Lt. Gen. Brooks L. Bash, the Air Mobility Command’s vice commander, likes a challenge. A few years ago the Pentagon tossed a big one his way.
The Pentagon mandated that the Air Force cut its fuel consumption by 10 percent.
That Pentagon target later led Bash to tell some of the Air Force’s top leaders that AMC must lead the way “because we are using 50 percent of the Air Force energy,” recalled Bash, who at the time was AMC’s operations director. “Just AMC. So unless we figured out a way to save energy, there was no way for the Air Force force to reach that goal.”
Such was the thinking that led AMC — the headquarters that oversees all Air Force cargo jets, including the C-17 fleet at Joint Base Lewis-McChord — since 2010 to embark on a multi-pronged effort to cut energy use across several fronts.
It was a campaign that led Bash and AMC’s newly minted fuel-efficiency office to undertake everything from devising innovative ways for huge cargo planes to fly in formation, emulating the flight patterns of geese; to tinkering with the air flow on the aircraft fuselages to reduce drag; to striking up partnerships with civilian contractors to bankroll state-of-the-art heating and lighting technologies at Scott Air Force Base, near Belleville, Illinois, and nine other AMC bases.
So far the effort is paying off.
The energy savings ideas that Bash and his staff created have cut energy expenditures $75 million a year, according to a recent survey.
With AMC’s help, the Air Force reduced its consumption of aviation fuel by 12 percent, exceeding its goal of a 10 percent cut by 2020, according to recent Pentagon figures.
AMC’s success in cutting fuel costs has led to a growing appreciation within the Defense Department that AMC is on the leading edge of energy innovation and conservation — a big deal for a military grappling with congressional belt-tightening and the lingering effect of two expensive, decade-long wars.
The potential payoffs from AMC’s research into fuel savings could be staggering. The Air Force, which accounts for nearly 50 percent of the entire Pentagon energy budget, alone spends more than $9 billion annually on energy, with more than four-fifths of that going to aviation fuel.
Such is AMC’s burgeoning reputation that Ernest Moniz, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, paid a visit to Scott last month to talk to Bash, chief AMC scientist Donald Erbschloe and others about some of the energy conservation research underway at Scott in the hopes of supporting that research and transfering its benefits to other branches of the military.
One of the most intriguing lines of AMC research is Erbschloe’s work on “vortex surfing,” by which gasoline-guzzling C-17 air cargo planes fly in formations that mimic the V-shaped flight patterns of migratory birds. The idea is for trailing aircraft to cut the drag they experience by “surfing” the vortex created by the aircraft at the top of the V. Flight tests so far show the idea behind “vortex surfing, ” to be highly promising, with potential fuel savings of 10 percent of more per participating aircraft.
AMC’s goals for its energy savings programs, however, go way beyond cost-cutting. More important is the idea that increased fuel efficiency means increased operational effectiveness, especially in a war zone, according to Erbschloe, an Air Force C-141 air cargo pilot before earning a doctorate in physical electronics from Oxford University, England, in the late 1980s.
“When you think about it, when you save some fuel, you do a number of different things with those savings,” he said. “You can convert those savings into operational capability. For example, you could carry more cargo. You can trade the weight of that fuel for cargo weight or passenger weight. So you’re able to achieve more with the fuel that you do carry. You can extend your range. You can extend your loiter time if for some reason you have to stay on orbit longer, say, if you’re a tanker aircraft.”
Besides vortex surfing, AMC has embarked on a range of other energy savings ideas that include:
These third-party contracts have paid for energy conservation investments at Charleston, Grand Forks and Fairchild air force bases.
The 62nd Airlift Wing at JBLM has AMC’s second largest C-17 fleet. The local wing recently made a significant cut in its fuel use by coordinating airdrop training with Army units at JBLM, which enabled C-17 crews to fly more practice missions in the Northwest instead of traveling to another site in Arizona.
AMC’s aggressive fuel-savings plan took off in 2008, when the Pentagon assembled a blue-ribbon panel of scientific and policy experts to ponder the top energy challenges facing the U.S. military in the 21st century. The panel published a study called “More Fight, Less Fuel” that called on Pentagon leaders and top generals to deal with two primary problems: the military’s growing thirst for more fuel, especially in combat operations, and the dangers linked to continued reliance on America’s aging and increasingly fragile power grid.