C-17 Undergoes Upgrades to Extend Life in Pacific

C-17 Undergoes Upgrades to Extend Life in Pacific

The last C-17 to ever roll off a Boeing production line was delivered to the Air Force in September, but that doesn’t mean the Globemaster will fade into retirement anytime soon as service officials expect the airlifter’s mission set to expand as the U.S. military pivots its focus to the Pacific region.

In service since the early 90’s, the Air Force’s C-17 fleet is engineered to carry heavy payloads such as equipment and armored vehicles, and deliver or air-drop battlefield supplies, said Col. Glen Downing, Chief, Mobility Division.

The Air Force has 222 aircraft in its fleet with the first 152 lagging behind the 70 most recently delivered aircraft. In order to upgrade the first group of C-17s, the Air Force has launched a modernization program to add the latest electronics, radios and avionics and standardize the entire fleet.

Downing explained that the Air Force will need to rely more heavily on the C-17 in the Pacific because the C-130s have limitations in the Pacific when it comes to flying greater distances.

“There is a range challenge there. Moving stuff with C-130s in the Pacific is limiting. It can be tough to come from the U.S. and get where you want to go,” Downing said.

At a length of 174-feet and a height of 55-feet, the four-engine C-17 is larger than a C-130, but smaller than the service’s hulking C-5 aircraft which must land on a large concrete runway. Engineered with four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofan engines, C-17s can fly up to altitudes of 45,000 feet and reach speeds up to 450 knots, Downing explained.

“In many ways you get the capability of a C-5 as far as what you can carry combined with the performance capability of a C-130.” said Downing.

Downing emphasized the aircraft’s austere or “short field” landing capability, praising its recent performance in Afghanistan. The plane is engineered to land on a short field because thrust from the motor blows over flaps when the aircraft comes into land, providing additional lift at slower speeds, Downing explained.

The Air Force’s 222 C-17 aircraft are designed to fly for 30,000-flight hours or reach 30-years of service. The last ten aircraft cost $225 million each, said Maj. John Vinson, Program Element Monitor, C-17.

The 70 most recent C-17s were engineered with all of the latest technological gear including electronics, radios and avionics that will now be installed on the first 152 over time, Vinson explained.

“We’re going back and retrofitting the early aircraft and adding modifications to these aircraft. The goal is to get a common configuration that is going to lead to efficiencies in scheduling and an ability to maintain the aircraft,” Vinson explained.

The Air Force plans to spend somewhere between $150 and $200 million per year on these modifications through 2018, service officials said.

Many of the modifications, which are slated to finish up by the end of fiscal year 2015, involve the addition of communications technology such as radios, antennas for Satcom, weather radar, combat lighting for night vision and something called the Formation Flying System – a technology which allows planes to fly in formation in bad weather or obscured conditions.

“I can fly in formation in close proximity to another airplane without being able to see that airplane. You get a display which shows you the formation – you can tell how far they (other planes) are away from you. It also gives you cueing information on your instruments,” Downing explained.

The modifications are being performed at Boeing Support Systems, San Antonio, Texas, and Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Ga.
All C-17s since the delivery of aircraft number 71 have been built with an Extended Range Retrofit, an additional fuel tank on the center wing section of the aircraft designed to increase fuel capacity by 9,600 gallons and add up to 600 nautical miles of range to the aircraft, Vinson said.

Another of the ongoing improvements to some of the older aircraft is a survivability initiative called “On-Board Inert Gas Generating System II,” a method of lowering the fuel tank oxygen content to reduce the change for combustion should it be hit, for example, by small arms fire.

“Vapor from fuel is what is dangerous. Nitrogen fills the air portion of the fuel tank so you don’t have that vapor. So you can shoot it with small arms and you are not going to ignite the fuel,” Vinson said.

The C-17 modernization effort is also integrating a new glass cockpit display called a Heads Up Display which improves the flight instrumentation showing altitude, terrain maps and what’s called “attitude” or position of the plane in relation to the ground, Vinson explained.

