The C-130 is a 4 engine tactical transport aircraft built by Lockheed that over the years has become the principle tactical airlift platform for militaries worldwide. C-130s in the US inventory in particular have been under intense utilization by all services as the number of engagements, small wars and insurgencies not to mention the current global war on terror drag on. In addition to the explicitly military role that many of these planes take on, they are also called on to assist with natural disasters and any circumstance where people and goods are expected on short notice in remote portions of the world.
Though the C-130 is still in production, it is a venerable aircraft design that goes back to the 1950s and while that seems old, the fundamental design is solid and these aircraft if properly maintained can continue in service for many years to come, saving the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard not to mention the taxpayer many hundreds of millions of dollars. This of course brings us to the subject of this entry. A couple of weeks ago, once again I made the trip up to Hill AFB this time to capture some images of the C-130 maintenance line and the hard working people of the 309th Maintenance Wing that work to maintain this aircraft in the face of high utilization. This utilization is typically double what it was just 7 years ago and results in much faster airframe fatigue.
While a brand new C-130J has a purchase price of approximately $60 million, refurbishing a used C-130 only requires a small fraction of that price. However, performing that work requires a highly trained workforce that ensures the aircraft are reliable and safe under hard usage. This is especially important given the structural cracks that have been found in some older C-130s that have resulted in at least two instances of aircraft folding its wings in flight while fighting forest fires. So as part of the work on these airframes, maintenance crew at two repair and refurbishment depots, one at Hill AFB and the other at Robins AFB work tirelessly in the face of worker shortages to survey, repair and refurbish these aircraft.
Aircraft are brought into dedicated facilities and the process of stripping them down begins. Landing gears, engines, are removed and rebuilt along with any avionics and flight control systems that need repair. The aircraft are then stripped of paint where further inspections and repair can take place.
Much of the repair entails replacing portions of wings, repairing corrosion and making structural upgrades to keep these aircraft flying and it is one of the most important missions in the U.S. military and is critically important to our foreign policy as well. One of the critical areas that the crew at Hill AFB focus on is the “rainbow fitting”, a junction where the outer wing connects with the center wing box. Previous protocols required the removal of every rivet in the rainbow fitting at great time and risk of damage to the fitting. However, new high energy ultrasound technology borrowed from commercial airline inspection allows the inspection of the rainbow fitting in much less time with less risk to the structural components of the airframe.
Another huge improvement in maintenance has been the implementation of work stands or platforms with integral fire suppression, built in electrical distribution and lighting that allow for a solid work surface providing easy access to all of the airframe components. This reduces the risk of falls, reduces fatigue on the technical staff, enables easier access to tools and ultimately results in a faster turnaround time for the C-130. One of the technicians told me that with the new system, “Rather than having to climb down and reposition a ladder to, I can simply walk to another section of wing”
C-130s currently in service date from the 1960s all the way through brand new C-130Js, but every 69 months, they rotate through a programmed depot maintenance either at Hill AFB or Robins AFB and over the course of the next approximately 150 days, the aircraft will be stripped down to the base airframe where sheet metal repair, structural repair and corrosion control takes place. Landing gears, engines, wiring and hydraulics are all repaired or replaced as needed and the aircraft is then reassembled and painted prior to check flights. All told, approximately 20,000 man hours go into each refurbishment and the folks at Hill AFB are some of the most efficient in the business.
Because these airframes date from the 60s (50s in some cases), there are old school elements still found in them like the pencil sharpener shown above.
Thanks to my handlers up at Hill AFB, Bill Orndorff and Mike Martinez.
A final note: I met Mr. Dolan pictured above, who is the deputy flight test chief of the C-130 maintenance line. After asking about the person on his computer screen he told me that that his son, Dan Dolan the young man pictured on his computer screen, was killed in action in Iraq on August 27th, 2006. Dan was 19 years old and was the driver of a Stryker armored combat vehicle that was struck by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Mr. Dolan was very kind and took the time to share with us memories of his sons life and told us about the memorials being erected in honor of his son’s sacrifice. This is the kind of thing that punches you in the gut and intimately personifies the work being performed here. Its easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the mission of the 309th maintenance wing, but ultimately it comes down to the people performing the mission, their sacrifice, motivations and the dedication of the family and friends around them.
A tribute by Mr. Dolan to his son can be seen here.
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