Iraq war strains an aging air fleet

In planes with average age of 28, U.S. crews try to keep it all together

Sun Special Report

May 27, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

BAGHDAD -- The midnight run into the combat zone, in a hard-used Air Force C-130 turboprop built during the Kennedy administration, was typical in one respect: Just as it touched down with a belly crammed with combat-loaded troops, one of its four engines flamed out and went dead.

That was after the flight computer blew out, a radar malfunctioned, the navigator's headset stopped working so he couldn't hear anything, and the air conditioner failed. That spiked the temperature well over 110 degrees, and as the flight known as Chrome 31 bucked and heaved on final approach through gusty crosswinds, first one and then another soldier became violently ill.

"OK, I am about out of troubleshooting options," declared Chrome 31's exasperated flight engineer, 28-year-old Staff Sgt. David Baker, whose job is to keep things working.

As the Army and Marine Corps struggle with repeated deployments and shortages of basic equipment in the Iraq war, the strain is less visible but no less painful for the Air Force.

Once the pride of American aerospace - no other military in the world can fly people and military cargo as far and as fast and as efficiently as the United States - U.S. airlift capability has fallen on hard times. Aging aircraft like the C-130 are wearing out just as the demand to move war materiel - ammunition, spare parts, blood and more - has risen to fever grade.

In a generation, the average age of the planes has risen from eight years to 24 years, and the maintenance cost has tripled, to $10 billion a year.

What seems to keep things moving is a stubborn band of air and ground crews who refuse to concede to capricious breakdowns or to the region's blowtorch heat and gale-driven dust storms that fling rocks into engine intakes and bake dirt onto a compressor rotor blade so hard it has to be chiseled off.

Chrome 31's flamed-out engine seemed to be taken as a personal insult by engineer Baker, a bearish man who sparks with nervous energy. On the ground, as the three good engines spun down, he jackknifed out of his cockpit seat and soon had an engine hatch open and was poking and prodding under the glare of floodlights that attracted half the flying insects in Iraq.

A long line of combat troops, meanwhile, had assembled to board Chrome 31 to begin two weeks' leave away from the street fighting in Baghdad. So close, and yet: As Baker worked on the engine, a sergeant passed word of the delay, and they wearily shuffled away to wait.

Soon enough they were back. Baker slammed the hatch shut, the engines whined up and Chrome 31 was back in business.

The United States is flying young combat troops and air crews into combat in 40-year-old airplanes because of fundamental miscalculations that have left the Air Force paying more and more for a fleet of rickety planes that are getting older and older.

For decades, the Air Force has bet that the cost of its new planes would go down each year. Each year the cost has gone up. Result: The Air Force has been able to buy fewer airplanes and has had to hold on to its older ones past their useful lifetimes.

An exception is the newest C-130, the J model, flown by the Maryland Air National Guard's 135th Airlift Squadron, which rotated through here for two years until last January.

But across the fleet, the cost of maintaining an aging fleet in operation - like the cost of keeping a '63 Chevy on the road - is eating up the money that could be used for new aircraft. Each year, the Air Force pays $10 billion to fix old airplanes it had planned to junk but is forced to keep flying. That's $10 billion it doesn't have to buy new planes.

And that leaves the C-130s, climbing past four decades of air turbulence and hard landings with heavy loads, as the critical link in the war.

Their gun-metal gray fuselages are dented and scarred. Mechanics replacing windows cracked during a recent sandstorm loosened screws installed when their fathers were children, only to find the screws disintegrating.

Over the years, crews have improvised improvements: Many cockpits sport grimy cabinets fashioned of 3/4 -inch plywood to hold radios and oxygen canisters.

Inspectors examining the aging fleet of C-130s like Chrome 31 have found some aircraft wings honeycombed with cracks. Now they must be re-inspected, the skin stripped from their wings, every 70 flight hours.

"We're afraid their wings are going to fall off," Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne recently explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The C-130s flying into Iraq are the best of the fleet, but most are approaching mandatory retirement that has already been extended once, said Col. Paul Curlett, commander of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, based just outside Iraq. Like soldiers and Marines, C-130 crews are being overworked by this war. All are volunteers, serving at one of 10 air bases ringing Iraq on four-month tours, with four months at home between deployments.

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