Thursday, July 26, 2012

Airshows And The Cost Of Military Fuel

We came out after dinner to see a plane skywriting above us.  Eventually it spelled out:

That's how I learned that this weekend, the Thunderbirds and other groups will perform at JBER. (Does anyone else think of someone picking their nose when people say Jayber, the newish acronym for Joint Bases Elmendorf and Richardson?) 

Skywriting is a very cool way to advertise an Air Show and the person we were with had never seen skywriting before.  He was duly impressed. 

I've been to an Air Show at Elmendorf.  It's impressive and loud.  I think just having planes swoop down on villages - without bombs - is terrifying enough. 

I also couldn't help but wonder about all the fuel used in an airshow.  If (data from the US Air Force Thunderbirds fact sheet)
a)  the 800 gallons an hour figure for F16s (see below) is our rough guide, and
b)  the Thunderbirds have an hour and 15 minute show (both air and ground) and
c)  there are four planes per show (see photos of the Thunderbirds in a show here)
then let's conservatively estimate that between the four planes, flying an average of 15 minutes each per show (to make the calculations very easy) for a total of a combined one hour of flying or 800 gallons. 

That would mean, just that part of the Air Show, if jet fuel is $3.84/gallon  (a big if) it would cost $2400.  After working this, I found some other sites asking similar questions.

Wiki-answers explains it all and concludes,
"Some sources claim 1 hr for F-16 is $4000"

Someone answering that question at Yahoo - Ask, who claims his father is an aerospace engineer, says $20,000 to $30,000 an hour in fuel costs to fly an F16.

The Thunderbirds fact sheet says they perform 75 such shows a year.  At $4000 a show that would come to $300,000 a year.  A figure so tiny in the Air Force's overall budget as to be of no consequence at all.  Even at $20,000 per hour, it would be $1.5 million.  Still a  tiny fraction of the overall budget.  Of course, this doesn't count practices and flying from show to show or any other costs besides fuel.  And how many 'tiny' $1million programs are there hidden in the budget that are not necessary, like this one? 

As you can see, figuring out how much fuel an F16 uses isn't easy.  There is a nice simple article at New Launches, but I can't find any sources for their information.  My sense of this, after looking around the internet, is that there is no simple calculation.  It depends a lot on how the plane is being flown.  I would imagine that the type of flying at an air show would consume more fuel than a steady flight at high altitude.  Here's a post at a forum at Defense Talk which tries to calculate fuel use.  I can't figure it out, and apparently the poster isn't sure either.

But for my purposes, it doesn't have to be exact.  I'm just trying to get a ballpark figure.   New Launches says an F16 uses 800 gallons an hour and also puts that into some context about how much petroleum the US Department of Defense uses altogether.
3) In 2006 Air Force consumed around 2.6 billion gallons of jet-fuel which is the same amount of fuel U.S. airplanes consumed during WWII (between December 1941 and August 1945). The mighty B52 bomber (pictured above) consumes 3300 gallons per hour, the F16 Falcon burns 800 gallons per hour and the KC-135 Statotanker an aerial refueling tanker aircraft consumes 2650 gallons per hour.
2) The Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of petroleum in the U.S and the US military is the biggest purchaser of oil in the world. In 2006 the US Military consumed 117 million barrels or 320,000 barrels per day.
I wonder how this affects the price of gas around the world? 

This Armed Forces Journal article supports the basic premise that the jet aircraft fuel is a major cost - in dollars, logistics, and casualties:
Aircraft, particularly jet aircraft, use a great deal of fuel. The Air Force is the largest consumer of fuel in the Defense Department. In 2006, the majority of DoD’s fuel use, about 58 percent, was jet fuel, dwarfing the next-largest category, marine diesel (13 percent). In 2008, fuel deliveries to Iraq and Afghanistan exceeded 90 million gallons per month — 20 percent of the DoD consumption. While the overall consumption of petroleum increased only slightly between 2004 and 2008, the dollar cost increased threefold. Because of the poor in-ground petroleum transport infrastructure, the heavy use of fuel in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan can be directly tied to casualties incurred by ground operations required to get the fuel to U.S. bases. Overall, roughly half of the total tonnage hauled overland is fuel.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the tie between fuel demand and casualties is significant and quantifiable. With fuel and water being the majority of the tonnage hauled, the Army has developed a model from historical casualty data. In Afghanistan, one U.S. soldier or contract civilian is killed or wounded for every 24 16-truck fuel convoys. In Iraq, that number was one per 38.5 convoys. During fiscal 2007, there were 38 casualties incurred moving 897 “average” fuel convoys in Afghanistan. The Army data do not include casualties among allied forces or the Marine Corps. The Marines track their data differently, but the Corps’ Expeditionary Energy Strategy does highlight the issue: “During a three-month period early in 2010, six Marines were wounded hauling fuel and water to bases in Afghanistan during just 299 convoys. That is one Marine wounded for every 50 convoys.”
The o-ax alternative
The direct link between fuel and casualties is not news. However, the impact of high fighter fuel consumption remains poorly understood and rarely discussed. If there were no alternative to the current tactical air fleet, the discussion would be moot. But for the kind of irregular warfare challenges faced in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere), there is a viable alternative: a turboprop-powered light attack aircraft. The proposed aircraft is not notional — modern light attack aircraft are flown by a number of air forces worldwide. Air Combat Command has a designation for its proposed light attack aircraft: the OA-X. Among its other capabilities, the fuel consumption of the OA-X will be a fraction of the consumption of fast jets. [This is just an excerpt, click here for the full article.]
Gives us something to add into the equation when we discuss US oil consumption and climate change.  

By the time we biked home, the letters in the sky were starting to disappear.


  1. Oh and do not even get started on how they dump excess fuel in the ocean so they can get their full allotment for the next fiscal year. EVERY flying squadron does this.
    Wife of a Marine A6 pilot who remembers what her late husband told her about this crap.

  2. But think of all the new recruits - priceless.

  3. Both the Navy and the Air Force consider their aerobatic teams not only a recruiting tool, but a public relations tool. The teams also give their best pilots something to aspire to. Competition to get on these teams is fierce, and having a tour with the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds on your resume improves the likelihood of promotion.

    I prefer the RCF Snowbirds myself. They fly smaller, lighter Canadair CT-114s (see ), and because they are willing to work around Juneau's mountains, they have performed in Juneau, which the US teams will never do. They like to come here because we always give them a big community party/picnic afterword.

  4. Whenever I’ve seen these events, it’s been no better and more instantaneous way to empathize with the plight of thousands of innocent citizens across the world that, instead of puffing up their chests with patriotic pride or being dazzled by the mighty grandstanding of technological superiority, are filled with sheer terror at the sound of these aircraft.

    Like handguns, the only reason they exist is for the sole purpose of killing, just on a wider, more indiscriminate scale.

    It costs more than money.

    1. Shut up and go hug a tree hippie.

    2. Anon, I'm assuming you're new here and didn't read the comments guidelines. If you have some specific challenge to what Jamie wrote, you should spell it out. Your comment only tells us you don't like what he wrote, but not why.

  5. Thunderbirds: Founded in 1953, the national flight team has played to total audiences of more than 280 million people throughout the United States and 57 foreign countries since then. The Thunderbirds typically travel at least 200 days a year to 30 air show sites in this country and, every other year, overseas.
    Air Force spending this year on the 120-person team and its 11 F-16 aircraft includes $23.8 million to fly the planes and $10.8 million for life support equipment and transporting personnel to and from shows.
    In July, the Thunderbirds will once again be the featured performers at the Dayton Air Show.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.