Air Force Eyes Reducing Jets’ Fuel Reserves


While the services are being pretty tight lipped about their plans to achieve the billions in efficiency savings mandated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, last week Air Force Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove gave a hint of one proposal the air service may have on the table; fuel savings.

Yes, this seems like a no-brainer, especially since the Air Force has long said it needs to trim its gas consumption, but it’s how the service might do this that is interesting. “Is four-hours of reserve fuel on a C-17” really necessary, Breedlove, who is in charge of Air Force plans, operations and requirements, asked during a breakfast with reporters in Washington.

Instead of four hours of extra fuel, maybe the jets should fly with a two-hour reserve over the continental U.S. and a three-hour reserve over international airspace, he suggested.

The Air Force is the largest energy buyer in the federal government, spending almost $7 billion a year on fuel, and has long been looking at ways to trim its massive energy costs, from flying more direct routes to flirting with the notion of buying subsidized-coal-based jet fuel.

It’s already increasing the use of simulators to offset the cost training missions, is experimenting with algae based-jet fuel (along with the Navy)and plans to cut its energy costs in half by the middle of the next decade.

Still, trimming reserve fuel requirements is likely to raise eyebrows with some folks who have safety concerns.

— John Reed

  • Brian

    The sheer weight of hauling all of that fuel around decreases the overall efficiency of the aircraft, especially on climb out and flight-level changes. even if you’re not going to use it, you do use more fuel carrying it around.

  • Sanem

    ah yes, how could the Air Force possibly save on expenses?…

    speed up UAV purchases
    – cheaper to train pilots
    – fewer training flights needed
    – less wear and tear on airframes because less in the air, thus longer service lives, less maintenance costs and less crashes
    – stop using actual aircraft pilots to fly UAVs
    – instead of blowing all that money on F-35s, restart the J-UCAS program
    – air defence UCAVs can be as cheap as 10 million each, so that’s 10 for every 1 F-35

    – stop using F-22s to intercept Russian reconaisance aircraft
    – stop using F-15s to bomb the Taliban

    • blight

      They might save money if pilots didn’t have to be officers. Enlisted pilots served in WW2, for instance.

      We’d be better off if technologies didn’t need their own military branches to ensure their survival. For instance, amphibious capability lives on because the Marines are their own branch and are “protected”. Airborne capability is neutered to a faint echo of the Airborne Army of WW2, whereas the Marines are probably more than equal, if not far superior to their ancestors.

      The Pentagon would be a terrible place if the UAV-people seceded from the air force to preserve the capaility, and add another branch to the rivalry.

      The Air Force should try to pick up WIG aircraft and use them as heavy strategic lifters (though the Navy may contest this). Or the Navy picks them up and the air force can cede part of the fast strategic airlift burden to the Navy, freeing up funds. Airlift per ton per mile by plane is expensive but at least it’s quick, airlift by sea is cheap but takes a while. If WIG can enable the air force to get the job done cheaper, or let the Navy do something for the air force to enable the air force to cut costs.

      USAF also needs to withdraw from as many bases as possible and cede more units to the Air National Guard. Also, eliminate old airframes that no longer have civilian parts support (707-type). Consolidate airframes to a few, maybe the 737?

      Maybe we should stop flying the B2’s, since their stealth coatings are expensive to maintain. Keep them in ready-to-fly condition in long-term storage; perhaps forward deploy to Hawaii or a Pacific Island next to a stash of nuclear weapons for their big day.

      With regards to UAVs: the crash rate is still higher than for manned aircraft, since errors in transmission can trigger the crash sequence. At the moment our UAV force depends on long range satellite links to communicate, we may need to invest in next-gen means to communicate with UAVs that may have reduced latency or vulnerability to space conditions.

      • I agree on enlisted pilots for UAVs, I just read about the guys in WWII, some apparently served in to the 1970s. The US Army also uses enlisted pilots for their helis too IIRC.

        I would be worried about a WIG cargo lifter’s vulnerability in a shooting war. Cargo ships get escorted by frigates, cargo planes get escorted by fighters. What will escort WIGs? They fly at speeds somewhere between a plane and a ship so will they build WIG escorts? Helicopters? Air Ships? (Actually WIG cargo ships guarded by armed Air Ships sound really cool).

        Long term storage for the B-2 sounds good, but I would hesitate to forward deploy them to Guam or somewhere unless they were able to take off quickly. If they can’t take off quickly they might get destroyed in the ground by a SLCM attack or something much like MacArthur’s B-17s back in 1941. Or worse some kind of surprise attack that captures the island like in Red Storm Rising. Hawaii somewhat better but there still is the threat of ballistic missiles. These things cost $2.2 billion each, I would store them under a mountain somewhere.

        • campbell

          The answer is 30 years old now…..(“turtle” airships)

          …an armed, amphibious, rigid hulled, all weather, FAST, stealthy, combination of WIG and AIRSHIP. Oh, and did I mention, solar powered as well?

          fuel savings? Ta dah!

          • crackedlenses

            Uh, I think that was already tried during WWI, and no one has tried since…..

