More flights are just days away; airlines could reap benefits
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A 46-year-old jet lumbered off a runway this week on a flight that could lead to a new domestic fuel source, not just for the military but for commercial aviation as well.
An Air Force crew took the aging B-52 bomber aloft for more than two hours above the Mojave desert test range here in the military's first jet flight powered with synthetic fuel.
Air Force Undersecretary Ronald Sega declared the flight a success, even though an unrelated technical problem -- a balky hydraulic landing gear -- prompted the crew to cut short planned test maneuvers.
The Air Force's experiment is being watched by a commercial aviation industry eager to stabilize and cut fuel costs, which have soared along with the price of oil this year.
Sega, the Air Force's top energy official, said establishing the viability of synthetic fuel "is potentially important to others as well as" the military. Once testing on the B-52 is complete, he said, the Air Force will try the fuel in more modern jet engines, including those that power the KC-135 airborne refueling tanker, which uses the same engines as the Boeing 737, a workhorse of airlines.
"Some of the engines we have are the same as in commercial aviation," said Sega, a pilot and former space shuttle astronaut who rode in the cockpit for the test flight.
"We think this is a test that has potentially huge ramifications," said Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke, commander of the test center here.
The Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group, said it "strongly supports the development of alternatives to traditional oil-based jet fuel."
The bomber took off just after dawn with two of its eight engines powered with a 50-50 mixture of jet fuel, called JP-8, and a colorless synthetic fuel produced by a Tulsa-based company, Syntroleum. The synthetic was produced from natural gas, but officials said coal -- which the nation has in abundance -- could be used to produce an identical fuel.
The Air Force previously conducted more than 100 hours of ground tests with the fuel mixture. Within days, it plans to conduct more test flights, including use of the synthetic in all eight of the B-52's engines.
The objective of the tests is to establish that the 50-50 synthetic mixture produces engine performance equal to that of pure jet fuel, Air Force officials said. Their hope is that a switch to a synthetic mixture can be made without modifying aircraft engines, fuel systems and performance standards. The B-52 was chosen because its relatively old-fashioned fuel system permits crewmembers to manually direct fuel from specific tanks to each engine, making it easy to isolate the new mixture and measure its performance. Also, said Col. Arnie Bunch, crews were trained to land the craft under partial power if two engines fail.
Sega said engines running the new fuel appeared to operate identically to the other engines, though researchers will pore over flight data before reaching conclusions. He said the Air Force may also consider other mixtures, including a higher proportion of synthetic, which tests suggest burns with less pollution than regular fuel.
While new to the military's skies, synthetic fuel has a long history. It was championed in the late 1970s by the Carter administration, before the collapse of oil prices reduced interest and economic viability.
Sega said the method of turning raw carbon sources such as coal or natural gas into usable fuel was developed by German scientists in the 1920s and used briefly by Germany during World War II and later by South Africa.
The Air Force, which is the military's largest user of fuel, began looking at the idea anew in 1999, said Michael Aimone, the Air Force's assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics. He said the Air Force uses 2.6 billion gallons of jet fuel a year, at a cost of $4.5 billion.
Commercial U.S. airlines burn more than 53 million gallons of jet fuel per day, the industry group says. Fuel now amounts to 20% to 30% of total airline operating costs, twice the historical average, it said.
The project took on a new priority after President Bush, in his Jan. 31 State of the Union speech, set the goal of using technology to replace more than 75% of oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.
Bedke and other military officials said they don't know yet what kind of cost savings, if any, could be gained from using synthetic fuel. But its viability has grown with the price of oil. Beyond such savings, however, the officials said there are strong potential benefits of synthetic fuel, including cleaner emissions and a stable domestic energy source.