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It's an aerial maneuver known as "vortex surfing" where cargo planes in a V formation ride the cyclone of upward pressure that spills off the wings of another plane flying roughly 3,000 feet in front. Special software developed for the large C-17 Globemaster III, allows the trailing plane to stay in the sweet spot of an upward draft, providing significant fuel savings.
The Air Force successfully tested the concept last month. Now scientists at the unit that manages cargo and tanker planes must find the money to complete this efficiency project at a time of ever-shrinking budgets.
"We've seen birds fly in 'V' formations. They do that for a good reason," says Donald Erbschloe, chief scientist at Air Mobility Command, based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. The Air Force consumes 75 percent of all of the federal government's aviation fuel. Air Mobility Command alone requires 25 percent.
A fuel efficiency office was already looking at the low-hanging fruit to use these resources more efficiently, says Erbschloe, including removing weight from the aircraft, washing the engines and changing the plane's center of cargo.