Tag Archives: C-17

Budget uncertainty in the Congress has kept the Boeing C-17 line open for years

Few days ago, I read in the weekly Aviation Week the following article, Boeing Blames Budget Uncertainty For C-17 Line Closure Timing, where Dennis Muilenburg, president of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, is quoted saying:

“… you quickly come to the conclusion that we cannot continue to spend money to keep that line open, given all of the other budget constraints. So, the fact that we are facing sequestration and uncertainty in the budget drove the timing of our decision.”

If anything, I would say the contrary: budget uncertainty in the Congress is what has kept the Boeing C-17 line open for the last years (coupled with international sales).

To understand that, it is important to remember that the C-17 program initially called for the acquisition of 120 aircraft. This number was later increased to 180 aircraft, and that the US Air Force had been requesting in its yearly budget requests zero aircraft per year since long ago. Only maneuvers in the Congress had been including in the final Defense Budget more C-17 units until the final 223 which were delivered (the last one in September 2013).

You can see an explanation of the plays that have taken place for years in the Congress in this article from 2009 in Business Week (“It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Pork!“):

The C-17 Globemaster offers one illustration of successful opposition to the Obama-Gates push for control of weapons spending. C-17s are large cargo planes produced by Boeing that cost $250 million apiece. They have been used heavily since 1993 to transport troops, tanks, and supplies. Every year since 2006, the Pentagon has said that it has enough C-17s. And every year, Congress overrules the military and authorizes funds for additional planes. In October the Senate approved $2.5 billion in the 2010 budget for 10 more C-17s, which would bring the fleet to 215.


But the real reason Congress wants more of them has little to do with military need. Boeing has built the C-17’s industrial base for political survivability.

The company has spread manufacturing across no fewer than 43 states. C-17 production lines employ more than 30,000 workers, many of them relatively well paid by factory-wage standards. Many of those jobs would be at risk if C-17 work ground to a halt.

The White House understands the challenge. “The impulse in Washington is to protect jobs back home, building things we don’t need at a cost we can’t afford,” President Obama said in August in a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Phoenix. “The special interests, contractors, and entrenched lobbyists—they’re invested in the status quo, and they’re putting up a fight.”


Bond, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and 16 colleagues began circulating a letter in April urging members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to keep funding the plane despite clearly stated objections from the White House and Pentagon. In California, C-17 production employs 5,000 workers at a final assembly plant in Long Beach.


These plays by politicians to try to keep the line open despite of the military not needing more aircraft continue to exist, as a few days ago we could read about a new plan: C-17 swap, to exchange older C-17s for new ones! (while the “old” ones have only about 20 years today possibly not having logged more  flight hours than two-thirds of their life).

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Tribute to Douglas Aircraft Company

Boeing announced this week that it will discontinue the producion of the C-17 Globemaster III in 2015. As an Airbus Military employee working for the A400M (a competitor of the C-17 in export markets), I take the announcement with some relief (if the production really comes to an end). On the other hand, as an aviation enthusiast I gave it another look.

As some media reported, the C-17 was the last aircraft assembly line of Boeing in Long Beach (California), this line shut down marks an end to an era. The C-17 is a legacy program from the former McDonnell Douglas which merged with Boeing in 1997. All the other McDonnell Douglas aircraft programmes which were manufactured in South California at the time of the merger were already stopped during the 5 years that followed the merger (including MD-80 variants, MD-90 and MD-11).

The activities of McDonnell Douglas in South California date back to those of the former Douglas Aircraft Company which merged with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967. All those MD-80/90/11 have as origin the DC-9 which first flew in 1965 and which together with its derivatives is still the 3rd most successful commercial airliner ever (only behind the 737 and A320 families).

I see the closure of the C-17 line as the end of Douglas heritage. In this post I just wanted to pay my small tribute to Douglas Aircraft Company one of the key companies in the history of aviation.

