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C-21 fleet receives key avionics and communication upgrades

U.S. Air Force Capt. Ramiro Rios,  a C-21 pilot assigned to the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, prepares for a flight at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Feb. 7, 2018.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Ramiro Rios, a C-21 pilot assigned to the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, prepares for a flight at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Feb. 7, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Riley Snowden (left) and Capt. Ramiro Rios, C-21 pilots assigned to the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, fly a mission over the Middle East, Feb. 7, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Riley Snowden (left) and Capt. Ramiro Rios, C-21 pilots assigned to the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, fly a mission over the Middle East, Feb. 7, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla., (AFLCMC) – The Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate is leading an effort to modernize the U.S. Air Force’s C-21 fleet.

Used primarily for the transportation of senior Air Force and Department of Defense leaders, the C-21 plays a key role in supporting cargo airlift as well as medical evacuation missions around the world.

Since 2017, 15 C-21s have received upgrades through the Avionics Upgrade Program, with four remaining aircraft expected to be modified by October 2020.

“The Avionics Upgrade Program was designed to bring the C-21 into compliance with civil air traffic mandates in the form of communication, navigation, and surveillance,” said Mike Lauer, C-21 program manager in the directorate. “It provided Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), as well as Controller Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC).”

ADS-B improves aircrew awareness of the airspace, by providing key information such as the location of other aircraft, weather, and terrain. In addition, it allows more fuel efficient routes.

With CPDLC, pilots in the air now have the ability to communicate with air traffic control via a datalink or text messaging-like system.

An additional change includes an upgraded flight management system, which will enable pilots to do more efficient approaches and landings.

“The AUP modification has brought the C-21 into the 21st century,” said Col. Brad Stevens, Commander of the 375th Operations Group at Scott AFB, Illinois.  “It has increased our ability to operate in austere environments that lack traditional navigation aids and provides increased situational awareness tools that ensure our crews can operate safely in highly congested airspace.”

The AUP team delivered the capability at a lower cost than planned. With that savings, the directorate was able to initiate a Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) modification to the C-21 fleet.  BLOS adds a significant capability for aircrews in that it enables voice communications regardless of aircraft location or radio systems status.

“The addition of BLOS is significant for fleet medical missions because it allows medical teams to communicate changes in patient status in real-time,” said Lauer. “As patient status changes, they [medical professionals] may have to arrange ambulances to meet the aircraft, or redirect to another medical facility if the situation necessitates.”

COVID-19 increased the urgency for BLOS and the directorate used simplified acquisition procedures to quickly award a contract for it, said Matt Tonay, a contracting officer in the C-21 Program Office. He added that with a number of aircraft in the process of receiving AUP modifications, the team was able to piggy back and get BLOS installed concurrently, saving time and money. The remaining C-21 aircraft will have BLOS installed by May 2021.

In total, the directorate will spend approximately $32.4 million dollars on AUP and BLOS modifications.

“The team exemplifies what AFLCMC brings to the table each and every day to deliver enhanced capabilities ahead of schedule,” said Brig. Gen. Ryan Britton, Program Executive Officer for the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate. “By working closely with both Air Mobility Command and Global Aviation Technologies, the Tinker team turned contract savings into a new communication system to help ensure success during critical medical evacuation missions. Outstanding!”