Local Military News

Air Force sees long life ahead for C-17, its go-to carrier

How's this for getting your money's worth? The Air Force's workhorse cargo plane -- the C-17 -- has surpassed the fleet's 2-millionth hour of flying time.

That's the equivalent of going to the moon and back 2,360 times.

Even more telling is that it took 16 years to reach the first 1 million air hours, and only a few years more to tack on the second million.

The war on terror has solidified the C-17 Globemaster's place in history as the Pentagon's go-to carrier. And for a plane still considered a young-adult by military standards, defense experts see a long life ahead for an aircraft widely identified as the anchor of Charleston's military presence.

"The mother of the last pilot of the C-17 may not have been born yet," Anthony Rosello, a senior engineer at the Rand Corporation, said, quoting a commonly used Air Force adage.

Based on recent trends, the C-17 fleet could easily have a lifespan of 40 years or more. By comparison, the C-130 cargo plane dates to the 1950s, and some of those still are in service.

The fleet's actual 2-millionth hour aloft probably was reached Dec. 14. But the milestone was commemorated officially Dec. 10 by a Charleston-based C-17 crew that was making a delivery of 70,000 pounds of fuel to a remote corner of Afghanistan.

On the flight, dubbed "Moose 75," was Staff Sgt. Jason Fatjo, loadmaster with the 16th Airlift Squadron. "The big reveal that it was to be a sort of landmark flight didn't occur until the representatives from Boeing started passing out hats and hanging banners," he said in an e-mail from overseas. The Charleston Air Force Base has 59 C-17s -- more than a quarter of the entire fleet.

Other Charleston-based crews who regularly fly the C-17 -- including into parts of Afghanistan -- aren't in a position to talk about their theories on the plane's lifespan, but say they're satisfied with a craft so well-suited and computerized for today's missions that some refer to it as the "flying laptop."

"All you have to do is upgrade," said crew chief Airman First Class Christopher Rupertus, 26, of Newport, Tenn., referring to the technical, rather than structural, additions needed.

The only tricky part about flying a C-17 into Afghanistan, said pilot Capt. Colby Blackwood, 30, of Hammond, La., is in the northern mountainous region. "In the winter time, all you see is snow," he said.

Blackwood, who has about 2,000 hours of flight time, described the more arid southern portion of the country as dominated by "tones of brown."

The 2 million hours of recorded air time includes planes flown by the Department of Defense's international partners, since the plane has been incorporated into partner nations, including NATO. Aeromedical missions and relief flights to Haiti and Asia also are part of the tally.

Another significant C-17 accomplishment figure is that the Air Force reports it has doubled the number of airdrops in the action zones every year since 2006 -- a reflection of the high escalation of goods and materials needed to wage the war on terror.

While Rosello expects the C-17 to last for some time, one factor that could alter its future, he said, is how America's defense mission might change in the coming years and adapting to the next unexpected threat.