Friday, September 13, 2013

Charleston reservists share long history with C-17

The Air Force's first C-17 arrives at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. June 14, 1993 approaches the runway amid a sea of C-141 Starlifthers. Now 20 years later the final Air Force C-17 will be arriving from the Boeing C-17 factory Sept. 12, 2013. (Courtesy Photo)

By Michael Dukes,  315th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C.  -- Whenever the U.S. military on the news operating across the globe, either in times of war humanitarian need, chances are, there's a Charleston based C-17 involved in making it possible. For many it has been a long journey and today the Air Force's final C-17 Globemaster III is being delivered to Joint Base Charleston.

This behemoth has a combined four-engine thrust power of more than 163,000 pounds. It has nearly a 170-foot wingspan and its tail stands at about five stories high. It has a maximum peacetime takeoff weight of 580,000 pounds and can travel 500 mph at 28,000 feet, but it is also comfortable cruising at 45,000 feet. But there is much more to the story of the C-17 than these basic facts. A handful of active and reserve aircrews can take credit for working out the early "kinks" of what has become the world's premiere military airlifter.

According to Senior Master Sgt. Bryan DuBois, top loadmaster for the 317th Airlift Squadron here, the newly reactivated 317th AS was tasked "to provide an initial cadre of Reserve personnel and expertise to Team Charleston in support of the reliability, maintainability, and availability evaluation of the new McDonnell Douglas C-17 Advance Transport Aircraft at Charleston Air Force Base."

The Air Force's first C-17 squadrons - the 17th AS and 317th AS (AF Reserve) partnered in initial squadron operations, including developmental and implementation of operational, training and support policies and procedures. The 317th AS was also charged with creating the Air Force Reserve's first operational C-17 squadron. This paved the way for conversion of other Reserve flying squadrons to the C-17 Globemaster III.

Before the aircraft was handed over to the Air Force however, the aircrew had to be trained on the new airframe. The 317th's first pilots to begin C-17 training August 1992 were Maj. Paul Sykes and Capt. David Wallis. Later that year, Master Sgt. Kenneth Nicholson, 317th AS, was the first to begin C-17 loadmaster training. A small number of maintenance crews started maintainer training in 1991 at the McDonnell Douglas C-17 factory in Long Beach, Calif.

Sykes and Nicholson were part of the crew to deliver the Air Force's first operational C-17, designated "The Spirit of Charleston," to its new home at Charleston June 14, 1993.

The initial C-17 maintenance cadre was established at Charleston AFB. They began their first maintenance and avionics training at the factory in Long Beach. Among the initial maintenance cadre was 31-year-old Staff Sgt. James Macko, who is now a chief master sergeant in charge of 315th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron's Gold Flight.

"It was an honor to be selected to be one of the first C-17 maintainers. We knew we were taking part in something much bigger than ourselves," Macko said. "There was a great partnership with Reservists and active duty working hand in hand."

On the operations side, Sykes and his crew trained on the first C-17 flight simulator in Oklahoma.

Sykes who had been a C-141 pilot for most of his career knew his career was at a crossroads as he transitioned to the new C-17.

"The C-141 had been the Air Force's workhorse since the early 1960s. It was a fabulous aircraft but it was time to move on. The C-141 and the C-17, while both being airlift aircraft, truly were two very different airplanes."

"I knew the C-141 like the back of my hand," Sykes said of his transition to the C-17. "But with having to learn all the technical orders and avionics, it was like starting the learning process all over again."

First delivery
While reflecting back on the delivery day, Sykes said, "as we landed at Charleston and taxied down the flight line, we were in a sea of C-141s. We were the only ones in the Air Force with the C-17. It's hard to imagine that today because the C-17 is such a common aircraft in military operations today."

As the shiny new cargo jet rolled into position in front of a crowd of anxious VIPs and other Air Force personnel, Gen. Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. James Peay, Army vice chief of staff of the stepped down from the jet and walked down the red carpet as applause erupted from the crowd. Then, to the surprise of the crowd, came two M-270 multiple launch rocket systems, two HUMVEEs, a dozen airborne Soldiers, and about 120 pounds of cargo.

