How flight crews train to fly the $340 Million C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet

  • The C-17 Globemaster III has a payload capacity of 172,000 pounds (78,018kg).
  • This cargo jet can take off and land on runways as short as 3500 feet (1,066.80m).
  • It only takes 3 people to operate this massive plane.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: These Air Force pilots are refueling their C-17 Globemaster III at 26,000 feet (7,924.80m) in the air.

Narrator: The pilots rendezvous with a KC-10 refueler jet that pumps gas down through a controlled boom at 1,100 gallons (4,164l) per minute.

Narrator: It’s one of three missions we saw while embedded with a crew training to fly the C-17. At 174 feet (53.04m) long and 55 feet (16.76m) tall, the C-17 can carry a payload of around 170,000 pounds (77,111kg) and can land on runways shorter than 3,500 feet (152.40m) (1,066.80m) with just three crew members manning the aircraft.

We can do everything from supporting contingencies, so the war downrange. We can also do humanitarian missions, so helping evac sick patients, wounded soldiers. We can support COVID missions, has been a big thing recently. The basic crew of a C-17, there’s three of us. There’s a pilot, a copilot, and one loadmaster.

So, my role here as a C-17 loadmaster is to load these aircraft, whether it be helicopters, tanks, Humvees, ambulatory patients. Ultimately, our mission is to support someone else.

Narrator: The average salary of a C-17 pilot stationed at Travis Air Force Base is around $US117,000 ($AU159,905), and the typical tour is about three years. Training happens here, at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, one hour northeast of San Francisco. And before pilots complete missions in the sky, they practice the complicated maneuvers in a state-of-the-art simulator.

It’s pretty realistic. We use it to practice emergencies that you can’t practice in the jet or you wouldn’t want to practice in the jet, whether that’s multiple engine losses or really poor weather conditions.

Simulator: Fire, No. 2 engine.

Pilot: No. 2.

Narrator: Students train for emergencies like enemy threats and hydraulic failures, but the first scenario is a simulated engine fire.

Copilot: Roger.

A lot of crew coordination happens at that time. So that’s a good, safe space for young copilots to first get the feel for what the stick and power inputs feel like before you go do it in the jet. [laughing]

Narrator: After practicing in the simulator, the crew meets in the briefing room to plan a live training mission.

So, training flight tomorrow. Showtime’s a little nonstandard. We’re gonna do 6:30 local showtime at base ops.

Narrator: Pilots and crews spend hours the day before a mission discussing the route, the objectives, and backup plans if anything goes wrong.

Narrator: The crew finalized their plans and were dismissed to prepare for the flight. Precisely at 1000, the crew boarded the plane and ran through their final checklists. The first exercise of the training mission: refueling in midair.

So, air refueling is basically, think about a gas station in the sky. The whole concept there is we have two aircraft meeting at the same point in space. So, it can be potentially sensitive cargo you’re carrying and you don’t want to stop, or perhaps there’s just not a good place to land, or maybe you don’t have the time to land. So, we’ll be about 1,000 feet (304.80m) below the other aircraft, and then eventually closing the altitude gap to where their boom, that’s the long pole that sticks out of the aircraft to actually pass the gas from their aircraft to ours, we end up making contact with their boom.

A good saying is, “Aim small, miss small.” When we’re air refueling, we’re focusing on very small details and trying to see, like, small movements, ’cause small movements that close can make a big impact.

Narrator: Successful air refueling requires finesse and accuracy. It’s like threading a tiny needle while flying 300 miles (483km) per hour nearly 30,000 feet (9,144.00m) in the sky.

Dela Cruz: For me, I was thinking about improving my power movements, so my stick movements. So, my right hand, I was sitting in the right seat. We’re pretty solid, but my throttle movements could have been a lot better. So it’s something that I can work on in the future.

Narrator: Phase two of the mission involves low-level flying.

Dees: So, low-level flying during the day, we can go as low as 300 feet (91.44m) above the ground, which is pretty low for a large aircraft. And the intent there is to stay below the radar picture of a potential adversary. So, when you’re lower, there’s a few tactical benefits that we have that help us get to a not-so-great spot in a safer manner.

Out there flying it, we’re watching our altitudes and making sure that we’re clearing any obstacles or anything like that. We also had another pilot in the back looking at the map and the chart, calling out different towers on each side of the route and helping us avoid them and clear them that way.

Narrator: The C-17 headed north towards Moses Lake, Washington, to practice landing in an assault zone.

Dees: So, an assault zone is a short runway. Typically, they’re about 3,500 feet (152.40m) (1,066.80m), and then it has a marked zone that’s 500 feet (152.40m) long. And our goal is to put our aircraft in the 500-foot (152.40m) box and then use max effort to stop on the remaining runway.

Narrator: Crews have to master landing on a traditional airstrip as well as temporary runways.

Dees: So, the tactical part of the C-17 is it goes to fields that maybe have shorter runways or dirt runways, and oftentimes those are in combat locations or austere fields.


Narrator: The final mission: a combat offload back at the Travis Air Force Base.

Basically, what we’ll be doing is stimulating an expedited offload. Typically, if we’re in a situation in which we don’t have the equipment to do a download, if we have to get in and out really quick, maybe a hostile location, once we release the lock, we’ll say “brake release” as well to the pilots. And then they will hit the throttle, release the brake, and the pallet will go out of the aft end of the aircraft. We’ll call “load clear,” close up, and then we’ll get out of here.

So, it’s really rewarding when you go pick up, you know, 150 guys who have been deployed for six months and you get to bring them home to their families. I think overall it was a great sortie for everyone. It was very busy and very long. So it’s always tough to go fly for six hours and constantly be engaged, but I think everyone performed really well. I think a lot of people relate cargo jets to, like, an airliner, but what we do I think is very different. Specifically, we go anywhere and everywhere in the world. Sometimes that means we have lots of information on that airfield, sometimes it means you have none. And so, like I said, you have to be a problem solver and really think on your toes.