Tinker Air Force Base prepares for B-52 upgrades as engines are tested

The Air Force expects to complete qualification testing of the new engines designed for the B-52 Stratofortress until the end of 2024.

And the agency plans to make a Milestone B decision on the Commercial Engine Replacement Program by the end of the summer, which will allow it to move into the engineering and manufacturing development phase, officials told Defense News.

These developments will mark critical milestones in The Air Force’s effort to upgrade its fleet of 76 Cold War-era B-52s with new engines, radars, avionics and other improvements to keep it flying until perhaps 2060, about a century later the B-52H was first introduced. The planes’ 1960s-era TF33 engines are at the end of their life and are to be replaced by Rolls-Royce’s F130 engine.

Col. Scott Foreman, the B-52 system program manager who oversees the bomber’s maintenance and modernization efforts at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and CERP program manager Lt. Col. Tim Cleaver said in the interview that the base is also taking several steps to preparation for the major modernization project.

This includes plans to build a massive hangar at Tinker starting in 2026, which could house up to four B-52s and increase the work that can be done on the bomber at any given moment.

The Air Force wants to “convert these H models to [B-52]“J is modeling as fast as possible because… the clock is ticking on these TF33 engines,” Cleaver said.

The Air Force knows the F130 engine works, Cleaver said, as a version of it has powered the Gulfstream G650 business jet for years. But the F130s will be mounted differently to the B-52, and the Air Force needs to make sure there are no surprises with the bomber’s bi-leg, under-wing configuration.

Rolls-Royce last year completed much of the initial twin-pod testing of the F130 engines at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, Cleaver said, and the final six-week test cycle there is expected to begin in early March. These tests will include exposing the engine bays to crosswind fans and seeing what happens if an engine in the pod has to run at reduced power or even if it doesn’t.

More testing will follow, Foreman said. In April, the F130 will begin sea-level performance testing in a stand at a Rolls-Royce facility in Indianapolis. Another engine will undergo durability testing until 2025, Cleaver said. And this fall, F130 tests will move to the Arnold Engineering Development Complex in Tennessee, where they will undergo simulated altitudes to generate more data on how it might behave in flight.

Once that round is complete, they said, the F130 will have completed certification tests that ensure it is safe to fly and will pave the way for testing modifications to begin.

The first two test B-52s will be modified at Boeing’s facility in San Antonio, Texas, starting in 2026. It will take a few years to upgrade those bombers for the first time, Cleaver said, and ground and flight tests will be conducted from late 2028 to 2031.

After this year’s tests, Boeing will set up four systems integration labs to ensure adding the new engines to the B-52 goes smoothly, Cleaver said. Three will be located in Oklahoma City, near Tinker Air Force Base, and the fourth – focusing on the engines’ electrical systems – will be at a Boeing facility near Seattle.

“We have a combination of simulated operations and hardware operations … to make sure that our systems work together and that we’re not using the test aircraft as our place to find problems,” Cleaver said. The labs will “really prove the design before we even cut into a jet.”

The Air Force is still awaiting cost updates from Boeing — which originally built the Stratofortress and is the lead integrator on the upgrade program — before it can finalize its own cost expectations and make a Milestone B decision, Cleaver said . Boeing is expected to provide these updates in late spring or June.

In a statement, Boeing confirmed Air Force statements about the need for updated cost estimates.

The engine contract with Rolls-Royce is worth $2.6 billion. When development, integration, testing, and production of other major subsystems are considered, the cost estimate is approximately $12.4 billion.

Tinker, where all production B-52Hs will be upgraded to B-52Js, is also preparing for its role in the massive modernization effort.

“It’s a large scope of work, when it includes things like the radar modernization program, the [engine upgrades]integration of advanced ultra-high frequency communications, [and] other programs,” Foreman said.

Tinker’s workforce will install the engines, radar upgrades and other upgrades to the B-52s as they go through their routine depot maintenance that occurs every four years, Foreman said.

The Air Force sends about 17 B-52s through Tinker for major maintenance each year and wants to make as many upgrades as possible to the bomber as it moves through storage. But he cautioned that some modernization programs run on different timetables and may not all be ready when some bombers pass.

“We have a master plan that goes tail to tail, that shows in the next 10 years where [a bomber] it’s going to get tweaks along the way,” Foreman said. “So as we enter the end [20]1930s, we have a fleet of 76 aircraft with new engines, new radars, new [weapons]communications, etc… The design is constantly evolving as we gain more and more information and individual [modernization] programs move left or right.”

But the upgrades will mean a lot more work and require a lot more capacity at Tinker, Foreman said. So in 2026, Tinker will begin building a massive structure known as the flexible common bomber hangar that could house four B-52s and allow more upgrade work to be done. This hangar will be ready in late 2030, in time for production jet upgrades to begin in early 2031.

“If you have aircraft that use storage docks for a longer period of time, you need more docks, and that’s what the agile shared hangar brings us,” Cleaver said.

Foreman said it typically takes a B-52 between 220 and 260 days to pass through depot maintenance, depending on parts availability and whether a bomber has aging cracks or corrosion that need to be repaired. The Air Force is still trying to figure out how much time upgrades could add to that program, he said.

Cracking and other structural issues are common in the six-decade-old B-52, Foreman said, and sometimes require parts to be replaced. But the Air Force is used to catching and fixing these problems, he said, and the aircraft should be able to last well into the 2050s — perhaps into the 2060s — without more in-depth structural upgrades.

“We are very disciplined [structural integrity] inspections every time [the B-52] goes in” to the warehouse, Cleaver said. “That’s what allowed this aircraft to get here in the 2020s. But it still has life to take it to 2050 and beyond.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues for Air Force Times and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover US Air Force operations.

Read the original at Defence247.gr

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