        • Riceball

          The Army doesn’t have any enlisted helo pilots, they are all either commissioned officer of Warrant Officers. Still, I agree with everybody in that all of the branches should allow enlisted personnel (Sgts or senior Sgts) to be UAV pilots; if you can trust an M1 Abrams to a Sgt. then why not a UAV, they probably cost the same and the M1 probably also has the same amount of even more electronics than a UAV.

          • blight

            If I recall correctly, after WW2 HH Arnold wanted all pilots to be officers, leading to subsequent rank inflation and a partitioning of the air force between fliers and nonfliers, not unlike the squire/knight partition of the middle ages. One day, if you are a good squire, you may become a knight…

      • praetorian

        Blight, of the 19 B-2’s we have, I thought some where already forward deployed to
        Diego garcia?

    • Brad

      UAVs crash more often. Pilot training is about the only place you save, there are still very big issues with them in Metropolitan areas. So, areas of operation suffer. The controllers are paid the same whether they are real pilots or UAV only pilots.

  • Mat

    flying f15,18,16 over Iraq and Afghanistan is a huge waste of resources and airframe life for completing a mission a jet or turbo prop trainer with sniper pod could do just as well in not better at a fraction of cost..

    • PanAm Jack

      There are no such aircraft because the whole USAF is on board with expensive toys for little boys. Many aircraft we put in the boneyard are still frontline aircraft in many other nations. So stop buying toys that are not needed for the love of my grandchildren your breaking the bank……….

      • Mastro

        Pull some A7’s out of the boneyard- they are fine for dropping bombs on Taliban- I believe the A7 still has better fuel consumption than an F16- certainly an F15

        Oh- they aren’t sexy enough- OK

      • andrew

        Actually the AF has already put this in the works. Its called the MC-12 which is a Tactical Manned ISR platform. The original design was fitted with Small diameter bombs but due to weight restrictions of the King Air 350 and the EXTREMELY short time they had to train aircrews to fly the aircraft the bombs were delayed until further notice. These MC-12s are being deployed in Afganistan and Iraq and use less fuel in an entire 6 hr sortie than a flight of F-15s use on taxi. BTW the MC-12 is equiped with a sensor that is similar to a sniper pod.

    • blight

      Won’t someone think of the fighter pilots? What will they do if they’re not deployed? Trying to imagine how someone would join the air force and would eschew the frontline jets for a “lesser” aircraft.

    • blight

      kabulpress has a story on the costs of the war, and reported this tidbit:

      The United States Government has paid over $3 billion to some questionable companies in Kyrgyzstan, to supply jet fuel to the Manas air base, which is a focal point for ferrying NATO troops and high-value equipment into Afghanistan. Within one 24 hour period on February 18, 2010, Manas air base used an incredible 544,758 gallons of jet fuel.

      That is definitely quite a bit of jet fuel, but I wish I had a second source for that..

  • carg

    Typical commercial airliners have about 45minutes of reserve fuel. 4 hours is a bit excessive especially for routine flights – ferry, cargo etc

  • prairie

    Fuel is heavy to haul around. All the commercial airlines started saving a lot of money by flying with a reserve, but not an excessive reserve.

  • elgatoso

    Make another program like Tory or NERVA

    • And you won’t even need to buy expensive weapons for the plane either, since it’s engine is a weapon already.

      • elgatoso

        That one is PLUTO

        • The Project Pluto missile used a Tory engine.

          • elgatoso8

            And what I said??

      • ano8

        BTW,I like your blog.

  • dreifma

    In a non wartime environment, flying with a smaller, but safe reserve makes sense and will save dollars. This should not be continued in combat zone.
    We should also park the F-22, B-2, and F-15E except for necessary training. Since we wont be getting anymore of these in the foreseeable future, we should conserve our airframe hours.
    With those savings we should buy more F-22 and add some of the F-35’s capability till its ready to actually do the mission that is promised.

  • Sanem

    @ Blight:

    “With regards to UAVs: the crash rate is still higher than for manned aircraft, since errors in transmission can trigger the crash sequence. At the moment our UAV force depends on long range satellite links to communicate, we may need to invest in next-gen means to communicate with UAVs that may have reduced latency or vulnerability to space conditions.”

    excellent point: why does the Air Force insist on flying their UAVs hands-on all the time, when the army has proven beyond doubt that their automated landing system results in less accidents? the Global Hawk takes off, flies around the globe and lands without any need for human intervention, and as technology evolves UAVs will become more and more independant, to the point where operators only need to confirm targets and give attack clearance (which is what happens with the current manned aircraft just the same)

    good news though: the AQ-10 program aims to have the men on the ground help guide the aircraft to it’s targets, even taking direct control for the attack run. this way the guys in the middle of it get to call the shots, since they have the best sense of the situation. it will also allow for easier communication, not much different from the way they use their mini-UAVs to look behind the next hill

    • greg

      Why not just keep the pilot in the a-10 for perception awareness? You could still add all of the sensors.

  • fred

    I agree, we need to ground ALL MILITARY air craft and focus on saving broken down cruise ships, supplying spam sandwiches too the cruise line paying customers. THE NEW AMERICA ,,

    • Jacob

      I’m sure supplying spam to cruise ship passengers doesn’t cost very much in the grand scheme of things. And preserving our F-15 and F-16 airframe hours is only the sensible thing to do.

