top of page
C-5 Galaxy - Modern Flight

Modern Strategic  Airlift

HISTORY:

There are two basic types of airlift: strategic and tactical.  Strategic airlift (inter-theater) is sustained air transportation between operational areas, or between the continental United States and overseas areas.  Tactical airlift (intra-theater) is deployment, airborne assault, air evacuation, and air supply within an operational area. The history of strategic airlift is closely tied to the development of military aviation and the need to transport troops, equipment, and supplies over long distances quickly and efficiently. When we now think about strategic airlift, it is hard not to include air refueling. Before WWI, neither air refueling or strategic airlift were high priorities of early aviation. But the need to lift heavier and heavier loads and to longer distances had become apparent and the need for longer flight ranges prompted early experimentation with in-flight refueling concepts.

strategic-airlift
c-141

During World War II, military forces recognized the need for rapid transportation of troops and supplies across long distances. This led to the development and extensive use of transport aircraft like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain (also known as the DC-3), which played a vital role in the war effort. The Berlin Airlift (1948-1949) was a significant early example of strategic airlift. In response to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, the United States and its allies conducted a massive airlift operation to supply the city with food, fuel, and other essentials, showcasing the importance of airlift capabilities in Cold War geopolitics.

C-47 on display at museum

C-54 on display near museun

C-133 on display at museum

The Korean War saw the increased use of transport aircraft for moving troops and supplies to the Korean Peninsula. The Douglas C-54 Skymaster and C-124 Globemaster II were among the aircraft used in this conflict. The years following World War II saw advancements in transport aircraft technology, with the introduction of jet-powered transport

C-124 on display at museum

planes like the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster.  Although the primary mission for the C-133 was to move ICBM missiles, it also served as a strategic airlifter, carrying outsized cargo anywhere in the world. These aircraft offered greater speed and payload capacity than their piston-engine predecessors.

c-5

Strategic airlift came of age with the development of two types of giant air transports:  the C-141 “Starlifter” and the C-5 “Galaxy.”The Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union emphasized the need for strategic airlift capabilities. The United States Air Force (USAF) developed and operated large transport aircraft like the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy during this period.

 

The Vietnam War witnessed extensive use of strategic airlift to transport troops and supplies to Southeast Asia. Aircraft like the C-130 and C-141 played crucial roles in this conflict. The USAF continued to modernize its strategic airlift fleet with the introduction of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III in the 1990s. The C-17 is known for its versatility and ability to carry oversized cargo and personnel. Beyond military operations, strategic airlift capabilities have been employed in many humanitarian missions.

C-141 on display at museum

Lockheed C-5 "Galaxy"

C-5 flying by Golden Gate Bridge

Humanitarian roles:

Although the development of airlift capabilities has been driven by the need for rapidly moving troops, equipment, and supplies during military operations, support for humanitarian crises and other emergencies have also benefited from its

Mt Pinatubo eruption

development. As examples, within the span of a few years, these are some of the humanitarian missions carried out by the USAF's 60th AMW:

 

When earthquakes devastated Mexico City in 1985, a 60th Military Airlift Wing C-5 was one of MAC's first aircraft to deliver relief equipment. In December 1988 and early 1989,personnel assigned to the 60th Aerial Port Squadron helped load Soviet IL-62 aircraft with medical supplies and relief equipment for shipment to earthquake victims in Armenia. In 1989, crews flew relief equipment and personnel to San Francisco's south bay area to assist victims of the October 13th Loma Prieta earthquake.

The 60th played a key role in Operation FIERY VIGIL. During June and July 1991, repeated eruptions of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, buried Clark Air Base with tons of volcanic ash, thus forcing an emergency evacuation of US military dependents and non-essential military personnel.

 

Relief efforts kept the 60th busy throughout 1992. By September of that year, the wing simultaneously supported eight humanitarian relief operations. These included Operations PROVIDE COMFORT, airlift aid to Kurdish refugees in northwestern Iraq; PROVIDE HOPE, airlift of medical supplies and food to impoverished areas of the former Soviet Union; PROVIDE PROMISE, relief of noncombatants in Sarajevo, Bosnia; PROVIDE RELIEF, airlift of medical supplies and food to drought, famine, and anarchy-stricken Somalia; and PHOENIX UFFO, airlift support of Haitian refugees awaiting transport to their homeland from a camp at Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba.

Operations also included relief missions to victims of three major storms: Hurricane Andrew in Florida; Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii; and Typhoon Omar in Guam. Beginningin May 1994, the 60th Airlift Wing joined an AMC rotation of C-141 squadrons at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, to assist more directly in Operation PROVIDE PROMISE. Still on-going throughout 1994, the airlift of supplies into Sarajevo far surpassed the Berlin Airlift in terms of time and tonnage flown into the besieged capital of Bosnia.

