Boeing delivered the
223rd and final C-17 to the Air Force on Sept. 12, completing the
service’s order for the Globemaster III after a production run that
lasted 20 years.
first C-17 unit began mobility operations in January 1995, the aircraft
has become the workhorse of the air mobility fleet, rapidly delivering
people, supplies, and equipment around the globe while being widely
praised for its versatility and reliability.
Douglas won the C-X contract in August 1981. Based on the company’s
YC-15 concept demonstrator, the C-17 was judged to be low risk because
it would be based on “proven” technologies.
project was hardly an engineering milk run. The C-17 was being asked to
do things a giant airlifter had never done before, such as land on
unimproved airstrips, land on short fields, taxi in a tight space, and
even back up on a runway, all while delivering superheavy, outsize cargo
at strategic distances.
The C-17 had
to overcome flight-control problems, wings that were unable to carry
their designed maximum load, automation growing pains, and a crew size
reduced to just two pilots and a loadmaster. There were also teething
problems in using new computer-aided design methods.
early years were troubled. Several generals and a host of company
managers were fired during development and initial production.
The C-17 was
threatened with cancellation, and Pentagon leaders delivered an
ultimatum that if it couldn’t be shaped up, some other transport
aircraft—such as a cargo version of the Boeing 747—would be substituted.
procurement numbers tell the tale. The C-17 program was originally to
deliver 210 airplanes; that was reduced to 120, then 40, and as low as
eight before the program regained its footing. The figure began to
rise—to 140, then 160, then 180—as deliveries and costs improved.
Congress ultimately boosted production to 223 aircraft, leaving a force
of 222 (one was lost in an accident)—notably, a dozen more than the
original Cold War requirement.
It all came
to a head in 1994, when the Air Force and McDonnell Douglas agreed to a
get-well plan. Both the service and the company would pony up cash to
fix the C-17’s deficiencies. Requirements were reset to more realistic
standards, giving the aircraft more breathing room. Lawsuits on both
sides were dropped.
quickly, the project turned around. Air Force and corporate leaders
praised the new spirit of cooperation and communication. Delays
diminished; eventually, aircraft came to be delivered ahead of schedule.
Quality improved, and costs began to drop. What was once known as the
“problem-plagued C-17” acquired a new reputation as an acquisition and
operational success story.
tremendously. It has such a wide range of mission capabilities,” said
Robert Steele, the Air Force’s C-17 deputy program manager.
nearly two decades of service, the Air Force’s C-17 fleet has logged
more than 2.6 million flight hours, according to Boeing. It acquired the
C-17 program as part of its merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
to combat support activities, C-17s have provided humanitarian relief
after every major natural disaster, said Nan Bouchard, Boeing’s C-17
program manager. The aircraft also perform missions such as transporting
satellites to launch bases and hauling gear during presidential trips.
11, 2001, to Sept. 4, 2013, Air Force C-17s flew more than 550,000
missions—some two million flying hours—carrying nearly six million
passengers and four million tons of cargo, said an Air Mobility Command
spokeswoman. Since 2006, C-17s have air-dropped more than 84,000 bundles
and 132 million pounds of cargo.
pace, the C-17 has had the highest mission capable rate of any mobility
platform year over year, said Steele. “We are at basically 84
percent-plus ... over the last six years.”
fleet averages about 10,000 flight hours per airframe, according to Air
Force Materiel Command. The oldest production C-17, tail No. 91192, has
nearly 20,000 flight hours. That aircraft arrived at Charleston AFB,
S.C., in June 1993. It became part of the 17th Airlift Squadron, the
first C-17 combat-ready unit.
are holding up “very well,” despite the fact that the Air Force uses
them “extensively and in pretty difficult environments,” Steele said.
“We have not seen any significant issues, ... just normal wear and
While the Air
Force is doing a number of studies and analyses on the airframes, there
are no service life extension initiatives underway right now, he noted.
remains the backbone of US airlift capability and “the premier airlifter
of the world,” according to Col. David Morgan, chief of the C-17
combined program office. It is a “very dependable, very reliable
airframe,” he said.
Each time the
C-17 got within a couple of years of reaching its planned last USAF
delivery, Congress directed that more be bought. These extensions also
helped accommodate international buyers. Six countries—Australia,
Britain, Canada, India, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—now operate
C-17s, and a consortium of 13 European countries shares three aircraft.
Boeing reports more international orders are in the works.
The Air Force
is now focused on standardizing C-17s to a common configuration, giving
each one extended fuel tanks and other enhancements developed in later
Timothy M. Zadalis, commander of the 618th Air and Space Operations
Center at Scott AFB, Ill., said the Air Force would face “a much greater
challenge” in providing global reach in support of national objectives
without the C-17 fleet and its aircrews and maintainers. The center
coordinates the activities of the Air Force’s strategic airlifters and
offers incredible versatility to satisfy airlift, airdrop, and
aeromedical evacuation mission sets into a variety of operating
environments, from well-established airfields to austere semiprepared
landing surfaces,” he said in a written statement. The aircraft, “along
with the team of mobility enterprise airmen around the world, allows us
to answer the call, so others may prevail.”
The C-17 is expected to serve USAF well into the 2050s.
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