LC-130 Hercules aircraft will have a smoother take off from Antarctica and Greenland thanks to the 109th Maintenance Squadron.
109th propulsion specialists assembled the first Air National Guard-built T56 3.5 turbo engine. The 3.5 modification is part of an Air Force initiative to update C-130 aircraft.
The 109th’s engine is unique as it’s the first one to be assembled in-unit by airmen.
This 3.5 engine is the finishing piece to modernizing the 109th’s legacy fleet into a more powerful and eco-friendly force.
Operating the Department of Defense’s only ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft, the 109th deploys annually to the austere environments of Greenland and Antarctica in support of the National Science Foundation.
Occasionally, the skibirds have trouble taking off from icy surfaces of these areas of operation due to heavy cargo loads or friction lock under the skis.
Traditionally, jet-assisted take off or JATO bottles are used to create extra thrust to get the skibirds off of the snow or ice and into the air. JATO production, however, officially stopped in 1991.
Maj. Jim Roth, commander of the 109th Maintenance Squadron, explained the increasing challenges with using JATO.
“They are depleting and every time we use them, we have to shoot eight off at a time, and it begins to present a real logistical concern when it comes to the decreasing supply,” Roth said.
The new T56-8-15A 3.5 engines, combined with the LC-130H’s NP2000 eight-bladed propellers, are the answer to beginning to shift away from JATO bottles.
“The updated features allow the aircraft to create the same thrust as JATO bottles but at lower operating temperatures, making them more eco-friendly,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Candido, a propulsion specialist with the 109th.
“We’re looking at an efficiency of about 20% more fuel efficiency compared to the 3.0 engine,” Candido continued.
The skibirds will also be able to carry heavier cargo loads to remote polar regions.
“We are the only heavy airlift able to reach these remote polar camps. These new engines allow for greater range and capacity. We’re advancing the Arctic strategy that much more,” Roth said.
“It’s the expertise and abilities of 109th airmen like Jason Candido that drive us forward,” Roth continued.
Candido, who has been at the 109th for over ten years, was one of the airmen who assembled the new engine.
“This is the exact same engine that we’ve been using for years, just the internals are different,” Candido said.
“The updated engine uses different types of metal in the turbine and compressor that have better heat retention, giving us the same power at lower temperatures,” he continued.
Assembling the 3.5 engine is a two-person job that took approximately a full month’s work to complete, he said.
“This is exactly what the National Guard is all about. It’s about retaining key talent and having an experienced workforce. Bringing that to the table allows us to do this stuff,” Roth said.
“For me, there’s a lot of pride in putting this engine together. A lot of people just look at the engine, but I look at my work. It’s like art,” Candido said.
The improved engines will also cut down on frequent maintenance and inspection.
When the LC-130Hs finished the transition from four to eight-bladed propellers in 2018, Candido said there was a noticeable difference in maintenance time.
“Whenever we had a seal leak in Antarctica, you couldn’t replace that one blade. You had to do the entire process to put a brand new one back on,” Candido said.
The eight-bladed propellers, however, are designed for a simpler fix in the event of a seal leak.
“We went from having an engine with a day and a half downtime to maybe two hours, and then it’s flying again,” Candido said.
The 109th propulsion shop has been approved to start assembling the rest of the 3.5 engines, in conjunction with some that will be assembled in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Members from the 109th Maintenance Squadron are scheduled to attend a conference at the end of March to discuss a future timeline to outfit all LC-130Hs with the 3.5 engines.
“We are plowing ahead with our own builds to help supplement the force. We are building ours quickly so we’re ready to go as soon as possible,” Roth said.