On December 3, 1992, the United Nations Security Council unanimously authorized a US led force to safeguard relief work in Somalia. Operation RESTORE HOPE began that same day when a 60th Airlift Wing C-5 flew additional crews and airlift control 

Relief supplies to eastern European country

personnel to March Air Force Base, California. Operation RESTORE HOPE continued into the early months of 1994.

 When civil war broke out in the African nation of Rwanda in the spring of 1994, the 60thAirlift Wing again responded with troops and airlift support. Using Entebbe, Uganda as their hub of operations, Travis airlifters joined other AMC units as part of Operation SUPPORT HOPE. The joint American and United Nations effort eventually moved nearly 25,000 tons of relief equipment and supplies into Central African region.

C-141 Starlifter:

The C-141 Starlifter was the workhorse of the Air Mobility Command from the 1970s into the early 2000s. The Starlifter fulfilled the vast spectrum of airlift requirements through its ability to airlift combat forces over long distances, delivering those forces and their equipment either by air, land or airdrop, resupply forces and transport the sick and wounded from the hostile area to advanced medical facilities.

Introduced to replace slower piston-engined cargo planes such as the C-124 Globemaster II, the C-141 was designed

C-142 Starlifter

to requirements set in 1960 and first flew in 1963. Production deliveries of an eventual 285 planes began in 1965: 284 for the Air Force, and one for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for use as an airborne observatory.

The C-141 proved to “bulk out” before it “massed out”, meaning that it often had additional lift capacity that went wasted because the cargo hold was too full. To correct the perceived deficiencies of the original model and utilize the C-141 to the fullest of its capabilities, the entire fleet of 270 in-service C-141As were stretched, adding needed payload volume. These modified aircraft were designated C-141B. Additional fuselage “plug” sections were added before and after the wings, lengthening the fuselage by 23 ft 4 in (7.11 m) and allowing the carriage of 103 litters for wounded, 13 standard pallets, 205 troops, 168 paratroopers, or an equivalent increase in other loads. Also added at this time was a boom receptacle for inflight refueling. The conversion program took place between 1977 and 1982, with first delivery taking place in December 1979. It was estimated that this stretching program was the equivalent of buying 90 new aircraft, in terms of increased capacity.

 During forty-three years of service, C-141s performed a myriad of airlift missions, from deploying combat forces and their equipment over long distances to extracting the wounded or former prisoners of war from hostile areas. On May 6, 2006, after truly earning its reputation as the workhorse of the USAF fleet, the last C-141 in service was retired after landing at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The "Golden Bear" on display

C-141, Serial Number 63-8088, known as the Golden Bear" had the honor of being the first C-141 to land at Travis in front of 3,500 guests and onlookers. On top of that, when it joined the 44th Air Transport Squadron under the 1501st Air Transport Wing, a predecessor of the 60th AMW, it was the first C-141 to be flown operationally. The Golden Bear also had the distinction of being the first "Lead the Force" C-141, which put it through an accelerated testing and operational program that had the jet flying twice as much as other C-141s entering service at the time. In fact, the Golden Bear was scheduled to fly 3,600 hours during its first year, the equivalent of

two years worth of normal flying time. Finally, the Golden Bear reportedly flew its entire 31-year career out of Travis Air Force Base. Whether that was by design or not, it is a record that connects the plane to the base and California in a specific way. It is on display at the museum.

C5 Super Galaxy:

The C-5M Super Galaxy is a strategic transport aircraft and is the largest aircraft in the Air Force inventory. Its primary mission is to transport cargo and personnel for the Department of Defense. The C-5M is a modernized version of the legacy C-5 designed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

 It is a worldwide workhorse for strategic airlift.The C-5 can hold six Apache helicopters, or two M1 main battle tanks weighing 135,400 pounds each, or six M2/M3 Bradley Infantry Vehicles, or a quarter-million pounds of relief supplies.  The C-5 is one of the biggest aircraft ever made.  There is no piece of army combat equipment the C-5 cannot carry, including a 74-ton mobile bridge.  The Wright brothers could have made their miraculous first flight within the     C-5's cargo bay.

C-5 Galaxy

The C-5M Super Galaxy is equipped with five sets of landing gear, 28 wheels, four General Electric CF6-80C2-L1F (F-138) commercial engines, and a state of the art maintenance diagnostics system.

It can carry oversized cargo over intercontinental ranges and can take off and land on relatively short runways. Both the nose and aft doors open, allowing ground crews to simultaneously load and off-load cargo from both ends, reducing cargo transfer times. The full-width drive-on ramps at each end enable double rows of vehicles to be transported.

