Life With the C-5

June 1, 2007

It has been 36 years since the first C-5 Galaxy arrived on the Dover AFB, Del., flight line. Though the huge transport now is considerably grayer than it was in 1971, its pace of operations hasn’t slowed all that much, if at all. Indeed, the old warhorse, despite mechanical flaws, just continues to rack up the miles.

On a recent visit to Dover, one of the Air Force’s busiest aerial ports, a visitor could see clearly the wartime mission was keeping Dover’s C-5 fleet and crews on the run.

C-5 loaders were shuttling back and forth inside a large warehouse at the base, moving everything from armor kits to portable toilets out the door toward the flight line. There, the cargo was loaded aboard waiting Galaxys bound for the war zone of Southwest Asia.

Dover is home to the 436th Airlift Wing, the Air Force’s first fully modernized C-5B outfit. The last of Dover’s “old” C-5 airlifters—airframes that have not received extensive avionics modernization—were sent off to other bases. The Dover aircraft have taken up a central position in USAF’s global aerial transport network.

The Galaxy, USAF’s first widebody “jumbo” aircraft, was designed in the 1960s and optimized for one critical task—moving huge amounts of cargo, fast, over long distances. Today, the C-5 remains the large muscle of Air Force strategic lift. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given it a new lease on life.

“We get [cargo] into the big airfield, into a central hub, and use smaller aircraft to distribute it out to the various airfields,” said Col. Samuel D. Cox, then commander of Dover’s 436th Airlift Wing. This is in addition to the basic war materiel deliveries that the Galaxys continue to make on a routine basis.

The sheer size of this enormous aircraft has long inspired gawking. The Galaxy—the largest aircraft in the US inventory—is nearly as long as a football field and as tall as a six-story building. The cargo compartment alone could accommodate an eight-lane bowling alley, or, more usefully, three CH-47 helicopters.

Several pilots and maintainers observed that the Wright brothers could have staged their epochal Dec. 17, 1903 first flight within the cargo hold of the C-5.

TSgt. Brian Neiman, a transit alert maintainer who has worked on Dover’s flight line for eight years, points out that no other US aircraft can handle the loads that fit into a Galaxy. “What’s amazing to me is to watch the size of the cargo it takes,” Neiman said. “I’ve seen it take everything from deep sea submarines to 14-by-80 house trailers, and it just swallows the whole thing and just takes off.”

With operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq ongoing, the airlifter is a key link in keeping forces supplied and readiness high.

MSgt. Roland Devries, a loadmaster superintendent with the 436th AW, said that, since September 2001, the Galaxy fleet has seen a drop in passenger lift out of Dover and an uptick in equipment loads, often flying from Delaware to Army and Navy airfields to load up before heading to an overseas theater.

“That’s a big significant change I’ve seen since 9/11,” Devries said. From “helicopters, armored Humvees, trailers—each pickup is different.”Airmen follow a careful loading procedure to make sure every flight is used as effectively as possible.

SSgt. Lane Byrum, a flight engineer at Dover, explains the process as a cooperative venture between loadmasters, pilots, and ground crew members.

Engineers “have to tell the guys on the ground, ‘This is what we can take,’ then we have to tell the loadmasters, ‘This is what we can make it off the ground with,’ and the pilots have to say, ‘This is what we have fuel for,’?” Byrum explained.

Engineers often have to temper the others’ enthusiasm about the aircraft with a dose of real-world facts. Galaxy crews are often sent to Army or Navy air fields that have takeoff weight restrictions, so the C-5 can’t be loaded to full capacity.

“We have to say, ‘You can put everything in there, but we won’t get off the runway,’?” Byrum said with a smile.


Dover aircrews average two missions a month, often pulling five to six legs on a trip from Dover to bases such as Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan.

Although C-5 reliability has long been a problem, most of the breakdowns are not dramatic and large. Despite the massive size and complexity of the airlifter, only four C-5 crashes have occurred since its first delivery to the training unit at Altus AFB, Okla., in December 1969. The most recent crash was just outside Dover’s fence, last year. (See “Aerospace World,” May 2006, p. 18.)

While often flying into sweltering desert environments, the aircraft performs well on deployments, maintainers say. “Sometimes we find an aircraft with … damage, [but] it’s not very often,” said MSgt. Bill Tarrant, a Reservist with Dover’s 512th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

Maintaining the Galaxy is no easy task, however. The aircraft are routinely inspected and get a detailed examination every 420 days at Dover’s isochronal inspection shop—a massive hangar where Galaxys get a two-week checkup on everything from screws to fuel lines.

CMSgt. James Schilling, a crew chief in the ISO shop, was working on a C-5 in March. The health of its sheet metal is one of the big concerns. Schilling explained that, given the C-5’s age and size, cracks and anomalies in the wings or the body need to be identified and patched over before they cause larger problems.

