The process of maturing the Lockheed Martin C-130J has not been easy. How have three key customers coped with the transporter's teething troubles?

The year 2004 promises to be a significant milestone for the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules as it will be the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the prototype YC-130. Half a century on and the US Air Force is hoping to be able to declare the C-130J ready for operational service. This latest descendent in a long line of turboprop transports from Marietta, Georgia, has proven to be the most advanced and at the same time challenging derivative development in five decades.

Lockheed Martin delivered its first C-130Js in 1999 to the Royal Australian Air Force, the UK Royal Air Force and USAF, followed a year later by the US Marine Corps and Italian air force. A total of 118 orders have been received since the programme was launched in 1996, of which 89 have been delivered. These numbers are small relative to the more than 2,300 aircraft built since the C-130A first rolled off the line in 1955, but Lockheed Martin hopes for many more orders as the initial group of users complete operational testing and start to put their C-130Js to work.

The process of maturing the C-130J is following two parallel and complementary paths. Lockheed Martin, at a programme level, is evolving an iterative set of software upgrades that provides a common core capability for all aircraft irrespective of whether they are US or foreign operated. National air arms at the same time are pursuing their own efforts to tailor the new Hercules to their own individual needs and mission requirements.

Software shortcoming

As a military adaptation of a commercially developed and certificated aircraft, the C-130J's entry into service has not been smooth. The US Department of Defense's (DoD) Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) initial report in early 2001 said the aircraft was then neither operationally effective nor suitable. A major shortcoming identified was in software development and integration. Lockheed Martin has since fielded the Block 5.3 mission software, which it says solves all the false-warning messages that bugged the previous Block 5.2.

The RAAF has completed the upgrade to Block 5.3 and will be followed by the USMC in July, Italy in October, the USAF in November and the RAF by the end of the year. The USAF, which completed qualification testing of Block 5.3 in March, says it addresses 50 identified deficiencies, but still leaves another 43 open items. "We're addressing all the issues identified in the DOT&E report. Some have already been knocked out, some are in the process of being fixed and have yet to be verified by our flight-test community and some are fixes we're putting in the Block 5.4 configuration," says Col Bob Hudson, chief of the USAF's theatre airlift, special operations and trainer division.

The USAF is waiting for Block 5.4 before putting the C-130J and stretched CC-130J through a final dedicated operational test and evaluation in 2004, after which it will be ready to declare initial operational capability (IOC). The US House of Representatives budget language has linked initial funding in 2003 for a planned multi-year purchase of 40 USAF aircraft and 24 USMC KC-130J tankers to receiving assurances that aircraft will be found to be operationally suitable and effective. The USAF in early July signed off the aircraft for overwater deployments, which should help ease Congressional reservations.

Unlike the USAF, the USMC is prepared to accept interim Block 5.3.1 software with which to enter into operational evaluation (Opeval) of the KC-130J, starting in November at the end of development testing in September. Block 5.4 instead will be the focus of a planned follow-on test and evaluation. Subject to a successful Opeval, the USMC is now aiming to declare an IOC by October 2003, 18 months later than originally scheduled.

The delay is the result largely of an aerodynamic redesign of the tanker's underwing Flight Refuelling Mk32B-901E hose drum unit as the result of vortex generated by the original shape of the pod's aft fairing. More recent attention has been focused on a software improvement to the robustness of the hose's 0.6-3m/s (2-10ft/s) response speed. "Tanking at night, at low altitude and in turbulent air, aircraft have to be aggressive to get contact. If the hose is not taken up fast enough there is the danger of a whiplash and damage to the aircraft," says Col David Heinz, USMC C-130 programme deputy.

The KC-130J, unlike the current KC-130F/R/T, is not designed to take the hydromechanical Sargent Fletcher system, the hose speed of which is controlled by a variable valve. The Mk32B-901E is electrically driven and the response speed of the hose is software controlled. The pod promises to offer significant reliability and safety improvements and includes an electrically driven guillotine in place of pyrotechnics to sever the hose in an emergency.

