The US Marine Corps is facing almost a year's slippage in its Lockheed Martin KC-130J programme as the result of problems discovered with the tanker's new Flight Refuelling-built pod, which has compounded wider delays in completion of final avionics software load.

Delivery of six KC-130Js to the USMC has been on hold since last August while Lockheed Martin tries to complete contractual flight testing. Payment on an initial tanker handed over to the US Navy's Patuxent River test facility for training and government testing has also been withheld.

"We've had some issues and some of the delays are the same as the US Air Force," concedes Col Doug Isleib, C-130 deputy programme manager. "We're now targeting to get an agreement with the contractor by April and deliver the six aircraft by July."

The USMC, like other operators, is still awaiting the final Block 5.3 software which Lockheed Martin hopes to deliver by April. The C-130J's mission computer and ground-based data system have suffered from a series of Block 5.2 error messages that have hit the US Air Force's mission capable rate.

Lockheed Martin is also trying to overcome problems affecting the tanker's Mk32-901E aerial refuelling system. The most recent has been the discovery of cracking in the hose/drogue coupling, which experiences greater turbulence and inflight movement than the Sargent Fletcher system on the earlier KC-130F/R/T.

Solutions have been identified for an earlier cold soak problem caused by the KC-130J's higher 30,000-35,000ft (9,100 to 10,670m) operating altitude. A stronger titanium ejector spring has also been fitted to overcome a stiffer drogue while seals on the electronically controlled pod are being reworked.

"We're on hold while Lockheed Martin tries to figure out what is causing the cracking. We then hope to conduct a review of all the changes made over the last few months," says Isleib. The USN will then provide a Boeing F/A-18 and Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter for contractor inflight refuelling tests.

Once completed, the USN hopes to begin its own 12-month flight test and operational evaluation leading to initial operating capability by August 2002. The USMC in the meantime is struggling to keep its 40-year-old KC-130F/Rs operating. The fleet has shrunk to 49 aircraft as the result of fatigue.

Source: Flight International