TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Oct. 24, 2020, marks 50 years since the first C-5A Galaxy arrived at Travis AFB.
Since tail No. 68-221 landed in 1970, the base’s fleet of C-5s has been connected to a wizard’s scroll of the nation’s major events, including:
• Escort and assistance for major world political figures, including multiple presidents and Pope John Paul II;
• Humanitarian aid responses after countless natural disasters and other world events, including the Rwandan civil war in 1994 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005;
• Providing support for a bevy of offensives: the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, the Somali Civil War, Operation Enduring Freedom, the second Iraq War and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
With a wingspan of over 222 feet, a height of 65 feet and a maximum liftoff capacity of 840,000 pounds, the C-5 is a behemoth, one of the largest aircraft in the world. Generations of Americans have plied their trade on the planes.
Let’s take a look at where the C-5 has been, where it is today and what’s in store in the future from the folks who have worked with the aircraft over the past half-century.
The first aircraft to arrive on an almost monthly basis for the first few years of the 1970s were A model C-5s. In the late 1980s, an improved model, the C-5B, arrived to bolster and replace A models. Also in Travis AFB’s fleet was the C model C-5, a modified version of the A model with increased cargo capacity to help NASA move its wares.
Brian Joseph spent more than three decades working on the C-5. Now a maintenance operations manager with the 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Travis AFB, Joseph arrived at the base in 1975 at age 18 and has never left. He started as an apprentice mechanic and promoted his way to becoming a C-5 crew chief.
“C-5 is a plane you either love or hate,” Joseph said. “There’s no middle ground on the C-5. Since I cut my teeth on the C-5, I’m partial to it. I worked on it most of my adult life, so I love it. It was a challenge. It’s very hard to work on, but since I had nothing to compare it to, it was my norm.”
In addition to the many missions, Joseph remembers the challenges of keeping the fleet aloft over the years, including periods when parts were hard to come by in the 1980s.
“We were cannibalizing parts off of other airplanes as a normal course of business instead of getting parts from a vendor,” Joseph said. “During that time, it was really bad. We were trying to maintain an airplane that in the ’70s was maintaining at 98% reliability. Reliability fell to 60% and sometimes less.”
Joseph isn’t the only C-5 vet who remembers those challenges. Sonny Deleon worked with the C-5 as a flight engineer, instructor, examiner, chief of standardization and evaluation and a superintendent from 1982 to 1997. In 2005, he returned to Travis AFB, working with the C-5 training program.
Now the site manager for the 60th Operations Support Squadron’s C-5 aircrew training system, Deleon said reliability rates bounced back in the 1990s, but “part availability was a problem” for a period of time.
Joseph said a program in the early 2000s which aimed to curb cannibalization for good was his “signature achievement in my entire career.” The program decreased the cannibalization rate by 93% while garnering the Air Force Chief of Staff’s Team Excellence Award in 2004.
Along with the difficulties and challenges, there were great moments, too.
Jim Rost, a Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps teacher at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento worked with the airplane from 1978 to 1998. Rost is bursting with memories, from a mission with Pope John Paul II in 1987 to Desert Storm to filming the 1996 film “Larger Than Life.”
In the movie, actor Bill Murray plays a character who inherits an elephant. Near the climax of the film, elephants are loaded onto a plane. Rost played a background character during the scene, which takes place in the rain.
Rost slipped and fell during shooting and was helped up by Murray. The actor later signed an autograph for Rost with the inscription, “Oh, no! Jim’s fallen!”
“You never know what cool stuff you’re going to do,” Rost said. “I loved the camaraderie and working together.”
As the fleet aged and analog technology evolved into digital in the 21st century, most of the fleet went through the Aircraft Modernization Program. The program sought to improve communications tools as well as install new engines and glass flight decks. It also scrapped outdated technology such as old gauges and the obsolete navigator seat. These models are called C-5M Super Galaxies.
Tech. Sgt. Christopher Doss, 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aircraft section chief, first touched C-5s in 2006 when he was at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Doss said the advancements have made it easier for computer systems to talk to one another, making it easier for technicians to find the root causes of discrepancies.
“Just seeing how these aircraft work now with new technological advances is amazing,” Doss said. “It’s crazy what technology has done for these airframes and aircraft.”
Doss said the weight of a maintainer’s responsibility was impressed upon him early in his career. While at Dover, he saw the remains of a C-5 that crashed on final approach.
“The instructor took us out and showed us the plane. He said, ‘This is what happens when you don’t follow procedures correctly,’” Doss said.
The gravity and responsibility of the job are things he works to instill in the Airmen coming up behind him in the C-5 universe, such as Staff Sgt. Elijha Manibusan, 60th AMXS C-5 craftsman and crew chief. Manibusan entered the service in 2008 and got a brief stint with the C-5 on the flight line at Dover, including the first C-5M.
Manibusan said his eye-opening moment came in 2010 when he had the chance to be on a C-5 flight deck during takeoff.
“I had seen it come and go, but being in the cockpit right there with the pilot, seeing it take off and see everything that goes around, was a complete change for me,” he said.
Manibusan said the flight expanded his understanding of how his work connected to the larger mission.
“When it’s on the ground, it’s completely different,” Manibusan said. “To see how vital communications are during takeoff was completely exhilarating to me. It was a moment in time I realized this is why we do things we do.”
Manibusan said it made him more passionate about the aircraft at an early stage in his career.
The modern era brings an interesting folding of time — the base’s oldest jets are paired with some of its newest technology. He acknowledged what Doss said about different components interacting more fluidly, but also said new components mean new challenges that haven’t been diagnosed before.
“When it’s an issue with an engine, it takes a little more time to troubleshoot the problem because it’s a newer engine. It hasn’t been seen before,” he said. “Other than that, the aircraft is pretty solid.”
To extend the shelf life of the C-5M, Doss said Airmen today need to keep passing down everything they’ve learned throughout the years. It takes passion and pride, he added.
“We have to pass that ownership down as NCOs, senior NCOs,” he said. “We’re gone. We’re retired. They need to know this is your jet. You’ve got to take care of it. … It’s fluid. It’s continuous as long as we have these jets.”
As it looks to the future, the C-5 flies on with few peers capable of delivering the same kind of mobility.
“I worked on the KC-10, the C-17, but how many aircraft can hold Chinook helicopters?” Doss asked. “No aircraft can haul as much cargo as a C-5.”
The aircraft can still catch the breath of those who have serviced their parts, been on their missions and been vital to their 50 years of service.
“I’m in awe every time I see one fly here at Travis (AFB),” Deleon said. “It’s amazing that an airplane as big as that can do what it does.”
Five decades down, there’s the potential for still more awe and inspiration to come. The nation’s leaders plan to keep the C-5 in service until they reach the 70-year mark in 2040.