Douglas Aircraft Company

Douglas was incorporated in 1921, after Donald Douglas bought the stake from David R. Davis in the company that they had set up together the previous year. Prior to that Douglas, had studied in the MIT where he was the first ever to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. Then he helped with the installation at the MIT of the World’s first wind tunnel. He went to work for the Navy and then for Glenn L. Martin Company (set up by Glenn L. Martin, an Iowan aviation pioneer, hall-of-famer of the Iowa Aviation Museum which we visited in 2011). At Martin he worked in the design of several bombers but he wanted to go to California from where his wife was. Thus he left the company in 1920 to move to Los Angeles where he first set Davis-Douglas Co. You can read about the life of Donald Douglas in the Wikipedia article, at Boeing site or better, in this excerpt from an issue of Popular Science magazine from 1940:

Douglas career (source: Popular Science magazine, October 1940).

Douglas career (source: Popular Science magazine, October 1940).

The last picture in the comic-like biography of Douglas above shows a Douglas Commercial DC-3.

Douglas Commercial DC-3

One simply cannot overstate the importance of the DC-3 in the history of aviation. The DC-3 came as an evolution of the DC-2, and with its improved range and payload capacity it revolutionized both commercial and military aviation. Hundreds of civil aircraft were produced, over 10,000 military versions. The military version C-47 Skytrain came to be one of the iconic aircraft of the World War II first and later of the Berlin Airlift (see this post I wrote about our visit to the Berlin Tempelhof Airport, where today a DC-4 is displayed).

The Douglas Aircraft Company was mainly producing military aircraft until it received in 1932 a letter from Jack Frye, the VP Operations of the iconic airline Transcontinental & Western Air Inc., bettern known as TWA. Jack sent the same letter to 3 aircraft manufacturers (the others being Curtiss-Wright and Glenn Martin) inquiring whether they would be interested in producing an aircraft in response to TWA’s specifications. This came as a response to the launch by Boeing of the 247, which first 60 units were to be destined for its affiliated airline, Boeing Air Transport (both then part of United Aircraft and Transport Corporation). TWA feared that not having access to the 247 for the first years it would lag behind, and thus took the step forward of asking manufacturers to build the aircraft they needed.

John D. Anderson, the curator of aerodynamics at the National Space and Air Museum (see this post about our visit to NASM at Dulles) was also a professor of Aerospace Engineering in the University of Maryland. Among other books, professor Anderson has written “Aircraft Performance and Design (McGraw-Hill, 1999) a terrific book on aircraft design. The chapter 8 of the book describes the process of the Design of a Propeller-Driven Airplane. It includes as a design case study, the Douglas DC-3, 20-pages to delight yourself about history, aeronautics and engineering. It starts with a copy of the letter from Jack Frye and the specifications from TWA:

Letter from TWA to Douglas.

Letter from TWA to Douglas and specifications for a new airplane design.

The chapter describes the different discussions among Douglas’ senior engineers, exchanges with TWA, negotiations, etc. All the technologies employed in the aircraft were already existing in different models. The greatness of the project was in putting them together in one plane (the use of Northrop cantilevered wing, low-wing monoplane, retractable landing gear (to reduce drag), use of flaps (to allow low landing speeds – 65mph as per the spec), use of NACA cowlings to cover the engine…).

There was another great contribution to aeronautics of this development project and that was the one-engine-out performance, required in the specification; though the specification demanded a tri-motor which was able to take-off and cruise with any two engines. To that request, Douglas responded with a detailed analysis of safety in one-engine-out situations, which it presented at the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society in the paper “The Development and Reliability of the Modern Multi-Engine Air Liner with Special Reference to Multi-Engine Airplanes after Engine Failure“.

