Pelosi and the Air Force

When I first read a Judicial Watch post about Speaker Pelosi’s extravagant use of government aircraft, I thought “oh boy, this ought to be good.”  Overbooking aircraft, incurring extra costs through last-minute cancellations, trying to include family members on CODEL (congressional delegation) travel in war zones, petulant staff expressing outrage that a preferred aircraft was not available, demanding a military escort on flights home…

“Taken together, these documents show that Speaker Pelosi treats the Air Force like her personal airline,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “Not only does Speaker Pelosi issue unreasonable requests for military travel, but her office seems unconcerned about wasting taxpayer money with last minute cancellations and other demands.”

Except that she doesn’t.  Like so many media stories, when you peel back the layers and look at the actual documents, the truth is far less outrageous than the headline.  Her staff’s emails are never threatening or pouty, just polite and professional.  When their assumptions are incorrect, they are cheerfully corrected by OSD LA’s military assistant.  All very ordinary and above-board.

Pelosi’s use of Air Force aircraft for travel to her home district is also comparable to that of Republican former Speaker Dennis Hastert.  If you look at the dates of travel, Hastert used to return home to Aurora, Illinois once or twice a month (accompanied, according to protocol, by a military escort), and Pelosi’s usage is about the same frequency.  So she’s not exactly burning up airframe hours in the fleet.

As for griping about the non-availability of a specific aircraft, that is covered by an e-mail revelation (on page 13 of 137) from the OSD LA military assistant to Pelosi’s former national security advisor, Mike Sheehy:

Mike, the typical flight time to San Francisco is 5+45 this time of year [January 2007].  Given the varying aircraft capabilities and conditions, the following refueling guidelines would come into play:

-The C-32 (Boeing 757) has a max itinerary time of 8+00 and can make it non-stop both ways.
-The C-40B (Boeing 737) has a max itinerary time of 10+30 and can make it non-stop both ways.
-The C-37 (Gulfstream V) has a max itinerary time of 11+30 and can make it non-stop both ways.
-The C-20 (Gulfstream III) has a max itinerary time of 5+30 (so this would need to stop for fuel heading west — depending on the winds).  Travelling east, it should be able to make it back without fuel.
-The Guard C-30 [actually C-38] (Westwind Astra) has a max itinerary time of 4+30 (so this would have to stop for fuel).

For this weekend, the forecast is that winds heading to the west coast are very strong, thus likely forcing the C20B to stop for fuel tomorrow (generally, in the winter, the winds may prevent the C20B from making it nonstop to the west).

The mission planners will always provide you the best guidance on how to execute a specific trip.

[emphasis and links are mine, not included in original e-mail]

Those of you familiar with the various ranges and endurance of the civilian models of these aircraft will no doubt be shaking your heads.  Even the Air Force’s own Fact Sheets clearly indicate that the C-20B has an range of 3,698nm, and San Francisco is a mere 2131nm, or 4+16 flight time, at its maximum speed of 500kts.  That should leave 1+14 flight time, might be enough to make up for strong headwinds.

Yes, if you were going to fly the aircraft to the absolute limit of its range and ignore all of the flight safety fuel planning requirements and regulations.

The reality is that these manufacturer-provided figures are a pipe dream to help sell the aircraft to potential buyers.  They estimate the aircraft’s best range under the most ideal conditions, which rarely—if ever—occur in the real world.  For example, the manufacturer-derived Wikipedia specs for the CF-18 state its maximum ceiling as 50,000 feet, and that its climb rate is an astounding 50,000 feet per minute.  I guarantee you no CF-18 has ever flown from sea level to 50,000 feet in 60 seconds.  The world-record-setting Streak Eagle (an F-15A stripped of radar, weapons and even paint) made it to 40,000ft in just 55 seconds, back in 1975.  And the F-15 has a much better thrust-to-weight ratio than the CF-18, despite being 5,000 pounds heavier.  So there is no chance at all that the manufacturer’s CF-18 climb specs are pragmatically close to real-world performance, and that is generally true of the max range figures for all aircraft.  The next time you read some, remember that those figures are followed by a mental “bullshit”, and then continue reading.

