Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fort Worth airmen work to cut fighter jets' fuel consumption

Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison

Tech Sgt. Dominic Ortega gets an F-16 ready for a training mission at the 301st Fighter Wing maintenance facility at Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

FORT WORTH -- The 301st Fighter Wing flies 25-year-old F-16 Vipers with a contingent of pilots and maintainers who are overwhelmingly part-timers.

But the Fort Worth-based wing, the largest in all of the Air Force Reserve, is still on the cutting edge, serving as a test bed for two major environmental studies related to fuel consumption.

"We're all taxpayers too, and we want to contribute to any effort that helps with efficiencies," said Lt. Col. Max Stitzer, commander of the wing's maintenance group. "It's easy to say yes to these projects."

The first test, earlier this year, tested the F-16s' ability to burn a synthetic biofuel in lieu of JP-8, the standard military fuel for years.

The wing is involved in an Air Force study to find the most fuel-efficient methods of takeoffs, landings and transits to reduce, even slightly, the amount of gas burned in training sorties.

The Air Force, the reserve and the Air National Guard own 1,200 F-16s nationwide, and the high-performance fighter is a prodigious fuel drinker. Overall, the Air Force spends in excess of $7 billion a year on fuel for its entire cargo and tactical fleet.

"We need to be turning over every rock," said Kevin T. Geiss, deputy assistant secretary for energy in the Air Force. "In the context of a decreasing defense budget, everything is on the table."

No concerns from pilots

The 301st Fighter Wing, based at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, has about 2,000 people, about 75 percent of whom are traditional reservists with civilian jobs. Although the unit has numerous support squadrons, the backbone of the wing is the 457th Fighter Squadron, its 27 jets and the maintenance crew that keeps them operational.

Eighteen times a day, on average, an F-16 takes off from the naval air station, bound for training areas near Brownwood, Possum Kingdom Lake or Lawton, Okla., to practice air-to-ground bombing runs or air-to-air battles.

Compared to a multi-engine cargo aircraft, the single-engine F-16 has "a little bit tighter window to impact fuel utilization," Geiss said.

In the spring, some of the wing's F-16s took off with a fuel that was only 50 percent JP-8; the rest was an alternative fuel called synthetic paraffinic kerosene, which has less sulfur and releases fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

The Air Force is working on switching more of its aircraft -- all types -- to fuel that is more "green," both for environmental reasons and to reduce reliance on foreign oil.

The pilots had no concern over the new fuel, said Lt. Col. Kevin Zeller, an F-16 pilot since 1997, because just about any fuel "will burn if you light it."

"There were no performance issues at all," Zeller said.

The bigger issue was whether the synthetic blended fuel would cause headaches for the maintenance crews, who noticed no difference in how the parts reacted, Stitzer said.

$100 million in fuel savings

A few months later, the 301st was asked to participate in an Energy Analysis Task Force project involving the F-16's flight profile.

The study, which began in May and ends this month, involves studying the flight data recorders for clues on how to get the best fuel efficiency when the F-16s are flying to the training ranges and back.

No one is suggesting trying to squeeze savings from the actual training exercises, when the jets burn the most fuel on high-speed turns and steep ascents.

But Jared Scott, the program manager at the Pentagon, said it is possible that flying slightly differently could save 100 pounds of fuel per sortie. Spread across all F-16s, he said, that could mean saving $100 million in fuel a year.

"But that's why we're doing the study -- to verify if those savings are achievable and prove out what the roadblocks we would have to overcome to implement it at a fighter wing," Scott said.

The study has been received a bit skeptically, however, by Zeller, the wing's operational support flight commander. He said the pilots are already focused on fuel efficiency going to and from the training areas, and he doubts that much more knowledge can be gained.

"We don't want to waste the gas getting there, and we want only the amount of gas left to get us home safely," he said. "We already have that incentive because we want the most gas possible for the training."

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