Certain C-17s are also getting upgraded with a survivability system called Large Aircraft Counter Measures – a high-tech laser jammer designed to detect incoming heat-seeking missiles and jam their flight path, throwing them off course. While many of today’s C-17s are already equipped with this system, there are some airplanes that this is being retrofitted on to.

Thus far, 159 C-17s are equipped with some version of the technology with the remainder slated to be finished by 2017, Vinson said.

One analyst said the C-17 modernization effort may even need to extend beyond its current plan.

“The next step may be a broader service life extension program for the C-17. The fundamental issue is every couple of decades there’s a new strategic airlifter built. Right now, there is nothing in sight so it is important to make the existing force last and make sure it is sustainable,” said Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.


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The article should have the last C-17 built for the USAF — production will actually stop in 2015, including 7 more for India on the current contract and 13 white tails…

” the four-engine C-17 is larger than a C-130, but smaller than the service’s hulking C-5 aircraft which must land on a large concrete runway.” Even a cursory look at Wikipedia says that’s crap. The C-5’s “high flotation main landing gear has 28 wheels to share the weight.” “High flotation” meaning it was designed to land on an unpaved surface — unlike the C-17, which, ironically is the airplane that needs the concrete runway. This article got that one wrong in every way possible. Don’t you ever check up on the bs these contractors throw around?

With the shift to the Pacific, an ocean of ~63 million square miles, one has to wonder if we have enough C-17’s to adequately cover such an expanse, especially given China’s newfound diplomatic belligerence.

Just like the F-22, we should continue building C-17. We could even sell or give the earliest ones to friendly nations, rather than upgrading them.

“The modifications are being performed at Boeing Support Systems, San Antonio, Texas, and Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Ga.”

Well, that seals the deal for Long Beach, doesn’t it?

It’s been tough finding information/examples on the C-5’s unpaved capability. It is worth noting that the C-5’s can go to McMurdo and take off from the ice (not sure if this requires special modifications, like with the C-130’s). Pegasus Field in Antarctica is 10,000 feet long, and will take C-5’s or C-17’s. This might qualify as unpaved?

And additionally from an airspacemag article: “The U.S. Air Force, for example, wants the third largest airplane in the world, the C-5 Galaxy, to be able to operate from unpaved fields. ” (http://​www​.airspacemag​.com/​f​l​i​g​h​t​-​t​o​d​a​y​/​b​i​g​f​o​o​t​.​h​tml)

Not sure how much this was tested in practice. Amusingly, I found one picture of a C-17 landing on an unprepared runway in Afghanistan…presumably Camp Rhino, on a 7000 ft runway. Not sure if tested elsewhere. (http://www.sr-71.org/photogallery/c-17/index.php?file=c-17–10.jpg)

Looks like Camp Rhino wasn’t concrete at the time either, but it definitely sounds like it was an engineer-prepared runway.

“In response, the Seabees devised a way to use the more clay-like soil found deeper underground as a stabilizer. Each day they cleared the spoiled surface dirt generated by the previous night’s air operations, and then replaced it with the dug-up clay-like material, wetting it down with what little water was available and then rolling it to create a temporary hard surface. This “just-in-time” method allowed the runway to stay operational for nearly two months. To facilitate helicopter operations, the Seabees imported a spray-applicated soil stabilizer that came to be known as “Rhino snot,” effectively reducing the dust levels.”

So engineers show up, dig up clay, wet it, then roll it to create a runway. Does this count as “austere”? (Granted, the article suggests that the C-17s landed at Camp Rhino to bring the Seabees, so they at least could land and take off from Camp Rhino before clay runways were devised?)

Excellent idea. Give the old C-17’s to our allies with no money (like the Philippines), and keep the Long Beach production line going for new aircraft for the USAF.

Is it my imagination or is Boeing making a habit out of doing upgrades on other company’s aircraft?