"This aircraft shows America's commitment to Global Reach. The bottom line is the C-17 enhances a wonderful American characteristic, our flexibility. The new cornerstone of this nation's mobility fleet is the Globemaster III," said McPeak.

Now that the Air Force had its first C-17, and another soon on its way to Charleston, the initial cadre members worked hard to bring their new C-17 squadrons up to speed on the aircraft and to work out some of the final kinks. "There were only six initial pilots and many more needed to help the aircraft reach its initial operational capability," Sykes said.

The initial plan was for the 317th AS to provide 12 crews (20 percent) of the 60 crews to be trained for the reliability, maintainability, and availability evaluation of the C-17 at Charleston.

"At first we were very restricted with what they would let us do with the aircraft," Sykes said. "We could only do 'around the flagpole' local flights - no more than a 25-mile radius of the base. I guess you could say that they wanted us to walk before we ran."

"We worked and collaborated with the 17th AS in initial squadron operations," said DuBois.

One of the pilots in the next group of cadre selected to help get the C-17 and the aircrews mission "off the ground" here was then Capt. Deborah Rieflin.

"Being one of the initial cadre was the highlight of my career. It was a collective of unprecedented expertise ... there was a free exchange of information and dedication to figure out the best solutions for the aircraft and the Air Force," said Rieflin, now a lieutenant colonel and 315th AW aircrew training chief.

In action
"I remember the first time we took the C-17 to an air show and how amazed everybody was that were able to back up the aircraft on its own power. At the time, most people had never seen such a thing in such a large aircraft. It definitely drew a crowd," DuBois said.

On July 11, 1994, the 317th AS airlifted troops and equipment to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as part of a response to Iraqi forces moving to the border of Kuwait. The aircrew from the 317th AS was part of a two-ship C-17 mission that also marked the first deployment of the C-17 to the Middle East.

In 1995, with the world's only fleet of C-17s (12 delivered to the Air Force at Charleston), the Globemaster III was given the initial operation capability green light.

Every metric mandated by the contract was exceeded, including a 99 percent launch reliability rate during the 30-day test simulating peacetime and wartime operations.

"There was a lot we had to focus on. A year later there were almost 500 interim safety and operational supplements to the dash-1 aircraft systems manual," said DuBois.

In January 1996, as part of operation Joint Endeavor, aircrews from the 315th AW helped transport cargo and troops in a pair of C-17's and a C-141B to Taszar, Hungary, for the buildup of military forces in Tuzla, Bosnia. In the first three months of operations, Air Force mobility forces flew 3,000 missions, carried more than 15,600 troops and delivered more than 30,100 short tons of cargo. These numbers also reflect the importance of the C-17, which was employed in a major contingency for the first time. 

 During the first month of operations, the Air Force's newest airlifter flew slightly more than 20 percent of the missions into Tuzla but delivered more than 50 percent of the cargo.

"Flying the C-17 in the Bosnia operations was very rewarding to me," said Sykes. "With the C-17 we were able to accomplish everything much more efficiently than with other aircraft in the past, and the aircraft's ability to operate in such austere environments was truly beneficial."

Since then, the C-17 has participated in nearly every U.S. military operation and humanitarian relief effort.

DuBoise, who has racked up more than 5,200 hours as a loadmaster in the C-17, said possibly the most significant memory he has over the past 20 years on the C-17 is bringing home America's first fallen warriors from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Another time that holds a special place in DuBois' collection of C-17 experiences was the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. "Realizing how much of an impact and how well suited this aircraft was to get the job done. Even though we had done this in Bosnia, it was very humbling to know we were doing this mission and how well suited the C-17 was to successfully performing it."

"Realizing I helped the Air Force get something that is so well utilized and is being used at its maximum potential is very gratifying," DuBois added.