When Brooks Bash hurled his service hat into the Colorado Springs sunshine in May 1981, he and a thousand other Air Force Academy graduates launched into new careers as second lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force. Many would become pilots—of fighters, bombers, trainers and transports. Even the Space Shuttle was possible. But no one at the time had even heard of the C-17. Today, Brooks Bash is a colonel and commands the largest C-17 Airlift Wing in the world. He and members of "Team Charleston" spoke with Boeing Frontiers recently from their headquarters at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. Employing the world's most advanced tactical and strategic airlift aircraft, the men and women of Team Charleston are key players in the war on global terrorism.
When the war on terrorism reached Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. Air Force's C-17s were simultaneously delivering life-sustaining meals to the innocent and displaced Afghan people. Employing high-altitude airdrops to evade enemy fire, the 200-plus missions were one of the many firsts set by the C-17 and its crews. "The airplane operationally is still in its infancy," said Col. Brooks Bash, commander of the C-17 wing at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. "We don't know exactly what the ultimate uses and attributes of this plane are. Perhaps in the coming months we may find that it has benefits we haven't even thought of before."
The C-17 has literally changed the face of combat. It flies strategic ranges and lands on short, austere "tactical" airfields like many of those in Afghanistan. The last of Charleston's venerable Lockheed C-141 Starlifters has departed to make way for a still growing complement of Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs on its busy flight line.
Last August, the Air Force signed a contract for an additional 60 C-17s to bring the total buy to 180 and extend the production run in Long Beach through 2008. Ultimately, Gen. John Handy, commander, U.S. Transportation Command, has stated that the Air Force needs a minimum of 222 C-17s.
The United Kingdom's Royal Air Force also operates four of its own C-17s under a lease agreement. "The U.K. C-17s' performance for the Royal Air Force is a strong endorsement for future C-17 procurement by the United Kingdom and other NATO allies," said Tom Dunehew, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems program manager of International C-17 programs in Long Beach. The U.S. Air Force also plans to base C-17s in Hawaii and Alaska to give the Pacific theater more lift capacity and free stateside-based C-17s for other missions.
Frequently cited as the most versatile airlift aircraft in aviation history, the C-17 sustains this reputation through ongoing innovation by its design and production teams. For example, current C-17s include increased fuel capacity and a 25 percent greater range, at great benefit to the Air Force.
"It certainly makes our jobs easier when you have a product like the C-17," said Bash, whose previous assignment was with the National Security Council at the White House. "It truly is an airplane that has come along at the right time. It combines the attributes of the Lockheed C-130 in the short-field-austere-dirt-runway environment with the capabilities of a strategic airlifter that can fly unlimited with air refuelings. Internationally, especially with the extended-range birds [versions], it's an incredible capability to put them on the ground for three hours, give them a new crew and just keep flying."
Despite what the Air Force calls its current "high ops tempo" (which involves launching up to 28 sorties a day from Charleston, roughly double that of a year earlier and triple the rate before Sept. 11, 2001), the C-17's maintenance reliability exceeds 95 percent. That, Bash said, is "absolutely incredible."
New airplanes join the fight fast
"Another indicator of the quality of the product is when we get a new one delivered," Bash said. "In 48 to 72 hours, we take a brand new airplane and send it out on an international mission. One plane we didn't see back for more than three weeks. Right off the line, the C-17 is very reliable."
Adding more C-17s at a production rate of 15 per year allows Boeing "to take full advantage of the fiscal economies of a multiyear procurement," said Dave Bowman, Boeing IDS vice president and C-17 program manager. "The government saves more than a billion dollars over a conventional contract, the Air Force gets the airlift it needs more quickly, and the C-17 line stays busy for several more years" Bowman said.
Can we get any busier?
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Charleston has taken delivery of 18 new C-17s from the Boeing assembly line in Long Beach, Calif.
"That's an incredible amount of new capability that we have now that we didn't have even a year and a half ago," Bash said. "My people keep asking me, 'How can we get any busier?' And I say, well, next week we're going to get a new airplane, and then two weeks after that we'll get another new airplane … so our capability keeps increasing the quicker the planes come to us."
And quickly they do come. Each delivery from Long Beach is more than three months ahead of the contract requirement, which is welcome news for the busy Airlift Wings.
In his previous assignment at the White House, Bash saw the success of the C-17's humanitarian airdrops as topics of daily interest to both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. That humanitarian support had major political implications.
"It's not often in our history that the success of airlift has had that sort of high-level interest," Bash said. "And I'm proud to say there was not one delay in those 200 missions. We also took Marines into Camp Rhino [in Afghanistan]. The C-17 was the only [inter-theater airlifter] that could do it in a reliable and timely manner. Direct delivery of combat forces into a combat environment ... it doesn't get any better than that."
