Aviation energy...a finite resource?

  • Published
  • By Chris Hood
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Civil Engineering Squadron
Imagine showing up to work to fly. You get your crew assembled, brief the day's mission and step out to your aircraft. You are about to start your engines when the crew chief comes on board to pass you some important information. He says that you have half of your normal fuel level. Or worse, he says that today's mission has to be canceled due to a shortage of fuel Air Force-wide.

You might think that this scenario is unrealistic, but the possibility exists for this to occur in the near future.

To prevent scenarios like this, the Air Force has taken a hard look at how it consumes aviation fuel. Aviation operations account for the majority of energy used by the Air Force.

According to the 2010 Air Force Aviation Operations Energy Plan, the Air Force uses roughly 64 percent of the energy provided to the Department of Defense. That's more energy than the Army, Navy and Marine Corps combined. Aviation operations consume 84 percent of that energy. In fact the Air Force is the biggest consumer of energy of any governmental organization in the United States.

Some may think that our numbers are justified because the Air Force has the largest number of aircraft compared to the other services and that high rates of energy use are to be expected.  However, there are some consequences that need to be considered with that logic.

First, from a budget perspective, rising energy costs are cutting deep into the Air Force's annual budget. A second consequence involves the United States' reliance on tenuous supplies of foreign oil that might not be available due to political or environmental issues. Finally, a third consequence involves a long supply chain from our supply system to the warfighter that could be vulnerable to attack.

As a result of the high rates of energy use, the Air Force developed a comprehensive Aviation Operations Energy Plan as an annex to its Air Force-wide Energy Plan. The primary goal of this plan is to reduce aviation fuel-use by 10 percent by the year 2015. To accomplish this goal, the Air Force has outlined a three-pronged approach.

The first prong is to reduce the demand for aviation fuel by implementing programs in energy efficiency and conservation. The second is to increase the supply of aviation fuel by investing in renewable energy, finding sources of alternative fuels and leveraging technology. The third involves promoting a culture change, where ground and aircraft operators manage fuel use more efficiently through better procedures and mission planning.

In addition to the three-pronged approach, four pillars have been identified as the foundation for the program to represent areas where energy optimization can occur.

The first pillar makes unit commanders responsible for establishing guidance and incentives for their people in order to increase energy efficiency in aviation operations. By demonstrating the need for energy efficiency at the top of the chain of command, Airmen can understand the importance of energy reduction and implement ways to reduce fuel use.

The second pillar focuses on what can be done immediately to increase the Air Force's energy efficiency. This involves using the Air Force's greatest resource, its people, to come up with innovative ideas to make immediate changes in how we operate.

The third pillar is about altering the aviation energy culture. This involves leadership at all levels relaying and establishing the importance of aviation fuel efficiency through enhanced practices and habits in the air and on the flightline while conducting air and space operations.

The final pillar involves the Air Force maintaining the status quo as a leader in the use of technology. Through a streamlined acquisitions process the Air Force must test and acquire technology to mitigate inefficient fuel use.

Here in the 1st Special Operations Wing, there are things maintainers and aircrew can do for more efficient aviation operations.

The first is simple and involves awareness. Make fuel conservation a priority in daily operations. This can be facilitated by unit leadership instilling the conservation mentality in their Airmen's minds during training days or other training opportunities.

The second is to analyze how we operate from engine start to engine shutdown. During ground operations downspeeding engines as much as possible will contribute to conserving aviation fuel. Plan to not carry extra fuel if possible. Also, minimize auxiliary power unit usage and use ground power units as much as possible. Flying at optimum altitudes, descents and power setting as well as cutting routing when practical during flight will maximize fuel efficiency. Yet another way to operate more efficiently is to apply reduced power settings during the take-off and cruise segments of flight.

Third is to consider whether the training can take place in a simulator or other training device. The Air Force possesses and is acquiring state-of-the-art technology that allows aircrew to train or rehearse missions without using any aircraft. Not only does this save fuel but it extends the life of the airframe.

Conserving energy does not equal decreased mission effectiveness. The Air Force Aviation Operations Energy Plan does not ask Airmen to sacrifice their preeminence as the world's best air force. Instead it asks them to think of innovative new ways to conserve energy to increase combat effectiveness and to improve the greater security of the United States.

Aviation fuel is by far the largest component our Air Force Special Operations Command energy portfolio; however, reducing demand, increasing supply and cultural change apply to all aspects of energy.

At Hurlburt Field, each Airman is challenged to embrace the Air Force Energy Strategic Vision, "Make Energy a Consideration in All We Do." This applies to flying as well as mowing the lawn, driving to work, choosing to turn off the TV or radio, shutting down a computer or simply turning off a light.

Small, consistent actions by a large group make a difference.