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Air Force testing drag reduction to improve fuel economy

Orange finlets on tail section part of study to reduce drag. Credit: U.S. Air Force.

Program is focusing on C-17 and other heavy movers in the fleet that account for the largest percentage of fuel consumption.

The old saying was “an Army travels on its stomach.” The meaning, from back when soldiers traveled by foot, was that an armed force needs food.

The United States Air Force travels on its fuel. And as modern warfare has evolved into more quick-strike, get there fast and furious, the role of the Air Force in transporting soldiers and equipment has grown.

According to a study by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Air Force’s price point for jet fuel as quadrupled between 2004 and 2012. Even with recent drops in oil that have reduced fuel prices, the Air Force is seeking ways to reduce fuel costs.

This is especially crucial for the Air Force’s heavy movers. The C-130, the C-17 and the C-5 are the main airlifters that move personnel and equipment all over the world. They also use the largest percentage of fuel consumed by Air Force aircraft. The C-17 is the biggest gas guzzler.

The 418th Flight Test Squadron and Boeing personnel recently completed the AFRL’s initial testing in the C-17 Drag Reducing Program. The testing is taking place at Edwards Air Force Base.

The tests involve a Globemaster III and involve using Vortex Control Technologies Finlets (TM) and Lockheed Martin microvanes and fairings. Computer simulations indicated places on the C-17 where drag could be reduced. If those modifications produce even a slight reduction in drag, the fuel savings could be worthwhile.

“A reduction of just a few percent can result in significant cost savings,” said Capt. Kevin Meyerhoff, 418th Flight Test Squadron, test pilot.

Reducing drag must be balanced with maintaining the current operational abilities of the C-17. Economy can’t be traded for effectiveness when it comes to an airlifter being able to deliver its cargo.

“The cost savings these devices may offer are entirely dependent on the C-17 still being able to fulfill its mission in the Air Force,” Meyerhoff said.  “Our testing focused not only on fuel performance, but also on any impacts that the devices may have on the flying qualities of the aircraft. This includes the C-17’s ability to perform critical air drop missions.”

Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.