WASHINGTON — With no end in sight for the grounding of virtually the entire fleet of older C-130H Hercules, the Air Force is turning to other aircraft and trying to find other workarounds to keep its mobility missions moving.
But the Air Force can’t say how long it will be before most or all of the grounded C-130Hs will be back in the air. Replacement parts to end the groundings are in short supply.
In the meantime, the service is trying to figure out how it can get newer replacement propeller assemblies into grounded C-130Hs faster, weighing which grounded planes are safe to return to flight status with their older propeller assemblies intact, and prioritizing missions for the workarounds.
The service on Sept. 27 grounded 116 of the older Hercules aircraft, including variants of the C-130H, after cracks in the propeller barrel assembly were discovered in some of the planes that had older propellers. The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, which have older planes, are most heavily hit by the groundings.
Air Mobility Command spokesman Maj. Beau Downey said in emails to Defense News that the service has enough airlift capacity to meet the service’s requirements around the world while much of the C-130H fleet is down.
But the command was unable to say how long it might take before most or all C-130Hs would be flying again, or how many aircraft have completed the inspections. The Air National Guard referred Defense News queries to AMC.
“Our primary focus through this process remains the safety of our crews,” Downey said. “In the meantime, we are developing options for filling the resulting airlift gap.”
Part of those workarounds include using other aircraft to take the place of grounded C-130Hs.
Lt. Col. Jon Quinlan, a spokesman for Air Force Reserve Command, said C-130Js and C-130Hs that have already had their propeller assemblies replaced with the newer NP2000 are stepping in for the grounded Hercules.
The Reserve is prioritizing deployment missions as it decides which planes to bring in to fill in for grounded C-130Hs, Quinlan said, as well as training missions to ensure the pipeline of new pilots is not interrupted.
Quinlan said the fleet of 10 WC-130J “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft are unaffected by the grounding, which he said is fortunate given the ongoing hurricane season.
But a slide posted last week on the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page indicated that the entire inventories of MC-130H Combat Talons, EC-130H Compass Calls, and the sole TC-130H were also part of the groundings.
Propeller manufacturer Collins Aerospace said the problem with the propellers emerged after the company delivered them to the Air Force.
“This is an issue created after delivery following a maintenance procedure that was performed outside of the Collins Aerospace network,” a Collins spokesperson said in an email to Defense News. “This does not affect newly manufactured propeller hubs or fleets that have the NP2000 upgraded propeller assembly installed.”
AMC did not dispute Collins’ statement.
And while the Air Force is carrying out inspections on the planes in an “incremental process,” it is looking at several options for getting C-130Hs back in the air as soon as possible, Downey said.
One option is speeding up the production and installation of the newer NP2000 propeller assemblies, Downey said.
With propeller assembly replacements in short supply and high demand, Quinlan said, the Air Force will have to prioritize which planes get them based on the missions they are needed for.
But some C-130Hs with the older 54H60 propeller assembly might still be able to fly, Downey said. Maintainers are now in the process of inspecting the grounded C-130Hs with those propeller assemblies, and will consider whether their 54H60s are still in good enough shape to fly again.
Once an aircraft has been inspected and deemed safe, Downey said, it will be immediately restored to flight status so it can continue carrying out missions.
Downey said the Air Force is prioritizing which C-130Hs get inspected first based on which planes are most needed to carry out operations.
Quinlan said that the Reserve has 34 affected C-130Hs at four wings — the 910th Airlift Wing at Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Ohio, the 934th Airlift Wing at Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station in Minnesota, the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado, and the 94th Airlift Wing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia.
Of those, Dobbins has suffered the least impact. Seven of its C-130Hs have the newer propeller assemblies and are not grounded, and its eighth C-130H is now in the depot getting the NP2000 installed.
Quinlan said that Dobbins has a few propeller assemblies on hand that it will ship to other reserve units to help them get their planes back in the air. He said the Reserve command is talking with Air Force Material Command to figure out which planes are most needed back in the air, and where Dobbins should ship its propeller assemblies.
“We’re doing everything we can to prioritize the most important missions first,” Quinlan said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.