The first test plane that came as a result was the DC-1, the production aircraft that followed the acceptance of the prototype was named the DC-2, and the DC-3 was an enlarged version that resulted from another request from American Airlines, which wished a version of the DC-2 capable to carry litters for overnight travel, that came to be the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST). Douglas worked on that version but immediately saw that the potential of that enlarged version was not in the sleeper version but in having extra payload and comfort for seated passengers in comparison with other airplanes at the time. The DC-3 reduced direct operating costs (DOC) to 60% of those of the Boeing 247, thus converting it in a money maker for the airlines and allowing many more people to afford air travel.

In the following decades Douglas positioned itself as the leading commercial airplane manufacturer until Boeing took this position around the 1960s. Several models came during those years: DC-4, DC-6 (which came to be the Air Force One during Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, see the picture below taken at the Pima Air and Space Museum), the mentioned DC-9 with all its later variants, etc.

DC-6 (VC-118), Air Force One during Kennedy presidency (at PImar Air and Space Museum).

DC-6 (VC-118), Air Force One during Kennedy presidency (at PImar Air and Space Museum).

Later on, financial struggles led to the consolidation first with McDonnell and then with Boeing. As my wife Luca mentioned, “this is what happens in any other industry to many other companies…” true, but this is the industry I like, and thus, I feel that it’s a pity that the long era of Douglas comes to an end. However, even if no more Douglas aircraft are going to come out of Santa Monica or Long Beach factories, there will always be something from the old Douglas in the current Boeing:

Logos from Douglas (prior to 1967) and Boeing (after 1997 merger).

Logos from Douglas (prior to 1967) and Boeing (after 1997 merger).


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US Air Force fleets evolution

In these days in which the sequester is being often in the media, this will be a very brief post to bring to the memory a study prepared by Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, founded by the Air Force Association, “ARSENAL OF AIRPOWER: USAF Aircraft Inventory 1950-2009” [PDF, 6.5 MB], published in November 2010.

I wanted to bring forward some comments and two graphics:

  • “To put matters into perspective, a single C-17 can carry the equivalent of 15 C-47 loads (as well as cargo that could never fit inside a C-47) and deliver that cargo anywhere in the world within hours without requiring en-route staging bases.”
  • “The average cost of a flying hour over the past decade is around $23,000 (in constant FY11 dollars), compared to about $11,000 in 1985 and roughly $4,800 in 1970.”
  • “For example, a single B-2 now armed with 80 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) could strike as many targets as five of the 75-aircraft 1991 Gulf War era packages.”
US Air Force fleet evolution 1950-2009.

US Air Force fleet evolution 1950-2009.

US Air Force Airlift fleet, 1950-2009.

US Air Force Airlift fleet, 1950-2009.

The keyword here is capability, not numbers.

I will come back to here in following posts.


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Quiz: How loaded do US Air Force transport aircraft operate?

Let me share with you one funny quiz I did for some colleagues at the office:

On average, how loaded do US Air Force transport aircraft, C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster, operate? (as a percentage of their maximum payload capacity: let’s take the figures reported by the US Air Force, ~16.5 tonnes for the C-130 -“maximum normal payload”-and 77.5 tonnes for the C-17)

Before continuing reading below, take your chance in the poll below, where I offer 4 possible responses: 3 from my colleagues’ responses to the quiz plus the correct one:

Background. Before posing the quiz to my colleagues we were commenting on a piece of news of an Antonov 124 which had landed in Spain to load some equipment weighing 1,000 kg. The An-124 reported payload capacity is 150 metric tonnes. For those not being number-crunchers: that means using the one of the biggest cargo aircraft to load it up to 0.7% of its capacity.

After having read this last paragraph you may have changed your opinion as to which is the correct answer to the quiz.

I based the correct result on a news release from the US Air Force dating from the beginning of 2007. At that time I was working in Airbus Military strategy where I would like to pick up any number related to aircraft and play with it (the hobby has stayed). That release offered figures US Central Command air transport operations, including operations Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom. Find the results from that short number play:

US Air Force average loads (in tonnes) for C-130 and C-17 during 2005 and 2006.

