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Engine rebuild program could save millions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new program to overhaul the engines for C-130 cargo aircraft at the 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston could end up saving the federal government $3.6 million a year.

"I can't predict what the demand will be, because we're brand new," said Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Williams, an expert on C-130 engines who works for the West Virginia Air National Guard. "We're getting better at it. We're hoping we can do one a month."

Williams said the 130th Airlift Wing recently got the go-ahead from the federal National Guard Bureau to overhaul the T56 turboprop engine that goes into the C-130 and several U.S. Navy aircraft. The National Guard Bureau is the federal organization that oversees operation of National Guard units all over the United States.

Williams said staff at the 130th Airlift Wing were first asked by National Guard Bureau officials in the spring of 2011 if they could overhaul C-130 engines for other National Guard units.

Technicians with the 130th, some with 30 years of experience or more on T56 engines, had already been doing work on everything but the compressors on the big turboprops. Even though the 130th was still flying missions in Afghanistan at the time, Williams said he agreed to see if his men could completely overhaul the engine.

"We volunteered," he said.

In a jet engine, a series of fans inside the compressor suck in air and compress it. Fuel is then sprayed into the compressor and ignited, blowing past another series of fans in the turbine. The hot gases blowing out the back are what push the airplane forward.

A turboprop like the engines used in C-130s works the same way, except that the spinning turbine is used to turn a propeller. The engine produces some thrust from the exhaust gases blowing out the back, but not much.

"I ran one without the propeller attached once," Williams said. "You're not going anywhere."

For years, crews at the 130th Airlift Wing have been able to fix almost anything on a T56 engine. But if something went wrong with the compressor, the whole engine had to be sent to the U.S. Air Force San Antonio Air Logistics Center at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas for a complete overhaul.

The overhaul costs the National Guard $1.3 million per engine. That's still less than buying a whole new engine, with a price tag of about $2.5 million.

But officials with the National Guard Bureau knew that federal budget cuts would mean shutting down the engine repair depot in San Antonio, and started looking around for someone else to do the work.

When Williams said the 130th would be able to overhaul C-130 engines for the National Guard, officials with the National Guard Bureau sent him an engine salvaged from an aircraft graveyard in the Arizona desert and told him to prove it.

"I think they intentionally sent us the worst engine they could find," said Williams, who has been working on C-130s for 25 years.

Working a little bit at a time, Williams and his technicians spent the next year or so completely overhauling the old engine.

"So we built it and ran it and tested it and painted it, and it came out at 105 percent efficient," Williams said. That's better than the engine is required to run.

When he added up all the time spent rebuilding the engine, Williams said the overhaul took 38 days. He figures that time will drop to 30 days per engine as technicians get more used to overhauling the turboprops.

Williams said the National Guard Bureau had originally planned to shop out C-130 engine overhauls to five different National Guard units around the country. After seeing what 130th technicians did with the boneyard test engine, federal officials decided to send all the overhauls to West Virginia.

Williams said eight National Guard technicians were brought on full-time to overhaul C-130 engines, with their salaries reimbursed by the federal government. Eight more contractors are working on the engines under civilian contract.

But even after an independent contract company did a nationwide search for contractors, six of the eight are either active or retired members of the West Virginia National Guard.

"We have a really good mix of a lot of experience with a lot of new talent," Williams said. "Our oldest guy has 41 years of experience."

Others, like Staff Sgt. Justin Roberts of Monroe County, have only been full-time with the Air National Guard for about a year. But Roberts worked on aircraft engines for seven years before that in the U.S. Air Force.

The engine overhaul program is part of an effort by state Adj. Gen. James Hoyer to make the West Virginia National Guard indispensable to the U.S. government by saving federal officials money. The West Virginia National Guard also has a facility rebuilding expensive military truck tires for the U.S. Army in Kanawha City, and is about to open a facility in Spencer to refurbish huge Army tents used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"General Hoyer's vision is to get as many jobs into West Virginia as possible," said National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melissa Shade. "He's taking any opportunity he can to fight for any kind of new contract or mission that comes down the pike."

Earlier this month, Williams's crew finished their first complete engine overhaul. They also repaired a C-130 engine for an Air National Guard unit in Montana that recently switched over from operating jet fighters to C-130s.

"It was a brand new unit, that had just been stood up," Williams said. "They didn't know anything about C-130s."

When parts, labor, fuel and overhead are figured in, it costs the West Virginia National Guard $1 million to completely overhaul a C-130 engine. But that's $300,000 cheaper than sending an engine to Texas.

If the National Guard Bureau sends the 130th 12 engines a year, that adds up to an annual savings of $3.6 million, National Guard officials said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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