Hope it means more jobs for Boeings C17 plant.

excellent post Blight (as usual!) The seabee’s used a technique that the Army Engineers use as well. Since camp Rhino was in an highly arid region, (they couldn’t even sink a drill bore & find h20) the surfical geology soil inventory presented difficult challenges to soil stabilization. The “Dug up clay” u re: is known as aridisol, its componets consist mainly of oxides & organic mat’l, what we would call “low pH dry soil”. When “Dry” its very hard, but poor a 55 gallon drum of h20 & wa la a swelling soil with a high modulus of plasticity..i.e. muck. Most probably (wasn’t there) “rhino snot” consisted of slurry of a high pH compound with a liquified compactable aggregate. These 2 componets when mixed 2 gether, the existing aridisol & slurry when compacted & allowed to dry would form a extremely hard & somewhat durable runway surface…barring heavy rainfall. The surface “dirt” was also a form of aridisol, but from a different level of the surfical geology vertical inventory & more highly “weathered”, hense its “dust-like” composition . Jus a dumb ole combat engineers analysis.….… either way, if properly prepared, u could have probably gotten a C-5M in there, with sufficent runway length.

Well, C-17’s a McD (now Boeing) product, right? I’d laugh if they got contracts to upgrade the C-5…which would definitely qualify as “other company”.

Who will buy them? The Europeans are competing for the same export customers as we are, which makes aerospace procurement a complicated geopolitical dance almost as much as a merit-based purchase.

Indeed. I wonder if we have enough maritime patrol aircraft, which can cover more mileage faster (at the cost of sustained presence and striking power) than a ship.


Unpaved surfaces mentioned for C-5, but looking for some .gov or .mil documentation that discusses unpaved surfaces (or even Lockheed documentation)

Thanks for the clarification. I thought McD was owned by Lockheed. I just remembered a couple articles on DT about Boeing competing for Lockheed-product maintenance and it jumped out at me.

At over 200M$ a piece, upgrades definitely make sense. But yes, if you have some A-10 of appache, or something of the kind going to the scrapyard then yes selling or giving them to allied country make sense.

The C-17 is absolutely great but considering that in the future they will need to carry heavier stuff than ever, it might be a good idea to look at a C-5 replacement. More of a an antonov AN-225 contender, slightly smaller, cheaper and in higher quantity. Correct me if I am wrong but I think the antonov have been extensively used to carry cargo in afghanistan. With its max landing weight of ~490 tons, the C-5 is far behind. Does having as many wheel as the antonov would help it landing on more fragile ground?

Do something bigger and kill the C-5. And for the love of god, don’t give the contract to lockheed.

Screw Boeing. WSJ is reporting that, “Boeing to Focus 777X Design Work Outside Washington State” … “Boeing Co. will design its new 777X jetliner with engineers in Russia and five states, a snub to technical staff in the Pacific Northwest that have been central to creating every major Boeing jetliner over the past 60 years.”

Not unlike GE trying to transfer jet engine / gas turbine technology to China. While China probably stole most of the info already, they could save much development effort if somebody fills in the blanks.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” — Pogo, 1953

the C17 took the place of the C-5. there are no more C5 around on duty.
The C17 can land in the desrt and in Pegasus Feild in Antarctica. It took the Ice missions over when they retired the C141B’s in2006.

Dude, what are you smoking…please share. The C-5 is very much alive. They operate constantly from Travis AFB. CA near my home.

The C5D is on the ‘line’. It can now take off, fully loaded, with a full bag of fuel. Engine upgrades were like adding three additional engines. The C130 was designed to be FOB airlifter. Powers to be don’t like sending a $1.2B a/c into the FOB theater, when an older ‘workhorse’ can do the job. C130 engine upgrades has greatly improved the ‘old girl’s’ performance. C130 can yank and bank which the C17 cannot,

Union problems has made ALL companies reconsider American labor as less than the most cost effective. Although manufacturing problems, in all other countries has American manufacturers constantly re-evaluating.


