Costly midair refueling becomes routine on Perry trips Defense secretary taps expensive travel privilege

July 29, 1996|By NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON -- Midair refueling, a costly maneuver once reserved for combat missions, has become routine on trips taken by Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

Last week, while he was traveling to Australia, three separate Air Force tanker missions, costing an estimated $45,910, refueled the defense chief's plane before it arrived in Sydney.

Perry is the first and only government official to use Air Force tankers regularly for nonstop trips. Even Air Force One with President Clinton aboard lands to refuel on longer hauls. But Perry's aides argue that he flies nonstop to save time for his work schedule.

The defense chief flew to Australia for a ministerial meeting last week in an Air Force Boeing 747-200, a plane routinely configured by commercial airlines to carry more than 400 passengers. The plane flew from Andrews Air Force Base to Sydney after being refueled over the United States, off the coast of the state of Washington and west of Hawaii.

The refueling was done by Air Force tankers from three different bases.

"The secretary flies nonstop," the Pentagon said in a statement responding to Newsday questions about the Perry trip. "If the secretary used a VC-137 [the Air Force version of a 707], the trip would require three refueling stops, adding one additional travel day to the secretary's schedule."

A VC-137 cannot be refueled in midair. Not counting the costs of the flight crew or refueling, the 707 costs $1,975 an hour to operate, according to the Air Force. But Perry's 747, using the same operational yardstick, costs $4,479 an hour. Including refueling costs, Perry's one-way trip to Sydney cost $137,729.

The Sydney trip offers some insight into Washington, where one of Clinton's political appointees has adapted a piece of Cold War machinery into a pricey time-saver. And, according to critics of Pentagon waste, it is an example of why the government will wind up with a $115 billion to $130 billion budget deficit this year.

While Republicans in Congress have criticized other Clinton Cabinet members for excessive travel costs, particularly Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, there has been little controversy surrounding Perry's high-flying expenditures.

"It would seem he is placing comfort and convenience above national security and prudent use of scarce tax dollars," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and a budget committee member who objected to both the use of the 747 and the refueling.

According to the Air Force and Perry aides, KC-135s, the tanker version of the Boeing 707, cost $2,050 an hour for each refueling session.

If a KC-10 -- the Air Force tanker version of the the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 -- is used, the cost is $1,986 an hour.

From Travis Air Force Base, Calif., a KC-10 tanker refueled Perry's plane over the Western states. That three-hour, 33-minute fill-up cost about $7,050.

According to the Air Force Air Mobility Command, the next refueling required a KC-135 tanker to fly from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., then to stop in Hawaii to top off, and then intercept Perry's plane over the Pacific before returning to Fairchild. That 16-hour replenishment mission cost $32,800.

The third refueling by a Hawaii National Guard KC-135 tanker took almost three hours, or another $6,060, bringing the total one-way costs to $137,729.

Not included in Perry's costs was the payroll of a second flight crew needed to provide pilot relief during the nonstop mission. If the cost of the 35 crew members was included, some Pentagon officials say the Perry plane would cost $17,000 an hour to operate.

Perry's trip to Australia was the 17th time he has used the 747 and the 13th occasion when it was refueled in midair, according to Pentagon records.

The technique was developed for Strategic Air Command bombers, then refined and expanded for all U.S. warplanes during the Vietnam and Persian Gulf conflicts.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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