Lt. Col. A.J. McMillan, a former C-17 operational test pilot now charged with overseeing the safety of Team Charleston, still pilots C-17s with the squadrons, including recent flights into Afghanistan. "The C-17 was designed by engineers who listened to the folks who use it," he said. "Lots of intellectual energy was put into the C-17 right from the start."
The Globemaster's versatility and reliability, coupled with its up-to-date avionics and communications systems, allow it to operate effectively in today's global network. In addition to the airplane, Boeing provides the Air Force with first-class maintenance for the C-17 in a program known as Flexible Sustainment. Under the program, Boeing provides depot-level maintenance and repairs, spare parts buying and management, engineering support, technical publications and engine overhaul management.
Senior Master Sgt. Randy Munroe spent 11 years as a loadmaster on Vietnam-era C-5 Galaxies. He is an Air Reserve Technician, working alongside the 500 Team Charleston Reservists now activated on full-time duty.
"I really loved the C-5—and we tend to be loyal to our airplanes—but the C-17 has a loadmaster's station, and the format computer alone saves me a good 30 minutes planning a load," Munroe said. "Being able to operate most of the aircraft systems from one location is definitely a plus, eliminating a lot of running around, which wastes time. I love the versatility of it and the ease in doing my job. The lighting makes my environment a great place to work—and everything works, too!"
New extended-range capability
C-17s that Boeing is delivering today contain improvements to their onboard computers, including a warning system that maps terrain and helps pilots avoid obstacles. The new aircraft also have a reactive wind-shear warning system on the pilot's head-up display and updated Station Keeping Equipment to allow pilots to keep track of their location relative to up to 99 other aircraft that fly in formation over a 100-square-mile area.
The extended-range fuel tanks allow for 60,000 extra pounds of fuel, which translate into about five more flying hours. That's an important advantage, Munroe said, especially during long, grueling missions.
"Every time you fly into Afghanistan, you keep your fingers crossed to fly block 13 [C-17 Extended Range route], because it eliminates, in my mind, an unnecessary stop for fuel," Munroe said. "With extended range tanks, we go straight into Afghanistan, do an engines-running offload, then go straight back to Frankfurt [Germany], which knocks off a good five to six hours from a crew duty day. And when you're coming back from Frankfurt, after being out in the system for 21 days, coming straight home to Charleston without stopping for fuel in Maine is a real plus.
"What I enjoy now," Munroe said, "are the missions we have going into the desert and being able to land on a strip that's a lot shorter than those accessible by the C-141 or C-5. We went to Kuwait last week and there were probably 40 airplanes on the ground. A C-5 had to wait a good 45 minutes for the traffic in front of it to get out of its way. Sometimes the tower won't even let a C-5 land until other aircraft clear out. With the C-17, we simply back out of our parking spot, to the amazement of local officials in the tower who didn't realize we could do that.
"During Desert Storm, we wanted to get into the battle, but the C-5 couldn't get in close, since it needed to land on long runways, like at Dhahran [Saudi Arabia]. Now, when I talk with some of my C-5 buddies, I can brag a little bit about us going into [shorter] C-130-sized airfields."
Technical Sgt. Amos McCoy spent 12 years maintaining C-141s at Charleston. Now with seven years' experience maintaining C-17s, he's a seasoned Globemaster III crew chief.
"The C-17 is so much easier to work on—it really is maintenance-friendly," McCoy said. "One of the best experiences I've had in showing other maintainers the C-17 was in Kandahar [Afghanistan]. I got to work with the C-130 crews, showing them our capability of backing up and how easy it is to maneuver the aircraft in tight spots. Quite often, we had allied [forces'] C-130 crews come over and ask us questions and try to get tours on the C-17." Since some flights into Afghanistan have been exposed to hostile action, the airfields are considered high-threat areas. Frequently, crews must fly under blacked-out conditions and use night-vision goggles to read darkened instruments and the ever-present flight deck head-up display. Ground crews also use night-vision goggles to offload airplanes under these conditions, a new tactic in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Before the terrorists' attacks of 2001, only a few special-operations crews used night-vision goggles. But today, Bash said, "a majority of our active-duty C-17 crews are NVG qualified, including both Charleston and McChord squadrons."
Everyone at Team Charleston is mindful of the potential dangers of each mission. "That's just part of doing business," Bash said. Having a modern, reliable and highly capable platform like the C-17, however, makes getting everyone and everything to the right place at the right time a whole lot easier.
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