USMC criticism of avionics nuisance messages or false alarms echoes that of the USAF and RAAF. The sensitivity of built-in test functionality to marginal performance exceedences has been singled out. "We need to go to a more gradual approach to the level exceedences and have reports that not only show an exceedence, but the duration and magnitude of that exceedences," says Heinz.

Self-defence capability

Block 5.4, in addition to cleaning up any remaining software deficiencies, will provide an architecture into which to integrate a self-defence capability for the C-130J. In the case of the USAF, this comprises the ALE-47 chaff/flare dispenser, AAR-47 missile-warning receiver and ALR-56M radar-warning receiver, but as yet there are no provisions for an active infrared jammer such as Northrop Grumman's Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures. The USMC plans to install elements of the BAE Systems Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures system on the KC-130J.

The absence of a certificated self-protection suite on its C-130J means that Italy has had to rely extensively on the C-130Hs for operations in Afghanistan, even though the last of its 12 aircraft are to be traded in to Lockheed Martin for sale to Brazil and Greece. The Italian C-130Js are equipped with a defensive suite similar to that used by the USAF. The Pisa-based 46th Aerobrigade is already able to generate and update threat libraries. The air force is working to integrate the suite with its planned fleet of 22 aircraft and to train crews.

Australia was one of the first C-130J users to migrate to Block 5.3, signing off on its acceptance in December 2001. It is now considering Block 5.4. The RAAF has already organised access through the USAF to the Block 5.4 library. "We are talking between the customer base about what goes into that and [Lockheed Martin and the USAF] may include some of our wishlist," says Wg Cdr Bruce Skipworth, director of the Australian Defence Materiel Organisation's C-130J project office.

Beyond Block 5.4, the RAAF is looking at Lockheed Martin's planned two-year cycle of software development, with the intent of keeping its C-130Js around 80% common with the international baseline standard. Likely differences will focus on the aircraft's electronic-warfare self-protection suite. All 12 aircraft are fitted for, but not with, the same suite as the USAF, but may receive Australian-specific hardware and software as part of the Project Echidna requirement for a family of systems shared between a variety of aircraft types. A decision is not expected for another year.

The RAAF is hoping for a software solution to the continuing issue of vibration in the aircraft, caused by the change from four- to six-blade propellers. This generates a resonance at 102Hz, particularly in line with the propellers inside the fuselage. Skipworth says: "We are looking and talking to Lockheed about the easiest and simplest and most elegant fix, which is simply to adjust the syncrophase angles between the propellers. That is a software fix. They have a proposed technical solution and we have been talking to them about engaging them on that." Lockheed Martin in response says that it is waiting for the RAAF to define the mission parameters they need for the software to know where in the flight envelope to base the fix.

RAAF restrictions on the carriage of explosive ordnance in the C-130J because of the vibration are being progressively reduced through a programme of ordnance type assessments. A similar process is being applied to clearing the aircraft for the carriage of emergency medical equipment used in aeromedical evacuation missions.

Navigation system

Australia says that at least one of the functionalities sought from either Block 5.4 or Block 6 is a navigation and communication system in compliance with the new global air traffic management (GATM) requirements.

The C-130J is already equipped with global positioning system (GPS) satellite navigation, protected instrument landing system and an enhanced traffic alert and collision avoidance system. The aircraft is certificated for 5nm (9km) required navigation performance. Planned future additions will include a multimode receiver, voice satellite communications, improved GPS, controller-pilot datalink and 8.33kHz VHF radio. The USAF and Lockheed Martin are mapping out a spiral software upgrade plan, starting with funding next year for Block 6.0, to be followed by Blocks 7.0 in 2005, 8.0 in 2007 and 9.0 in 2009.

"The planning is to finalise what GATM and safety requirements will be in each block, based on need and our funding availability. We'll also fix any remaining deficiencies and make enhancements to keep the aircraft mature, but Block 6.0, 7.0 and 8.0 will predominantly be GATM upgrades," says Lt Col Brian Dougherty, chief of the USAF tactical airlift branch. GATM is major feature of the Boeing avionics modernisation programme for 512 USAF C-130s, mainly E/Hs. The USAF is encouraging industry to pursue, where possible, solutions common with the C-130J.

