Throughout the 20th century, it seemed the world was becoming a smaller place. Travelers no longer had to spend a month getting seasick sailing across the Atlantic – there was a flight for that. And by the 1940s, it was clear that air travel would be necessary not only for moving troops, but also cargo. Throughout the Second World War, large military transport aircraft were used to deliver troops, food rations, medical supplies, and ammunition to the front lines in Europe. But by the 1960s, the United States was looking for something bigger, much bigger. An airplane that would be capable of transporting not only troops and supplies around the world, but perhaps several tanks at a time. Known to some as Fat Albert, and to others, the FRED (F*cking Ridiculous Economic Disaster), this is the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, the largest, and most absurd, aircraft in the United States Airforce.
Up until the 1960s, the United States had been using the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster. This plane was capable of lifting plenty of cargo but was quickly becoming outdated- the vibrations from flying were causing dangerous levels of stress, over time damaging the frame of the aircraft, and newer, oversized equipment simply didn’t fit in the cargo hold. To replace the Cargomaster, the Air Force put together what it called the “Heavy Logistics System”, or CX-HLS. This was a conceptual jet that would have 4 engines, be able to lift up to 180,000 pounds (that’s about 81,400kg) and fly at a speed of 500 miles per hour, or 805 kilometers per hour. At the time, this combination of speed and weight, coupled with a need for intercontinental flight, was actually impossible, and the Army was banking on future innovations in engine power and fuel efficiency for their new design. After announcing these requirements, the Army received concept designs from basically every aircraft manufacturer at the time
– this included Douglas, Boeing, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, and General Dynamics.
Only three of these designs were seen as viable, and the Airforce granted a year-long study contract to Douglas, Boeing, and Lockheed. The three designs shared a lot in common but differed in aspects such as cockpit location or tail design. Eventually, the Air Force selected Lockheed’s design, and the C-5 Galaxy was born. Interestingly, the Air Force actually noted that Boeing had the superior
concept, but Lockheed’s would be cheaper to manufacture and operate. Along with Lockheed’s C-5, General Electric was awarded the contract for the new engines.
The C-5 not only met all the Air Force’s criteria for a new transport plane, but it also exceeded them. Overall, the plane is 248 feet long (that’s 75.5 meters) and has a wingspan of 222 feet (67.6 meters), making it the largest in the entire U.S. Air Force. The cargo compartment itself is 121 feet long and 19 feet wide, or 37 meters long and 5.8 meters wide, making the cargo hold itself a tad longer than the first recorded flight by the Wright brothers.
This cargo space is absolutely massive. In the cargo hold, situated underneath seating for up to 80 crew members, you can fit two 55-ton M1 Abram’s tanks or 10 light armored vehicles (LAVs), each weighing up to 10 tons. There’s just enough space to hold 6 greyhound buses. This was also the first aircraft to be able to hold the AVLB, or armored vehicle land bridge, which is essentially a tank whose purpose is to carry and deploy an entire bridge for other tanks.
The initial requirements for the project stated that the C-5 would need to lift 180,000 pounds, or over 81,000 kilograms. Lockheed achieved this goal with a maximum wartime payload of almost 300,000 pounds (132,000 kg). When fully loaded, a war-ready C-5 can weigh up to 840,000 pounds, that’s just over 381,000kg, or 3 entire blue whales. To make the loading and unloading of all this weight a bit easier, the C-5 improved on previous airplanes by not only featuring the standard bay door at the back of the plane, but one in the front as well. To shove, for example, an entire Chinook transport helicopter inside, the nose of the plane opens and rotates 90 degrees upward, allowing for vehicles and equipment to be moved underneath the cockpit into the cargo hold.
Another innovative piece of the C-5 is its landing gear, which, when parked, allows the plane to “kneel”. This is a process where the landing gear lowers the plane even further, placing the cargo hold at a level easily accessible to trucks and the loading crew.
C5s sport a large, distinctive T shaped tail, which stands straight upright, along with wings swept back at an angle with 4 engines. The engines, General Electric’s TF39 turbofans, came through with the anticipated innovation, proving at the time to be 4 times as efficient as previous models, giving the C-5 the necessary power to reach a maximum speed of 570 miles per hour, or 917 kilometers per hour.
The plane is also equipped for arial refueling, giving it unlimited range if required. This is
important because this behemoth can’t land at any local airport for a quick fill up – At maximum capacity, takeoff requires a runway 8,300 feet, or 2,300 meters, long, and to land it needs 4,900 feet of runway, or 1,500 meters. These requirements are much longer than a runway for a normal passenger jet. This difference was even the cause of a crash landing in 1974 when a C5 pilot lined up for the wrong runway, which was too short to make a full stop. Fortunately, no one was hurt in this accident, though the landing gear was mangled.
The first model, a C5-A, was produced in Marietta, Georgia in 1968 and immediately underwent testing. As you can expect, its weight was already an issue. The initial flights showed a higher-than- expected drag divergence mach number, meaning that as the plane increases in speed, the drag increases quicker than normal, making acceleration difficult. During a test in 1970, one of the wings failed and cracked at 125% of its load limit, falling short of the required 150% sustainability. The maximum payload was reduced by several thousand pounds, and the wing flaps were improved to aid with lift. At this time, it was predicted that most C-5s would have a similar cracked wing before the end of their expected lifespan.
