C-17s in Alaska Ramp Up to Go Operational

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska, Aug. 21, 2007 - Long-range, heavy airlift resources for wartime and humanitarian efforts across the globe will be a day's flying time closer to the need in less than a month.

The 517th Airlift Squadron, a former C-130 Hercules unit, is in the process of becoming operational as a C-17 Globemaster III unit. C-17s provide longer range and capabilities to carry larger loads than C-130s. Placing the capabilities of the C-17 in Alaska means war support and humanitarian aid can be anywhere in the world a day sooner.

Since the first C-17 touched down in Alaska in June, the unit has been readying itself to become operational next month, flying missions across the state and training crews and maintainers.

The third C-17 arrived here this month. The fourth is expected next month, and the unit will begin flying missions for U.S. Transportation Command. By November, officials expect a full complement of eight airlift jets.

Previously, C-17s flying from the continental United States would have to lay over in Hawaii or Alaska before moving on to eastern locations. Even though the aircraft can fuel on the go, to travel farther, crews would have to be swapped or safe rest time allotted.

Now, because of their forward location in Pacific Command, crews can fly to all points east in a day, or they can cross the North Pole and be in Germany in eight hours.

"We can reach any critical point in the world in less than 10 hours," the unit's commander, Air Force Lt. Col. Dave Almand, said.

The commander has been flying C-17s since they first rolled out at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., in 1994. He said it combines the large cargo capabilities of the bigger C-5 Galaxy but has the flexibility of the much smaller C-130.

"It's outstanding -- still, hands down, the most capable airlifter in the world. Nothing compares to it," Almand said.

The C-17 can fly nonstop, refueling on the go, and boasts high reliability and low maintenance, he said.

The cargo hold can accommodate an Abrams tank, 10 up-armored Humvees, two tractor trailer trucks, or 100 paratroopers and all of their gear. The jet can also land on short dirt runways in austere locations -- needing only 3,500 feet -- with loads up to 170,000 pounds. A commercial airliner typically requires about 3,000 feet just to touch down, with stopping distances twice that of the C-17. The C-17 touches down in the first 500 feet.

"We can land in the dirt. We can fly directly into a combat environment. We don't have to pre-position," Almand said.

At the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the C-17 was able to drop 1,000 Marines in remote locations of Afghanistan. Limited access to the country, requiring long-distance trips, and the ability to haul enough cargo to equip Marines as they were emplaced were challenges the C-17 easily overcame, Almand said. Other tactical aircraft would have had to be staged closer to the drop areas, which was not possible in this operation.

Three C-17s cycled in the Marines and their equipment in 16 hours.

Also unique to the C-17 are its special operations capabilities, many of which are classified, as well as its ability to descend rapidly. Pilots can be safely out of enemy range at 30,000 feet and, with the flip of a switch, place all four jet engines in reverse and drop 20,000 feet per minute to make their drop. A commercial airliner can drop comfortably at about 2,000 feet per minute.

In the early hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 15 C-17s flying out of Italy were able to drop 1,000 paratroopers and their equipment. It was the largest similar drop since Normandy but with not nearly the risk, Almand said.

"It was actually a pretty simple operation," he said.

Air Force Capt. Brett Lent has been flying C-17s for four years, including flying disaster-relief missions to Thailand after the tsunami hit there in December 2004. Because of the speed in which air craft and crews were deployed, there was not enough time to make arrangements for in-flight fuel tankers. This forced them to stop to refuel in Alaska. Because of the stop, their allotted safe flying time ran out in Japan, and they could not make it all the way to Thailand the same day.

"Had we launched from here, we would have been in Thailand in one day," Lent said.

C-17s are particularly useful because they can fly in all weather and can drop anywhere, even where there is no landing strip.

"For humanitarian aid, if there is sky above you, we can get to you. And we have mass," Lent said. "We can drop 170,000 pounds of cargo for a large group of people and give them the aid they need. And we don't need an airfield to do it, and we can do it in any weather. We don't even have to see the ground. We're impeded only by diplomatic clearances."

That means warfighters they have all the cargo they need when they need it, Lent said.

The active-duty 517th Airlift Squadron will partner with the National Guard's 249th Airlift Squadron to provide pilots and crews. The 249th is forming now and will be collocated with its active-duty counterpart. The unit now has some pilots and crews flying with the 517th. The active-duty squadron will eventually provide three crews for every aircraft, and the Guard will provide two. A crew is made up of a pilot, copilot and loadmaster.

The addition of the Guard pilots and crews will allow the unit to provide continuous operation of the jets, Almand said. The unit will be "taskable any time, worldwide, for any mission," he said.

Besides its strategic location, Almand said, Alaska allows for training that is afforded nowhere else. The base is next door to Fort Richardson and the 67,000-square-mile Pacific Alaskan Range Complex, which offers training in a simulated combat environment and is home to the Red Flag-Alaska exercises.

"Alaska is the best low-level training environment in the world, hands down," the pilot said. "No one will be able to train like we do up here."

C-17s in Alaska Ramp Up to Go Operational [ ]