US Air Force average loads (in tonnes) for C-130 and C-17 during 2005 and 2006.

If you do the math, you will immediately get the right answer: C-130 Hercules, 22% and C-17 Globemaster, 17%.

“What a waste of resources!” you may think. A former senior colleague pointed to that result: “You buy a Mercedes to travel with the family and baggage, then on a Sunday when having to go out to get some bread or any week day when you go alone to work… when you get to the garage and find a Mercedes… Guess which car you take?”

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After the year 2015, there will be no airplane crashes

When I was writing in the previous post about Alberto Dubois idea of evolution being exponential I had in mind the book “Augustine’s Laws”, to which I have referred many times in this blog.

Today, I read a very good article in last week’s issue of The Economist, “Defence spending in a time of austerity”, which describes the current situation of defence budgets around the World and how it will affect many programmes…

The article itself is referring to the computing evolution depicted by Dubois and some other exponential trends identified by Augustine, such as the increased use of computer power and software.

I especially liked the update of Augustine’s chart for the Law XVI which says:

“In the year 2054, the entire defence budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

Augustine's Law XVI chart, updated by The Economist.

Thus, in the last 25 years, since Augustine wrote his book, the business has not improved much. This situation provokes that different countries have to share weapons, e.g., C-17 transport aircraft (Strategic Aircraft Capability, operated for several countries from Hungary), SALIS (“Strategic Airlift Interim Solution”, chartering of ex-soviet An-124 to NATO countries)…

One of the most striking situations that may come to happen is that UK and France share two aircraft carriers. Carriers were considered essential to have control over oceans… however, if France is going to scale its fleet down to one single carrier: what would happen during the long months when it will be in overhaul?

Lately there have been much discussion about this sharing scheme, though it is still denied by officials. Consider that just back in 1940, the British Royal Navy destroyed much of the French fleet in the Operation Catapult.

Other interesting point is the trend towards using unmanned aircraft versus piloted ones. Already in the “Aircraft Investment Plan Fiscal Years (FY) 2011-2040” (PDF, 0.2MB) that the US Air Force submitted together with its FY11 budget request, it forecasted that the number of unmanned aircraft will almost triple in the next ten years, while the rest of fleets would be either just renewed or decreased.

Nevertheless, this may never come to happen if we take Augustine’s Law Number XIV:

“After the year 2015, there will be no airplane crashes. There will be no takeoffs either, because electronics will occupy 100 percent of every airplane’s weight”.


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From Ramstein to Pandora moon

At the beginning of December 2009, I took part in a conference on Military Airlift Operations in Frankfurt. The day after, we were offered a visit to Ramstein US Air Force and NATO base. In the different ramps of the base, there were several C-130Js Super Hercules (first USAFE squadron), the last remaining C-130E, half a dozen C-17 Globemaster, the same amount of C-5 Galaxy and some other contractors B-747 and DC-10. So far, so good.

Some weeks later, back in Madrid, I went to the movies to see Avatar, latest James Cameron film. The movie went along well… but it really got me when in the final battle appeared the huge airship carrying a pallet with a bomb to be air dropped. As soon as I saw the seats within the cargo hold, I thought it had to be a C-17. Then came a view of the ramp, and when the plane was crashing, the rear fuselage.

Since then I have tried to find evidence in the web, searched in forums, etc., but I have not found any evidence of it. Then I reviewed the movie and went back and forth through those last minutes. In fact it is a C-17.

Here I post some pictures of the C-17 for you to compare…

Compare the interior of the cargo hold with the seats seen in Avatar when soldiers start pushing the pallet.

Compare these other pictures with the ramp seen in the movie.

Now see the rear fuselage and compare it with the images seen when the plane in Avatar is about to crash.

Luckily the Na'vi did not face with these fleet of C-17 loaded with bombs...

… I wonder when will the A400M make its debut in Hollywood?


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