  • Curt

    You could probably even go beyond a simple 2 hours over CONUS and 3 hours in international airspace and not effect safety. For instance, for a flight over CONUS that will have good weather and never have an acceptable divert field more than 30 minutes from your route, maybe a hour of fuel reserve is acceptable. Not all international air space is the same. If I am flying inside NATO in good weather with a myriad of divert fields, an hour might also be acceptable. This seems to be such a no brainer as to wonder why it was never done before. As a side benefit, you would also reduce fatigue on the airframe although that is probably not going to be significant in the long run.

    • jake

      Your not going to have good weather all the time, and what if your at a busy airport, and while waiting to land for some reason you have to be diverted. Not every airport is as close as Baltimore to Philly!

  • paul

    No one flys with a 4 hour reserve.

  • blight

    You might get more play out of making military personnel fly commercial where possible as well. VIP generals get access to planes and military golf courses (I kid you not…)

    • jon


      I do Air transport for the military, majority of the military flies commerial or rented commercial seats to where ever they go. VIP generals usually only go on private aircraft for official business, … though sometimes not. I kid you not, I have seen a general flying commerial with other military!

  • roland

    We need to ground all aircraft and use it if there is a threat or border incursion by other country like Iran, N. Korea, Russia, China or others until the economy is back to normal. Just maintain it until we need to use it to save and maximize the use of algae fuel to help save on petrolium cost.

  • Matt

    What began as a discussion of in-flight fuel reserves has devolved into a discussion of UAV’s, pilot pay, services budget competition, alternate fuels and memories of WW2.

    Aircraft consume additional fuel due to excess weight carried because of the induced drag produced by the lift vector (basic aerodynamics). The additional induced drag requires increased thrust to maintain flight which increases fuel consumption. A modern jet aircraft incurs a penalty of 3-4% of its weight in fuel per hour to sustain flight. Therefore, for each hour of flight carrying 100 pounds of excess fuel, 4 more pounds of fuel to be burned to carry this weight. This imposes a tremendous system-wide cost if not carefully controlled.

    The age of “fill-er up” is over. The fuel load is tailored for each flight allowing for required alternates and the cargo load. Four hours reserve fuel is a gross overestimate of the necessary fuel reserve. Typically, FAA reserves require 45 minutes reserve for IFR flight in addition to filed alternate fuel – if any is required. Typically, 60-90 minutes fuel reserve is required for international flights.

  • Andy

    I am curious as to where the General gets his information. I am a C-17 pilot, and we fly with the FAA required 45 minute fuel reserve in addition to 15 minutes of “contingency” fuel. Not sure how this adds up to 4 hours… We routinely land very near our minimum fuel as required by our tech order.

    • Gerald hartley

      One other problem to consider is Fuel avalibility after you land. Sometimes the cost of fuel at one airfield is less then at another.

  • GuamVet

    When I was flying the KC-135, we carried just a 1 hour fuel reserve for peacetime missions. Why does this General tink aircraft carry a 4 hour fuel reserve? Most fighters cannot carry that much fuel with full tanks and no air refueling.

  • David Stroebel

    All of you make great points. Why isn’t anyone at the Pentagon listening?

  • Jose Trevino

    Eliminate all Senior Enlisted Advisor Positions–Senior First Sergeants should serve as enlisted advisors to the Commanders as an additional duty. Also, eliminate all Deputy Base Commanders, the next most senior officers should serve as Deputy Base Commanders when required. In the absence of the Commander, the next senior officer assumes command.

    This would save millions throughout the Air Force. The same concept could be considered for the other sister services.

  • Ollie Capra

    Cut back and or eliminate all the useless travel going to staff assistance visits, site surveys and conferences. All the useless trave shoud be eliminated. You’ll save a heck of a lot of money

  • Jose Trevino

    Folks: Read and study the Merida Initiative (Plan)–“You Tube” Also called: “Mexico Plan”

    A prime area to better conserve our DOD Funds!

    Read and draw your own conclusions!

  • Harvey

    22 years of flying Air Force cargo planes and I don’t ever recall carrying four hours of reserve fuel. Maybe the well meaning general should come out into the sunshine and stop breathing the stale air of his office.

    • Gerald hartley

      If you flew out of Iceland or Korea in the 1970’s you had better figure 4 hours of fuel reserve or, you may have to learn to swim. A good Engineer always pocketed some for the wife and the kids, in those days in the Connie.

  • Jose Trevino

    Harvey: Please show some kindness and respect for our Generals! Thank you SIR!

    Sergeant Major (Ret.)

  • Alex

    Saving money, and not spending as much is not really going to help our situation all of to much. What this country really needs is for the goverment and the general public to find a way to stop the decline of the USD worth, and to start raising the worht of the dollar. Me personally i think investing in goverment bonds, like in WW II, would be a start. Then the goverment can stop paying foriegn goverments with money we don’t have! Next they could start investing in local companies, and make our economy/regualtions more stable. At this point the worth of the dollar will start to raise, and companies will be more willing to do business in the United States!

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