And it has more upgrades planned.

Now your contractor conspiracy extends to mistakes in the article?

The C-5 was designed with some features designed to allow operations from austere runways, the C-17 more-so. Yet the C-5 is a larger aircraft and rather needy when it comes to maintenance requirements, plus there are fewer of them.

A cursory search on google for the following terms, “c-17 dirt landing” & “c-5 dirt landing” show literally hundreds of images of c-17’s landing on dirt, and at least on youtube video of a c-5 doing likewise.…Do you ever research something before you post on a message board?

Yeah, Willie, companies don’t lie to make more profit, that’s one of the reasons you should try Extendze.

The internet won’t make you an aeronautical engineer.

Yeah, it’s those unionized engineers that are driving companies to outsource work to China. You know engineers do more than just drive trains, right?

Hey, administrator. Why did you delete my comment?

A lot of those C-17 vids come out of Afghanistan, and are presumably Camp Rhino.

Oh goody, this gem turned up: http://​archive​.gao​.gov/​t​2​p​b​a​t​3​/​1​5​2​0​8​8​.​pdf

You’d think the USAF would’ve asked Lockheed to test its austere landing capability…though of concern is that Lockmart underbid, then split the cost and planned to use a second batch of C-5’s to underwrite the first. A lot of reasons why the first C-5’s were a hot mess.

Not only was it designed to land on dirt, it has and does. Obviously it’s not the Air Force’s first choice for those jobs, but then neither is the C-17 which is newer and essentially never sets a wheel off a concrete runway. This is the reality. Whatever Col. Mouthpiece says is crap.

The navy is acquiring their own version of Global Hawk, which cruises at ~60k feet, and has very long legs. These are being designed to be integrated with other intelligence gathering platforms, such as the new P-8 Poseidon’s.

The navy’s new(er) strategy for performing recon, if it all works as advertised, will be impressive. But with an ocean the size of the Pacific, it’ll have to be.

Broad Area Maritme Surveillance Unmanned Aircraft System. (BAMS UAS)

Bets are on the P-8’s. They will also need a new generation of anti-ship missiles to sting from afar, though with high RCS they are likely to be observed from afar and knocked out of the sky with anti-air missiles.

Well, if you want to bootstrap the foreign aviation industry, you go with Boeing.

WOW, you are a twit if you use wiki as your factual source. Wiki is wrong on C-17 facts( along with a lot else), I worked for McDonnell Douglas for 15 years most of which was on C-17 parts, and I guarantee the C-17 DOES not need concrete.

It might not “need it”, but the Air Force’s pet airlifter sure gets a lot more landings on concrete than the older and less favored other airlifters do. And by the way, I“m not an internet expert nor am I a paid mouthpiece. I recommended that the authors of the above article could learn a thing or two from even a cursory search of the internet, as could you if you think the C-5 “needs” a concrete runway.

USAF has more than enough C-17 to move outsized cargo. All the other cargo will be moved by upcoming KC-46.

Once Boeing stops production of the C-17, the story will change and both aircraft “must land on a large concrete runway”. There’s something 1984 about it.

“Neither aircraft can land on dirt runways, so we need another!”

I love Big Brother. Death to Goldstein.


Now you are seeing it. The story changes to whatever is convenient for the day. To hell with the facts.

Hey…tell it to the unions. South Carolina is doing the job on the 787’s. Out is fuzzy, tree hugging land didn’t the union just vote to strike. Too bad, boo hoo, welcome to the world of right to work.

scrap the c5 plane and buy used an225 and you will svae money

Absolutely. Very short sighted to not keep the line open at 6 or 8 per year and even a few of those may be bought by other nations. No doubt in 5 — 10 years there is going to be a call to drop tens of billions of dollars on development of a new large transport as the C-17’s wear out and then that program will go over budget and blow thru schedules while new C-17’s could be built in blocks with improvements. I guess no careers get made pursuing that sort of plan.


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