Other areas of concern identified by last year's DOT&E report centred on shortfalls in the C-130J's logistic support and training systems. At the time of the initial testing the air force admitted to suffering from a "fairly abysmal" 54% mission-capable rate. This has improved, averaging 71% during 2001, with a goal of reaching 82% by 2004. Air force money that had been earmarked to buy two more aircraft in 2003, plus some of the $420 million in projected savings from the planned 2004-08 multi-year purchase, is being invested to improve supporting infrastructure.

Planned funding next year will include seven new aircrew and maintenance training devices, in addition to an avionics management system trainer and a weapons system trainer on order for delivery in 2003 and 2004, respectively, to Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, and Keesler AFB, Mississippi. "We're ploughing those savings back into the C-130J programme to invest in our training system, which has lagged behind on funding, spare parts, military construction for bases and a multitude of unfunded requirements that we've been kicking down the road," adds Dougherty.

Italian investment

Italy has already invested heavily in new Lockheed Martin/CAE developed C-130J National Training Centre, which is to be commissioned at Pisa by October. It comprises four major elements, encompassing a training management system, computer-based training, a maintenance trainer and a Level D full-flight simulator capable of operating up to 16h a day. The air force says it has excess capacity and hopes to attract other C-130J operators.

Maintenance support is proving more of a learning experience for the Italian air force, with many tasks and parts management delegated to Lockheed Martin. The correct provisioning of parts has been a challenge, with some parts subject to higher than predicted wear, while others have been trouble free and are lasting longer than expected. The air force says as a result it has experienced unsatisfactory aircraft availability rates, dropping as low as 40% last autumn. It was back to 60% in April and is expected to reach at least a 75%.

The RAAF's C-130J fleet has been heavily tasked operationally since 2000, initially supporting peace-keeping deployments to Timor and more recently flying to Kuwait in support of Australian special forces in Afghanistan. Finding time for training as well as development flying has proven difficult as a result. The task has not been made easier by the need to transfer crews from legacy four-man operated C-130E/Hs to the C-130J's two-man cockpit.

According to Wg Cdr Tony Kempnich, commanding officer of the RAAF's 37 Sqn, this transition process "is still not without issue. You cannot take two sets of eyes away and expect that it is going to be just as easy. There are more challenges there, but we are using the technology, we are redirecting people's energies at certain times and developing procedures so that when they need to have their eyes looking out the front, they have got their eyes out the front. It is certainly not a walk in the park."

Early in its transition, the RAAF concluded that the Lockheed Martin-supplied checklist, both for normal procedures and emergencies "was totally unsuitable to two-pilot operations".

Less than two months before it received its first aircraft, the RAAF set about rewriting the procedures, largely replacing the recommended challenge and response system with one closely based on commercial airliner practice. The revised approach was first applied during RAAF's initial operational test and evaluation phase.

The RAAF was also largely unsatisfied with the initial training systems for aircrew delivered by Lockheed Martin and its Australian subcontractor ADI. Wg Cdr Michael Beattie, commanding officer of the RAAF's 285 Training Sqn, says it was a reworked version of the turnkey system developed for the RAF and failed to reflect RAAF requirements. "We have our specific way of operating and we had to liaise directly with ADI and Lockheed Martin to change those processes," he says.

The C-130J as a derivative programme has been a much more protracted development that anyone could have imagined when work began in 1991. Development of the aircraft was privately funded and designed to meet civil certification criteria, but it demanded much more work and additional testing to meet the needs of the military. With the US DoD mulling further adaptations of commercial designs such as a Boeing 767 tanker and a 737 maritime patrol aircraft, the C-130J experience offers perhaps some pertinent advice.

Lessons to be learned

"There are lessons to be learned from this," agrees Hudson. "When you come to write an operational requirements document after selecting the aircraft, you should not make it more stringent than what the aircraft is capable of. If you need additional capability, it should be wrapped into the programme as part of a systematic block upgrade so that you don't grade your aircraft against the ultimate requirement from the start, when you know you're not going to reach that.

"We tend to focus on requirements and what we must have, rather than thinking too much about how we get there. We need to be smarter."

Source: Flight International