These and other issues were budget breakers – the C-5 program became the first military project to exceed its estimate by one billion dollars (over 7 billion today). This was so expensive that Congress abandoned and rewrote its reimbursement program for future projects, and formally investigated Lockheed. The controversy only continued to build when a whistleblower named Henry Durham reported to the public that Lockheed management was secretly using cheaper, untested materials to save costs. Durham was transferred to another location and harassed until his resignation, but later received the Elliot-Black award by the American Ethical Union for his actions. Despite the controversy, production of the C-5 continued with some handy government bail-out money, finishing over 75 C-5As.
In 1974, Iran, who at the time actually had good relations with the US, offered Lockheed 160 million dollars to restart the production of C-5As so that they could purchase them for their own air force. Iran had already done something similar with several American F-14 fighter jets and hoped to add transport carriers to their arsenal. These requests were never finalized though, and after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 it was assumed that they were no longer interested. It was also during the 1970s that a multi-billion-dollar project, known as H-mod, replaced the wings on all functioning C5s to prevent the cracking witnessed in testing. This was done with an aluminum alloy that wasn’t available during original production.
When Ronald Regan became the president, new military policies required more airlift capability, and congress approved the funding to begin the production of a second line of C5s, the C5-B. The first of these was completed in 1986 and delivered to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma. By 1989, 50 C5-Bs were finished and added to the current fleet. The newer models were identical in size and form to the C5-As but included improved systems functions and more reliable wings than the original version.
Additional modifications were made in the 1990s. For example, two C5-Bs were modified into the C5-C, a model which removed much of the passenger space to allow for larger cargo, which was mostly satellites. In the late 1990s every C-5 A, B, and C had been refitted with a glass cockpit, modern electronics, and updated navigational equipment.
The C-5 class has a long operational history with various applications. It’s first wartime use was in the Vietnam war, where C5s were used to transport troops, supplies, tanks, and even other aircraft across the Pacific. In the final moments of the war, they were crucial for the mass evacuation of military personnel and civilians, but this was also when the C5 program experienced its most fatal accident.
During Operation Babylift, a mission to rescue thousands of Vietnamese children, a C5 crashed in an emergency landing, killing 144 on board, including 78 children. After the tragedy, 30 more evacuation flights were made with C5s, which, along with Operation New Life, rescued over 110,000 refugees from South Vietnam. Thousands of rescued Vietnamese orphans were adopted by families in the United States, Canada, Australia, France, and the UK.
C5 Galaxies were also readily made available to US allies. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 saw the use of several of them to deliver ammunition and food rations to the Israeli army, an effort which was known as Operation Nickel Grass. C5s were also made available to the British forces in 1979 when the UK intervened in Zimbabwe in a peacekeeping operation.
It seemed that the C5 was a versatile machine, and because of its proven track record, NASA considered it for the role of carrying the space shuttle, but wasn’t chosen because of its high-set wings, and the Boeing 747, with its low-set wings, was picked instead. In direct contrast, the Soviet shuttle carrier at the time featured similar, high-set wings to the C5.
The C5 was also used for the first American test of an intercontinental ballistic missile from an airplane. One Minuteman ICBM was dropped from a C5 galaxy at an altitude of 20,000 feet, or about 6000 meters. The missile dropped about halfway to the ground, fired its rocket, and ascended back to the height of the plane, where it disabled itself and fell into the ocean. This showed that launching an
ICBM from an airplane was possible, but this method wasn’t used often in the future due to nuclear security concerns.
The plane was used again in the 1980s during the construction of the top secret F117 Nighthawk. To keep the new revolutionary spy plane from being spotted by Soviet satellites, it was disassembled and transported in C5s to its testing site instead of being placed on a train.
Then, after setting the record for the largest aircraft to operate in Antarctica, the C5 Galaxy continued to see a lot of action though the 1990s, where it was used extensively in the Gulf War, operations in Yugoslavia, and for humanitarian relief in Rwanda. It was also the military transporter of choice in the early 2000s when the US-led coalition invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
With such a wide array of uses and a successful history, the Air Force is understandably reluctant to retire the C5, but its cost and unreliability needed to be addressed. In 2006, the Air Force began RERP, or Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program. This includes updated electronics, software, and all new General Electric CF6 engines. As mentioned earlier, this plane is an economic disaster, and burning through its 51,000 gallons of fuel, that’s 230,000 liters, gets costly. These newer engines bring increased fuel efficiency and thrust. These enhanced C5s also come with missile defense systems, a mandatory inclusion after a C5-B was hit with a projectile in Iraq.
These refitted planes are designated as C5-Ms, or C5 Super Galaxies. Full production of Super Galaxies began in 2009, and the last of 52 of them was delivered in 2018. The first completed C5-M broke 41 records while being tested, including carrying the heaviest payload to an altitude of 2000 meters, or 6562 feet.
While many of the original C5-As have been retired, and 11 of them scrapped, these C5 Super Galaxies are here to stay, and Lockheed continues to test ways to make them more efficient, including some experimental technology, such as plasma heating critical points of the frame to reduce turbulence. With all these changes and more, the Air Force estimates that these monsters of the sky will be operational into the 2040s.