C-5 simulator on display in museum

The maintenance diagnostics system has the ability to record and analyze data from more than 7,000 test points, reducing maintenance and repair time.

The C-5M, with a cargo load of 281,001 pounds (127,460 kilograms), can fly 2,150 nautical miles, offload, and fly to a second base 500 nautical miles away from the original destination — all without aerial refueling. With aerial refueling, the aircraft's range is limited only by crew endurance.

C-17 Globemaster III:

Designed as a replacement for the C-141 Starlifter, the C-17 made its maiden flight on Sept. 15, 1991, and the first production model was delivered to Charleston Air Force Base, on June 14, 1993.The C-17 Globemaster serves as the U.S. Air Force’s primary strategic lift aircraft for global transport of troops and equipment. The C-17 is capable of rapid strategic delivery of troops and all types of cargo to main operating bases or directly to forward bases

C-17 Globemaster III

c-5-cockpit-trainer
aerial-refueling

in the deployment area. The aircraft can perform tactical airlift and airdrop missions and can transport litters and ambulatory patients during aeromedical evacuations when required. The inherent flexibility and performance of the C-17 force improve the ability of the total airlift system to fulfill the worldwide air mobility requirements of the United States.

Reliability and maintainability are two outstanding benefits of the C-17 system. Current operational requirements impose demanding reliability and maintainability. These requirements include an aircraft mission completion success probability rate of 92 percent, only 20 aircraft maintenance man-hours per flying hour, and full and partial mission availability rates of 74.7 and 82.5 percent, respectively.

The Globemaster III was designed to be able to land on runways as short as 3,500 feet and as narrow as 90 feet. With engine thrust reversers, the C-17 can back up and turn around on very small runways in forward operating bases.

Air Refueling History:

The development of aerial refueling has been a critical component of modern aviation, enabling aircraft to extend their range and endurance. The first actual air refueling took place in 1923 when  when two Boeing-built de Havilland DH-4Bs of the United States Army Air Service did

the feat over San Diego's Rockwell Field

On Jan. 1, 1929, a tri-engined Fokker C-2 aircraft with a crew of five climbed into the southern California sky. This aircraft, dubbed the "Question Mark," was not history's first air refueling mission, but it played a crucial role in the beginning of air refueling as a "proof of concept" flight. During the flight, they made 43 contacts with the tanker aircraft. Each contact lasted about seven and a half minutes, with the two aircraft about

Question mark being refueled

15 to 20 feet apart. Day-time contacts took place at an altitude between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, and the 10 night-time contacts took place between 5,000 and 7,000 feet.  The Question Mark was a high-winged monoplane with two 96-gallon wing tanks supplemented by two 150-gallon tanks installed in the cabin. The two refueling aircraft were Douglas C-1 single-engine bi-planes with two 150-gallon tanks for offloading and a refueling hose that passed through a hatch cut in the floor.

During World War II, the United States and Great Britain began developing practical aerial refueling systems. The U.S. Army Air Forces developed the "looped hose" system, which involved trailing a hose from one aircraft to another for refueling. The first modern successful in-flight refueling took place in 1948 when a KB-29 tanker refueled a B-50 bomber KC-97 Stratofreighter: The early development of the KC-97 and KC-135 Stratotankers was inspired by the desire of the United States to be able to keep fleets of B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers aloft during the Cold War. A byproduct of this development effort and the building of large numbers of tankers was that these tankers were also available to refuel cargo aircraft, fighter aircraft, and

KB-29 refueling B-50

ground attack aircraft, in addition to bombers, for ferrying to distant theaters of operations.The KC-97, derived from the Boeing B-29 bomber, was one of the first dedicated aerial refueling aircraft in the U.S. Air Force. It entered service in the early 1950s.Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. The KC-135 Stratotanker, introduced in the mid-1950s, became the workhorse of aerial refueling. It is still in service today and has undergone numerous upgrades.

The capability of refueling after takeoff conveys two considerable tactical advantages to those with tankers. Most obviously, it allows attack aircraft, fighters, and bombers to reach distances they couldn't otherwise, and patrol aircraft to remain airborne longer.  Additionally, since an aircraft's maximum takeoff weight is generally less than the maximum weight with which it can stay airborne, this allows an aircraft to take off with only a partial fuel load, and carry additional payload weight instead.  Then, after reaching altitude, the aircraft's tanks can be topped off by a tanker, bringing it up to its maximum flight weight.

thumbnail_IMG_1713.jpg

KC-135 refueling probe on display in museum

The U.S. Navy and some allied forces primarily use the probe-and-drogue refueling system. Aircraft equipped with probes extend a probe into a drogue basket trailing behind the tanker aircraft. The U.S. Air Force primarily uses the flying boom system. A boom operator on the tanker aircraft extends a rigid boom into a receptacle on the receiving aircraft. Advances in technology have made aerial refueling safer and more efficient. These include improved tanker aircraft, automated systems, and the use of computerized flight control. Aerial refueling played a crucial role in enabling long-range strategic bombers, like the B-52 and B-2, to carry out missions around the world.