“If you look at the airplane in general, it’s kind of amazing it gets off the ground,” said Tarrant. “When I first started here, I was a little afraid because it was so big, but now I look at it like I look at my truck.”

Through the years, Tarrant explained, he’s seen the C-5 evolve: The landing gear has been modified, the A models were rewinged, and improvements were made to systems such as the gearboxes. (The 10 gearboxes on the first Galaxys have been cut to two.) The airframe changes have significantly increased service life, he said.

He recalled that the fleet went through a depot inspection down at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia several years ago. “Everybody thought there would be huge structure cracks,” he said. “They didn’t find anything on that aircraft.”

The projected service life of the fleet exceeds 50,000 hours.

By the time the B models were rolling off the assembly line in the 1980s, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin had incorporated many of the lessons learned from the first generation of the aircraft. The first C-5B arrived at Altus in January 1986. B models featured strengthened wings and updated avionics.

AMC began a program to bring the strategic airlifter into the 21st century in 1998 with the Avionics Modernization Program. (See “Saving the Galaxy,” January 2004, p. 30.) This was the genesis of Dover’s now fully “AMPed” fleet of 18 C-5s. Operators say the upgrade is paying off.

Capt. Zane Holscher, a pilot with the 3rd Airlift Squadron, noted that the new flat-screen displays, state-of-the-art navigation computers, and night-vision-goggle-compatible cockpits are all tools that are helping him perform his missions more capably. Capt. Josh Soule, a C-5 instructor pilot with the 436th AW, said the aircraft is now pushing the technological edge.

“We’ve got top-of-the-line communications,” said Soule, who flew C-5s for three years before finally getting into an AMPed bird. “We’ve got the room to grow with it. It’s been a big change.”

The future of the C-5 modernization programs—in particular, a re-engining program—is still undecided. The Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program (RERP) promises more power, reliability, and lower operating costs, but the program is massively expensive.

Air Force officials are still attempting to determine whether the cost of the program is worthwhile for the older C-5As, which will likely still struggle with reliability issues. In February, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Chief of Staff, said modernization efforts for the C-5 fleet were running over budget and would be given a second look.


Moseley said it may not be worth the investment to modernize the older C-5s, since they may see limited reliability improvements and would only be in service another 25 years.

With resources for modernization scarce, Moseley said the $5 billion budgeted for the A-model modernization effort may be better used on the KC-X or Joint Cargo Aircraft acquisition programs. Fully modernized C-5s that have been through both the AMP and RERP programs are being redesignated C-5M. The C-5Bs should see more substantial reliability improvements through conversion to C-5M configuration.

At a March 7 hearing, USAF’s acquisition deputy, Lt. Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, and AMC’s requirements director, Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Kane, argued that C-5As would likely see mission capable rate improvements of just 10 to 15 percent after going through the modernization program—at a cost of more than $100 million per airframe.

Dover’s flying mission began changing in March as well. A lone C-5 slowly taxied up to the flight line at Dover on March 14, 2007 under an arch of water from two 436th Civil Engineer Squadron fire trucks. A small crowd of well-wishers, base officials, and local media greeted the crew as they exited the aircraft to cheers—and a blast of water from another fire hose.

The flight was the end of an era for Dover’s 3rd AS, the last time the unit would fly the Galaxy.

The endgame for Dover is that it will have 18 C-5s and 12 C-17s, said Cox, the wing commander.

The 12 C-17s are expected to arrive by the end of 2008, turning Dover into a multi-aircraft base for the first time since it became the Air Force’s only all-Galaxy base in 1973.

Last year, Dover processed 90,000 tons of cargo. The existing aerial port facility is scheduled to be replaced by June with a modernized aerial port featuring fully automated pallet processing and a computerized traffic system, in a 12,000-square-foot main bay, which means Dover will get even busier.

The 3rd AS is now transitioning to C-17 operations.

SSgt. Marc Hobson, the 3rd AS assistant NCO in charge of aviation resource management, said that he is looking forward to the new aircraft’s arrival. “It’s going to be a learning experience for everyone involved,” he said. The 3rd AS, along with its Reserve partner, the 326th Airlift Squadron, will transition to the C-17 over the next year-and-a-half.

With the C-17s coming in, the 436th AW and its associate units are in the process of moving to a “common mobility culture,” said Col. Merril J. Alligood Jr., deputy commander of the 436th Operations Group.

SrA. James Rutherford, a crew chief and aircrew debriefer with the 436th AW, said he remembered his aircraft mechanic father taking him to an Oklahoma City air show to see the C-5 “super plane” when he was growing up. When Rutherford finished tech school, he went to work on the very same aircraft.

His first “huge shock” came when he was working on top of the aircraft’s massive T-tail—sitting six stories high with a view of the entire flight line. “I just wanted to sit there and take it all in,” Rutherford said.

While the Air Force leadership and Congress continue to debate the future size and configuration of the C-5 fleet, Galaxy operators and maintainers take pride in the aircraft’s unique capabilities.