Springer Journal: Their Backs Are Breaking
Posted February 23, 2005 7:49 a.m. EST
PINEHURST, N.C. — "Their backs are breaking" doesn't seem like a statement one would make about airplanes. However, it does serve as a fitting remark for many of the old, weary and physically abused C-130E Hercules transport planes.
Recently there have been several media reports on the Pope AFB C-130E center wing box cracks. Additionally, several members of the United States Congress have queried the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff about the future of the C-130E and its replacement.
Center wing box cracks are serious business. Essentially, the center wing box defines the area of the aircraft where the wings are mated to the fuselage. Cracks in this sensitive area of the airframe could lead to disastrous results. Some readers may recall seeing the TV video of a civilian forest fire fighting C-130 which lost a wing as it was pulling up from dispensing its fire suppression foam a few years ago out west. As I recall this incident, the right wing simply separated from the fuselage causing the aircraft to roll over and crash.
There are fixes available, but they are timely and costly. Considering the age of these C-130E's, and the stresses that have been placed on them over four decades, it may not make sense to send good money (to repair) after bad money (on old, weary and heavily stressed aircraft.) Depending on the severity of the cracks the aircraft may fly under specific restrictions. For example, they may be used for aircrew training without any troops or cargo in the back end. There may be limits to the speed and the payload that each of the restricted C-130E's may fly.
I first checked out as a pilot in the C-130E over 40 years ago. I flew them for nearly 25 years in one capacity or another. In the past four decades these aircraft have endured great stress. They often fly at very low altitude and in formation. The ground turbulence coupled with the turbulence generated by other aircraft within the formation has taken its toll. The C-130E as a tactical airlifter was designed to land on short unprepared runways. That means that sometimes they land on "dirt" and not on concrete or asphalt. That too places a heavy stress on the airframes.
Since the first models of the C-130 were built in the 1950's they have performed well beyond what they were envisioned to do. In addition to the transport function, they have served missions such as gunships, weather reconnaissance, air refueling, electronic reconnaissance, air rescue and recovery, TV and radio transmission for psychological operations, aerial spraying, fire fighting, aeromedical evacuation and others. They have served their nation well. But they are tired ... their backs are breaking ... they need to be replaced.
Fortunately for America, and more specifically our armed forces, there is a replacement on scene. The most recent model of the C-130 is the "J" model. The first of the C-130J's entered active service in 1999. The early J's incorporated the original airframe, but replaced the old four bladed prop with a six bladed propeller and a significantly enhanced engine. Current state of the art avionics and instrument displays brought the 1950 era C-130 into the 21st century. Additionally, the five plus member aircrew requirement of the older C-130's was reduced to a three man crew. Two pilots and one loadmaster, aided by some significant automation, can now perform the duties which require five or more crewmembers in the earlier models. This is a considerable cost advantage over the life of the aircraft.
The -30 is a stretched version of the J (identified as the C-130J-30) which has a 15 foot fuselage extension. This permits a much larger payload to complement the greater speed, altitude and range provided by the enhanced Rolls Royce engine.
While there have been some serious development and production issues with the J model, most of these are being resolved and, in fact, there are a few J's operating in the Iraq theater of operations currently.
Why all the concern about the C-130's now? As they say, "timing is everything." President Bush's budget proposal recently submitted to congress called for canceling the out year production of the C-130J model aircraft. Within days of that budget submission, the discovery of the center wing box cracks became public.
Alas, the future of the C-130 model fleet has become a focus of considerable concern in Washington, DC. Members of congress from North Carolina are naturally concerned because of the impact on Pope AFB which is programmed to receive C-130J's. Members from Georgia are energized because the C-130J production facilities reside in their state. I suspect there will be overwhelming congressional pressure to continue the C-130J production line and that money will be found in the DOD budget to make it happen.
Dozens of countries around the globe own and fly various models of the C-130 aircraft. It has been a tremendous success in many different roles for over a half of a century. The administration's budget proposal to cut the production of the C-130 replacement aircraft was a financial decision. It was not a military decision based on the absolute need for a modern tactical airlift aircraft for the future. The missions envisioned for the current production aircraft have not gone away. Even considering the politics involved, Congress has it right. The C-130J production line must continue. Our nation needs it!