KC-135 Stratotanker:

The KC-135 Stratotanker provides the core aerial refueling capability for the United States Air Force and has excelled in this role for more than 60 years. This unique asset enhances the Air Force's capability to accomplish its primary mission of global reach. It also provides aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nation aircraft. The KC-135 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations.

Four turbofans, mounted under 35-degree swept wings, power the KC-135 to takeoffs at gross weights of up to 322,500 pounds. A cargo deck above the refueling system can hold a mixed load of passengers and cargo. Depending on fuel storage configuration, the KC-135 can carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo.

KC-135 with refuel boom in refuel position

KC-10 Extender in formation

KC-10 Extender:

The KC-10 Extender is another air-to-air tanker aircraft in service with the United States Air Force derived from the civilian DC-10-30 airliner.  Though the 59 Extenders currently in service are greatly outnumbered by the older KC-135 Stratotanker, the KC-10 has a significantly larger fuel capacity.  KC-10s are currently stationed primarily at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and Travis Air Force Base in California. The KC-10 Extender is an Air Mobility Command advanced tanker and cargo aircraft designed to provide increased global mobility for U.S. armed forces. Although the KC-l0's primary mission is aerial refueling, it can combine the tasks of a tanker and cargo aircraft by refueling fighters and simultaneously carry the fighter

support personnel and equipment on overseas deployments. The KC-10 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations.The KC-10 can transport up to 75 people and nearly 170,000 pounds (76,560 kilograms) of cargo a distance of about 4,400 miles (7,040 kilometers) unrefueled.In addition to the three main DC-10 wing fuel tanks, the KC-10 has three large fuel tanks under the cargo floor, one under the forward lower cargo compartment, one in the center wing area and one under the rear compartment. Combined, the capacity of the six tanks carries more than 356,000 pounds (160,200 kilograms) of fuel - almost twice as much as the KC-135 Stratotanker.Using either an advanced aerial refueling boom, or a hose and drogue centerline refueling system, the KC-10 can refuel a wide variety of U.S. and allied military aircraft within the same mission. The aircraft is equipped with lighting for night operations.

Models of KC-10 refueling C-141 in museum

KC-46 Pegasus:

At full operational capability, the KC-46A will be able to refuel most fixed-wing, receiver-capable aircraft. The KC-46A is equipped with a refueling boom driven by a fly-by-wire control system, and is capable of fuel offload rates required for large aircraft. Its hose and drogue system adds additional mission capability that is independently operable from the refueling boom system.

The aircraft’s fuel can be pumped through the boom, drogue and wing aerial refueling pods (WARPs). All KC-46As are capable of being configured with WARPs, and when equipped, the aircraft is capable of multi-point simultaneous aerial refueling. The Boom Operator controls

KC-46 Pegasus

the boom, centerline drogue and WARPs during refueling operations. The Air Refueling Operator station includes panoramic displays giving the ARO wing-tip to wing-tip situational awareness.

The KC-46A can accommodate a mixed load of passengers, aeromedical evacuation and cargo capabilities. Two high-bypass turbofans power the KC-46A to takeoff at gross weights up to 415,000 pounds. Depending on fuel storage configuration, the aircraft can carry a palletized load of up to 65,000 pounds of cargo. The KC-46A can carry up to 18 463L cargo pallets. Seat tracks and the onboard cargo handling system make it possible to simultaneously carry palletized cargo and passenger seats in a variety of combinations. The KC-46A is also equipped with a number of self-protection, defensive and communication features making it more survivable in a contested environment.

The capability of refueling after takeoff conveys two considerable tactical advantages to those with tankers. Most obviously, it allows attack aircraft, fighters, and bombers to reach distances they couldn't otherwise, and patrol aircraft to remain airborne longer.  Additionally, since an aircraft's maximum takeoff weight is generally less than the maximum weight with which it can stay airborne, this allows an aircraft to take off with only a partial fuel load, and carry additional payload weight instead.  Then, after reaching altitude, the aircraft's tanks can be topped off by a tanker, bringing it up to its maximum flight weight.

 

Aerial refueling has become an essential capability for military forces worldwide, allowing aircraft to operate over vast distances and extend their mission capabilities. It has also facilitated humanitarian missions, airshows, and scientific research, demonstrating its versatility and importance in aviation history.

bottom of page