This story have been corrected
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Air Force has ordered its pilots to fly higher and slower in an effort to slash fuel use while still performing the same missions.
The rise in oil prices has added $1 billion to the cost of fueling the Air Force fleet in 2012, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy Kevin Geiss said last month.
“We use the most energy of all the services in the Department of Defense, and we are the largest energy user in the federal government,” Geiss said. “Every day, we fly 900 mobility aircraft flights around the world moving cargo and fuel and doing disaster response and aeromedical evacuation as well as operations with combat aircraft.”
The Air Force fleet of 4,693 aircraft is twice as large as the fleets of commercial carriers UPS, Southwest, United and Delta combined, he said.
One way that the Air Force plans to cut fuel costs is by installing fuel-efficient engines on some of its aircraft. For example, upgrading engines on KC-135 tankers at a cost of $278 million over several years will ultimately save $1.3 billion in maintenance and $150 million in fuel over the life of the aircraft through to 2046, Geiss said.
Other fuel-efficiency efforts are already having a big impact. The Air Force is hauling 27 percent more cargo than it did five years ago, but its fuel consumption has fallen 4 percent since 2006. The cost to haul a ton of cargo one mile, made up mostly of the cost of fuel, has been cut 21 percent, Geiss said.
“We are looking at changing how we fly,” he said.
The Air Force saved $2.4 million last year by optimizing diplomatic clearances to allow aircraft to fly over friendly nations’ airspace and cut flight times, he said.
C-17 transport aircraft also have cut their cruise speed from 584 mph to 568 mph and crews have incorporated fuel-efficiency in mission planning — choosing routes and altitudes to maximize efficiency, Geiss said.
Capt. Justin Brickey, 27, of Coos Bay, Ore., a C-130 pilot with the 36th Airlift Squadron at Yokota Air Base, said Pacific Air Forces units have been looking at ways since 2010 to cut their fuel use by 10 percent in the next 10 years, without reducing flying hours. Each Air Force unit in the Pacific is coming up with its own fuel-saving initiatives and enforcing existing rules, he said, adding that particularly successful fuel-saving ideas could be incorporated in Air Force regulations.
One way the Yokota squadron is saving fuel is by removing “pet rocks” from aircraft whenever possible. Pet rocks are large concrete blocks designed to simulate heavy equipment that the aircraft deliver during real-world missions. They were routinely carried in the past but will only be loaded on some missions in the future, Brickey said.
Crews also are trying to cut the time aircraft spend on the ground running their engines, which burns 400 to 450 pounds of fuel each hour. They are turning off two of the C-130s’ engines soon after landing and cutting out nonessential navigational procedures that take time and waste fuel on the runway. Crews can also use external power units to run aircraft systems before takeoff instead of turning on engines that burn eight times as much fuel as the external units, Brickey said.
“We are trying to figure out ways to delay engines as long as possible to get our pre-takeoff duties accomplished in a timely manner so we are not spending any extra time on the ground wasting fuel,” he said.
Mission planners at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii use computers to calculate exactly how much fuel will be needed for each mission based on the route and weather conditions with a margin for safety. Carrying as little fuel as possible means less weight and better economy, Brickey said.
As aircraft burn fuel they become lighter and crews can fly them higher to improve performance. Loading cargo toward the front of aircraft also can cut fuel use by up to 2 percent, he said.
The Air Force push for fuel efficiency makes sense for both operational and budgetary reasons, said Jan Van Tol, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“If you don’t need to use as much fuel … that eases your operational costs considerably,” he said. “The operational logistics problem is one that the U.S. has always faced because we operate forward so often.”
Engine uprades will be made to KC-135 tankers.