Air Transportation: Ancient C-130s Rescue The A400M

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May 13, 2011: Turkey, one of many nations left in the lurch by the many delays for the new A400M transport aircraft, has bought six used C-130Es from Saudi Arabia. Apparently the price was less than $10 million per aircraft. These aircraft have less than 20,000 hours in the air, which, by C-130 standards, means they still have a lot of life in them. For example, since 2009, two U.S. Air Force C-130Es have retired after 47 years of service and over 30,000 hours in the air. These aircraft were but two of dozens of similar aircraft being pulled out of service, even though they have a few thousand hours left in them. These C-130s had undergone six or more refurbishments since they entered service in the 1960s. But these aircraft require more maintenance because of their age, which makes them more expensive to operate, and less available for service than newer models.

On average, C-130s last about 25 years, and about 20,000 hours in the air. But averages are just that, and some aircraft get lucky. If an aircraft has relatively few, "high stress" (heavy load, rough weather) flights, it will fly longer. The key component in C-130 longevity is the center wing box. This component takes the most punishment, and if it suffers corrosion, as well as enough stress to cause metal fatigue, it usually means the useful life of the aircraft is much shorter. The C-130 has been in service 52 years. So far, nearly 2,300 have been built, and it is still in production. Most C-130s built are still in use, although that will change in the next decade as the large number built in the 1960s and early 70s retire.

The new European military transport, the A400M, is already three years late and billions of dollars over budget. Those who have already placed orders (for 180 aircraft) have been told that the price they thought they were going to pay ($161 million per aircraft) will go up twenty percent or more. In response, some major buyers are reducing or cancelling their orders. With the recent reduction, or cancellations, of orders, it looks like the A400M will be getting more expensive, to the point where it will be twice what the new C-130J costs.

The A400M made its first flight 17 months ago. Turkey expects to eventually get the ten A400Ms it ordered. In the meantime, the six C-130Es will pick up the slack. The A400M has a top speed of 779 kilometers per hour, a range of 7,500 kilometers, and normally carries about 27 tons. The nearest competitor is the American C-130. The most common version is the C-130H. It has a range of 8,368 kilometers, a top speed of 601 kilometers per hour, and can carry up to 18 tons of cargo, 92 troops, or 64 paratroopers. The latest version, the C-130J, has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C130H, and can carry 20 tons of cargo. The C-130 is used by more than 50 countries. The A400M had an opportunity to give the C-130 a lot of competition, but only if it was on time and on budget.

 


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