This small, 3D-printed part could slash C-130 fuel bills

Anyone who’s owned a car will know that a trip to the petrol station is one of the biggest expenses you have to cope with. Well, imagine that instead of one car you have hundreds of cars that need to be fuelled all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Now, replace those cars with fully-loaded C-130 Hercules transport aircraft that have to fly missions across the world.

That’s what the US military has to deal with day in, day out – and not surprisingly their annual fuel bill for its entire C-130 fleet contains lots of zeros! So any modification that can reduce that eye-watering bill, no matter how small a percentage, is still taken very seriously indeed. Even a 1% efficiency could save millions of dollars.

Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the C-130, has come up with several ingenious airframe modifications that it says could save operators around 3% in fuel costs. The modifications (in a very non-scientific nutshell) smooth out some of the airflow over the fuselage and wings, ultimately reducing drag.

C-130 with microvanes

Microvanes fitted to the aft fuselage of a C-130 Photo: Lockheed Martin

One of the company’s solutions is to glue on small 3D-printed fibreglass strips to the back of the aircraft to optimise airflow and reduce drag created by the flat rear cargo door (apparently this flat cargo door contributes to over 10% of the aircraft’s total drag).

Microvanes, as the low-cost strips are known, have been in the works for several years and, as Quill recently learned, have been fitted to a US Coast Guard HC-130 for trials. You can read more about the trials here as part of a Shephard interview with Lockheed Martin.

Another modification that might be better known in the avgeek community is winglets, which are now commonplace in the ‘economically conscious’ commercial sector, but not so much in the military world. That could soon change, however, as Lockheed looks to develop and test a new winglet design for the C-130.

Quill found out from Lockheed Martin themselves that winglet flight tests have just been completed, marking the first time ever that a C-130 has been fitted with winglets. The aircraft was an AFSOC MC-130, but unfortunately no official photographs have yet been released. More details of that flight testing can also be found in the Shephard article linked above.

It might still be a few years before we see production C-130s being fitted with microvanes and winglets, and the fuel saving predictions still have to be verified, which the recent flight testing will help towards. However, it all looks very promising, and if it saves just a few percent in fuel costs at a relatively low installation cost, then surely it is worth pursuing.

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