TOLEDO, Ohio --- In a joint effort by Airmen from the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Airmen from the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing, the F-16 Fight Falcon is currently undergoing a field service evaluation of biofuel.
As the largest consumer of energy in the Defense Department and $8 billion spent on fuel in fiscal 2011, Air Force officials are working toward making the fleet a little "greener" by researching, testing and ultimately implementing the use of alternative fuels.
Although other airframes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III, have been certified to use biofuel for unrestricted operations, this is the first evaluation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Two F-16s from the 180th FW fleet have been designated to test the 50/50 blend of Jet Propellant-8 petroleum and Hydroprocessed Renewable Jet fuel derived from the camelina plant. Camelina is essentially a weed that grows throughout the United States and requires very little horticulture.
The 180th FW was an ideal location for the fuel test because of its proximity to Wright-Patterson AFB, where the Air Force Research Laboratory is located, and its continued focus on green energy. In 2011, the wing was awarded the Reduced Energy Appreciation Program Award by the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency's Air Force Facility Energy Center.
"It's part of the Air Force's strategic goals to be able to reduce energy across the Air Force, so we really embrace that," said Col. Steve Nordhaus, the 180th FW commander. "We're trying to do everything we can to reduce energy costs because we know that every dollar we save there, we can use to buy more aircraft that protect our country or help support Airmen who are out there doing critical missions that affect our homeland defense."
The jets have been flying with the blend since mid-December and will continue until the test sample is depleted.
"Our ability to exercise and use this stuff on a small scale or case-by-case basis makes us ideally suited to test the fuel," said Col. William Gieze, the 180th Mission Support Group commander.
The staff at AFRL worked with commercial fuel manufacturers to develop a blend that would meet Air Force specifications. Considerations such as the flash and freeze points of the fuel were some of the major factors when determining the specifications for the F-16.
"Manufacturers are making alternative fuels for both the military and commercial customers," said Dr. Tim Edwards, a senior chemical engineer for the AFRL fuels division. "Typically, they'll send samples of their fuel, and we'll evaluate and say, 'Yes, you're on the right track, this could be a jet fuel.' When they get to the point where they can make large enough quantities, we'll hand them over them off to the Alternative Fuels Certification office."
The Air Force goal, by 2016, is to have half of the fuel that is purchased domestically to be at least a 50/50 blend of conventional and alternative fuel, Edwards said.
Another goal for the researchers and developers was to make the transition as seamless as possible. To date, there has been no additional training, equipment or maintenance required to begin using the fuel.
"When we first started this we were a little concerned because a few years ago we made the switch from JP4 to JP8 jet fuel," said Col. Scott Reed, the 180th Maintenance Group commander. "The difference between the two caused a few hiccups initially. Some of the gaskets and O-rings didn't expand as they normally would in the presence of the fuel, so we had leaks."
The colonel likened the process to driving a car from Los Angeles at sea level to the Rocky Mountains. Adjustments need to be made for the car to operate at peak performance at different elevations. But with the new fuel blend, the transition has been totally transparent.
After each flight, the pilots complete a debrief form and each week the fuels technicians complete a debrief form to provide data to the Alternative Fuels Certification office about how the jets are performing with the new fuel blend.
And just as in real world operations, the jets designated for the test can refuel from the same tanker as the rest of their fleet during mission. Since biofuels may not be available at every base, or some overseas locations, the fuel blend must be interchangeable with standard JP-8.
"The truth of it is there has been absolutely no noticeable difference whatsoever," Reed said. "There have been no fuel leaks, no operational impact."
Once all of the data is collected and analyzed and any issues are rectified, the fuel can be certified to be used for all F-16s.
"The fact that we're going to be doing something that not only affects the Air National Guard, but the total force was really our end goal," Gieze said. "We really want to see the F-16 get certified on this and allow our country some other avenues for fuel."