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The Air Force is analyzing operational efficiency – one airframe at a time

U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers with the 121st Air Refueling Wing, Ohio Air National Guard taxi down the runway before taking flight. Each jet took off to support different missions, ensuring our motto of all things at all times.

Have you ever wondered if the Air Force is flying as efficiently as possible? Well, you’re not alone…and there’s a task force to find out.

The Energy Analysis Task Force (EATF), led by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Air Force Operational Energy, has been systematically visiting Air Force bases around the country to observe actual training and mission flights, and speak with flight crews (to include operators and maintainers) about flight operations, practices, and aircraft requirements that have an impact on aviation fuel efficiency. The goal: to identify optimization best practices (and the challenges to implementing them) across each airframe, and produce a report that recommends which initiatives, processes, and technologies could have the greatest benefit to capability and readiness.

Known as a Line Operations Efficiency Analysis (LOEA), the team starts by targeting one airframe at a time and reviewing applicable publications and in-flight guides for that specific airframe. Then, in coordination with wing leadership, the team visits the aligned bases to conduct in-depth, non-attributional focus groups with aircrews of that airframe.

Led by a team of senior aviators with a breadth of experience across both Air Force and commercial aircraft (many are Reserve Airmen that also fly with commercial airlines), the EATF hopes to gain a better understanding of how crews perceive fuel efficiency efforts, and glean insight about the challenges pilots and maintainers face in their daily operations that may inhibit them from exercising efficiency best practices when the mission allows.

“We understand that the mission comes first – and that the dynamic environment in which we operate does not always allow for the most optimized operations,” said Colonel Anthony Brusca, 913th Airlift Group Deputy Commander at Little Rock Air Force Base, and current lead for the EATF. “We’re here to figure out where there may be a disconnect between training, policy and operations and where there may be opportunities for setting practical efficiency goals that make the lives of Airmen easier.” 

Since 2016, the EATF has completed LOEAs on the RC-135 Rivet Joint, E-3 Sentry (otherwise known as AWACS), C-5M Super Galaxy, C-17A Globemaster III, and are currently assessing KC-135 Stratotanker operations.

With the insight gained from these analyses, as well as known industry standards (e.g. best practices for commercial airlines), the team identified a number of processes across airframes that could improve operational efficiency without any capital investment. Examples of these include better utilization of nearby training ranges, enhanced scheduling efficiency, airspeed and altitude optimization, reduced thrust take-off, reduced engine taxi-in, engine washing, and optimized fuel loads, among others.

For the RC-135, the team estimated a potential savings of $1.5 million in fuel costs annually (2 percent of the total fuel cost for the airframe) if these practices were implemented across the fleet. For the E-3, the potential savings were estimated at $9.5 million annually, or 8 percent of the total fuel cost. The C-5M Super Galaxy LOEA identified approximately $8.2 million in potential annual savings, and the C-17A Globemaster III LOEA identified approximately $43.2 million in potential savings.

While significant, the EATF emphasized that fuel optimization isn’t just about saving money. “We’re trying to increase capability for the warfighter and make your (Airmen’s) lives easier, and if the protocol in place now doesn’t make sense - and we can explain why – that’s something I want to present to command leadership,” explained Brusca to participating Airmen.

However, with the fluidity of military operations, many Airmen contributing to the focus groups agreed the efficiency standards recommended by the Air Force are not always possible, or realistic in theater, based on current operations. Several participants cited difficulties with ineffective software and fuel gauges, aging equipment, and greater mission demands than manpower available as reasons why fuel efficient methods were not always utilized.

One KC-135 instructor pilot, a major participating in the focus group stated, “There’s this assumption that we can operate how the airlines operate – but that’s typically not the case. We’re working in a much more dynamic environment.”

“At the end of the day, we can’t delay mission effectiveness,” said another captain participating in the LOEA, an instructor pilot for the KC-135. “We need to find a better balance between the needs of the crew, and the bureaucracy of the Air Force. Updating our guidelines regularly based on practical metrics and creating incentives for fuel efficient operations is a good place to start.”  

Through the LOEA reports, the EATF is looking to do just that. Although fuel efficiency efforts can often be a sensitive topic among pilots and maintainers, the team is looking for a middle ground where Airmen are able to maintain (and even increase) operational effectiveness, while also optimizing fuel use.

 

For more information on energy optimization efforts in the Air Force, visit: www.safie.hq.af.mil/OpEnergy.

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