Co. and its European rival, Airbus, are competing for a contract that could ultimately be worth $100 billion to build a new tanker fleet.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram last week, Moseley warned that the Air Force will need a lot more money to revitalize its aircraft. The Air Force has proposed a $154 billion budget for fiscal 2008, including $17 billion related to the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has already told Congress that it really needs $17 billion more. To buy new aircraft of all types, the Air Force is likely to need an additional $20 billion per year or more beyond its projected budgets for 2008 and beyond, Moseley said.
High on the priority list are Lockheed Martin's next-generation fighters, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, also known as the joint strike fighter.
Some critics suggest that the Air Force's problems are largely of its own making, because for two decades its leaders have focused almost solely on developing and now acquiring the F-22 at a cost approaching $40 billion.
Leaders in the Democratic-controlled Congress acknowledge the problems but have also indicated that supporting troops in the field takes priority over costly acquisition programs. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees tactical aircraft programs, said in a phone interview that he plans to take a hard look at the Air Force's spending request.
"The days of rubber-stamping, the days of winking and nodding and once-over-lightly are over," he said.
Staff writer Bob Cox contributed to this report.

I would have thought that the aging process could also be put down to more stable designs, during the 60s and 70s there were major strides being made in electronics and avionics there for its not unreasonable to believe that aircraft were being made obsolete quicker where as the last 20 years have seen less radically new technology developed but a lot of refinement to existing technology which will require less "total rebuilds".
--
March 17th, 2007  
The Other Guy
 
 
Why don't we just make like the russians and build cheap, effective aircraft that perform well?

Just don't jump to try to replace the B-52 yet.

The Lancer, Valkyrie, etc. didn't. And they cost us millions.
March 25th, 2007  
MKopack
 
Quote:
Originally Posted by The Other Guy
Why don't we just make like the russians and build cheap, effective aircraft that perform well?
Who wants cheap and effective aircraft that will compete well against each other in a fair fight? Not me.

I want dominance. I want 100 to 0 kill ratios. A 'fair fight' is for losers, I want the simple prospect of fighting one of our aircraft to be so scary that a potential adversary thinks twice - or even decides it's not worth it.

Talk to anyone, anywhere who has flown against an F-22 and ask them what they think. "It's not even fun to fly against them." "I flew into the box, and I was dead three times. I never even saw them." Ask the RAAF F-15 Eagle pilot (on an exchange tour) who had a Raptor in his HUD at Red Flag - and couldn't get a weapons system lock. No lock, no shot.

Mike
 


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