National Guard looks to improve 'skibird' efficiencies and operations
Posted August 22, 2008
It’s more than just a little bumpy for New York Air National Guard crews taking off from remote field sites in Antarctica, such as the Shackleton Glacier, an area of scientific study and a major river of ice that flows into the Ross Ice Shelf.
“The sheer roughness of the location was such that at times our crews could barely read the instrument panel,” said Lt. Col. George Alston, chief of aircrew training for the 109th Airlift Wing, based at the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, N.Y.
“Sometimes getting the plane off the snow is a huge challenge,” he added.
The Guard, which flies the ski-equipped Lockheed C-130 Hercules for missions around the continent on behalf of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) , has several initiatives in the works to make the unpredictable Antarctic environment a little less challenging while improving fuel and maintenance efficiencies.
One proposed improvement may take to the Antarctic skies this upcoming field season, with one of the “skibirds” sporting eight-bladed propellers versus the standard four-props the Hercs currently use.
“It’s a great feature that we’re testing out and checking its viability,” Alston said.
The 418th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS) at Edwards Air Force Base in California installed the new eight-bladed NP-2000 propellers on a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 in February. Crews are now testing the plane under a variety of conditions.
“The main purpose of replacing the propellers is to see if we can increase the C-130’s take-off performance,” said Donna Knighton, 418th FLTS performance and flying qualities engineer, in a press release from Edwards Air Force Base earlier this year.
The new propeller should provide more thrust at lower air speeds, helping lift the aircraft off the ice, as well as increase the C-130’s climb rate and cruise speed, improve short-field performance and reduce noise and vibration. Compared to the current four-blade propellers, which are very heavy and rectangular, the NP-2000 propellers are lighter and more aerodynamically shaped. Hamilton Sundstrand made the NP-2000 propellers, while Rolls Royce provided the engine.
Photo Credit: Charles Kaminski/Antarctic Photo Library
An LC-130 uses JATO rockets for takeoff.
“If it meets the claims, it’s going to be great. It’s going to do more for less,” Alston said. He estimated the new propellers could increase fuel efficiency by about 5 percent, as well as decrease maintenance time. “It breaks less.”
Another project to help get the C-130s off the ground involves replacing the current stock of jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) rockets. Strapped to the back of the plane to provide extra lift during takeoff, the JATO bottles in use today date back to the 1950s, according to Alston.
“We’re starting to run out of them,” he said. “We got some funding, and we’re trying to get more funding from Congress, to get the supply to where we need it, to continue to do the mission, especially as we look into the possibility of going more and more into the deep field.”
Currently, the Guard primarily flies between the McMurdo and South Pole research stations ferrying people, materials and fuel. But the completion of the new South Pole Station should require fewer flights. In addition, the South Pole Traverse, an over-snow tractor train, will start delivering fuel and materials to 90 degrees south starting this austral summer. Each swing between McMurdo and South Pole equals about 40 LC-130 flights.
Eventually, the National Science Foundation would like to siphon those flights to other parts of the continent to support deep-field science. That’s unlikely to happen this year, however, as the foundation struggles to address a $35 million budget shortfall for the USAP, driven mainly by ballooning fuel costs, a flat-lined budget and a weak U.S. dollar.
Brian Johnson, manager of Field Science Support Services for Raytheon Polar Services, the prime contractor for the USAP, said the LC-130s this season will fly to remote camps at WAIS Divide , an ice-coring project in West Antarctica, and Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province (AGAP), a project in East Antarctica studying a subglacial mountain range. (See related story: Mountainous mystery.)
The skibirds will also deliver materials, including helicopters, for an upcoming project near Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica, one of the fastest moving glaciers on the continent.
“In out years, West Antarctic will continue to be a focal point for science, but I am not sure to what extent,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, with the recent budget constraints, we are still in the project review phases to fully understand the extent of LC-130 use in future seasons.”
For the last four years, the Guard has flown an average of about 500 completed missions, according to Alston. This coming season that number should drop to about 300.
When they happen, flights to the deep field, where groomed ice runways don’t exist, remain a risky venture. In November 1998, for instance, a C-130 broke through the surface of a bridged crevasse when it taxied for takeoff, sinking down to its wings. No one was injured, and the aircraft was later recovered.
“If we want to go to deep-field sites right now, it’s a somewhat cumbersome process,” Alston said. New field sites require upwards of a year for evaluation. Smaller ski-equipped Twin Otter planes will often land at a site first, transporting a snowmobile with crevasse-detection radar.
A new and compact crevasse-detection radar under development would allow the Guard to transfer the radar system between planes. A C-130 could survey a landing zone and set down on the snow all in the same flight, according to Alston.
“It is a huge leap in capability,” he said.
Johnson said he expects the USAP will be eager to use the new technology once it’s tested and ready for use. “This will allow for a quicker and less logistically challenging means to ‘prove’ a new landing area for the larger aircraft,” he said.
All of these initiatives should happen in the next few years, Alston said. “All three of these are things we need sooner rather than later. They all not only improve capability, but they provide economic savings and improve safety margins, too.”