Also, contrary to everything Hollywood has ever shown us, the military version of any commercial jet is going to have lesser unrefueled range and endurance than the commercial model.  The reason is simple.  Military aircraft are going to have a higher empty weight (zero fuel weight or ZFW), which reduces the amount of fuel that they can carry, because the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) will not change.  It cannot change, unless you also change the amount of lift generated by the wings, sometimes via increasing the thrust produced by the powerplants—either case would require reinforcing the structural elements, which (surprise, surprise) increases weight again.  This is something that frequently eludes Hollywood screenwriters, but the laws of physics are not so easily bamboozled.

Why will military aircraft weigh more than their civil counterparts?  That’s easy.  They will carry more sensors and secure communications gear.  Their avionics and critical systems may have have to be hardened against ECM or EMP effects.  They may carry countermeasures like chaff and flare dispensers, or (more recently) DIRCM.  All of that gear takes up valuable payload weight that could otherwise be devoted to fuel, pax or cargo.  Then there’s the fuel planning itself.

Fuel planning for any trip should take into account, at bare minimum, the following:

  • Taxi Fuel:  The amount of fuel needed for startup, taxiing to and possible holding at the runway. This fuel is also used for the ground operations when on the ramp (APU, air conditioning, etc). Taxi fuel differs per field (obviously) and is based on statistics collected by the operator.
  • Trip Fuel:  The amount of fuel needed for take-off; flying the standard instrument departure (SID);  climbing to the TOC (top of climb), including any step climbs if required; cruising from TOC to TOD (top of descent), from TOD to the IAF (initial approach fix), usually via a standard terminal arrival (STAR); and the flight segment from the IAF up to and including the landing.  Trip fuel is usually based on calculations and tables provided by the manufacturer, supplemented by additional weather estimates and calculations made by base ops.
  • Contingency Reserve:  Contingency being an unexpected event during the flight, such as more headwind, slight deviation to avoid weather, delaying vectors from ATC, etc.  Contingency fuel is calculated one of several ways, but most often as 5% of the trip fuel; or where an enroute alternate is available, 3% of trip fuel.
  • Alternate Reserve:  The amount of fuel required to fly a missed approach at the Destination; and then fly to the Alternate (including all climb, cruise, descent, approach and landing). Alternate fuel calculations are the same as for Trip Fuel, but are not included when calculating Contingency Fuel.
  • Final Reserve:  The amount of fuel required for a jet/turboprop to hold for 30 minutes, or for a piston-engined aircraft to hold for 45 minutes, at 1500 fet AGL under normal meteorological conditions.  The inclusion of this fuel reserve is a mandatory requirement for all flights.  In the unlikely event that you burn through all of your contingency fuel, have to fly a missed approach at destination, and head off to your alternate, and find delays at your alternate, the Final Reserve will ensure that your flight does not end in a fuel starvation disaster shown on the 11 o’clock news.  If you do find yourself dipping into Final Reserve, you should be notifying ATC via the handy “Mayday” phrase, and declaring a fuel emergency.
  • Additional Fuel:  There are two cases where Contingency, Alternate and Final Reserves are not enough.  First, if there is no alternate—as may be the case if your destination is a tiny island thousands of miles from land.  Second, if there is no enroute alternate and for whatever reason you need to decrease altitude (engine failure, cabin pressurisation failure).  Decreased altitude means increased fuel flow, naturally.  Additional fuel should permit you to hold for 15 minutes at 1500 AGL.

So for example if you have a Gulfstream III with a manufacturer’s estimated endurance of about 7+0 flight time, you will likely end up losing an hour and change just to contingency, alternate and final reserve fuel.  And then you will lose more due to weather (headwinds), plus the heavier ZFW of a militarised commercial design.  That makes 5+30 seem pretty reasonable.

When you combine all of these factors—the manufacturer’s “ideal conditions” range being somewhat out of whack; a militarised commercial jet having heavier ZFW than its civil counterparts, reducing range and endurance; the further reduction in range and endurance required by safe and responsible fuel planning; and the aircraft’s MTOW (whether that weight is avionics, pax, baggage, fuel, or whatever) being a fixed, non-negotiable figure—it’s not hard to see why the C-20Bs can’t always fly transcontinental nonstop.  And why the Speaker’s staff might, rather sensibly, desire to see a longer-ranged C-37 be used instead.

So at the end of the day, what we are left with is a bunch of memos that purport to tell lurid tales of the overbearing Speaker and her put-upon Air Force charioteers, but ultimately fail to satisfy the allegations.

Oh well.

I suppose hoping for a smidgen of aviation knowledge from a site called “Judicial Watch” was misguided at best.  One hopes they are much more accurate when it comes to matters of law.

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