The Indian Air Force (IAF) began the trials of the C-17 strategic lift aircraft on Monday. According to IAF sources, the trials, which could last up to a week, are scheduled to conclude by Thursday and will include operational demonstrations in high altitude and hot, desert environments.
The aircraft will be required to land in high altitude airfields, switch off and take off again. Load carrying capability, especially at such airfields, is also likely to be tested, either with dummy cargo or simulation of payload by carriage of additional fuel. The expeditionary landing and take off ability of the aircraft on short, unpaved airstrips is also likely to be examined hands-on by IAF pilots. The IAF is considering the purchase of ten C-17s, which would make it the second largest operator of the aircraft.Recently invited to visit Boeing’s C-17 facility at Long Beach in the US, your correspondent got an opportunity to meet the Boeing pilots who have brought in the aircraft to India for trials, Major Tommy Schueler and Lieutenant Colonel Kelly Latimer, both retired from the United States Air Force (USAF). Both were confident the IAF would find the performance of the aircraft satisfactory. Schueler and Latimer showed your correspondent around the cockpit of the aircraft. Schueler says one of the things that make the C-17 great for strategic lift and delivery in hostile, disaster-hit or small, basic airstrips is the capability of the aircraft to initiate ‘thrust reversers in flight’ which gives it a ‘rapid descend rate’. He says it acts as a ‘big speed brake’ that helps the aircraft ‘slow down quicker’. Specifically, he says the C-17 cruises at an altitude of 35,000 feet and can descend at a rate of 20,000 feet a minute. A Canadian Defense Forces C-17 recently landed at the most northerly, permanently inhabited location in the world, Canadian Force Station Alert. Major Schueler says the aircraft also carries the TCAS or Traffic Collision Avoidance System as well as a Missile Launch Warning System. He says the C-17 has never had a fatal crash and the few accidents that have taken place have been due to pilot error. The C-17 can take-off from an airfield 7,000 feet long (a little more than two kilometers) with a payload of almost 165,000 pounds (a little more than 73 tons), fly 2,400 nautical miles (almost 4,500 kilometers) and land on an airfield as long as 3,000 feet (less than a kilometer) or less. Conversely, it can carry 100,300 pounds (almost 45 tons) a distance of 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 kilometers). With around 245,000 pounds (109 tons) of fuel, it can fly for around 12 hours.
But while it’s configured for refueling by KC-10s and KC-135s, it is not yet certified for refueling by IL-78 aircraft, the refueller used by the IAF.
Your correspondent also saw loadmasters Bob Tenorio and Tracy Gray in action, demonstrating the load carrying capabilities of the aircraft. Apparently, a single loadmaster on board suffices for the loading and unloading of the aircraft and Gray operated the ramp and the shifting around of the pallets on her own, without any trouble.
She says a fully loaded C-17 can be emptied of its cargo in around 20 minutes. Tenorio says the aircraft would only require an additional loadmaster in emergencies or in an air-drop situation.The ramp alone, he says, can carry 40,000 pounds (almost 18 tons). The aircraft can carry 102 paratroopers or 188 seated passengers, and also has an aeromedical configuration with nine onboard litters, with 27 additional litters that can be installed when required.
Tommy Dunehew, Vice President, Business Development, Global Mobility Systems at Boeing, says that many of the systems and equipment required to maintain and operate the C-17 are common to the Lockheed Martin C-130J, six of which have already been ordered by the IAF, as well as the Boeing Business Jet for VIP transportation, which is already in service in the IAF.
He also informed Indian journalists visiting Long Beach that the IAF has inquired whether the C-17 could come in a double-decker configuration, like the IL-76 aircraft it operates. “They’ve (IAF) asked us if we can give them a double-decker configuration And we’ve come up with a conceptual plan,” he said.Dunehew likes to relate the story of a fleet of 17 C-17 aircraft that transported a complete US Army brigade with 400 vehicles from Southern Italy to an unproved airstrip in Northern Iraq, operating only over five nights, during the beginning of the last campaign in Iraq. According to Dunehew, it helps that the aircraft can reverse on its own and park itself, and can be loaded and unloaded without the aircraft having to kneel. The aircraft can transport one Chinook or two Apache helicopters at the same time. Dunehew says the aircraft could transport three Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) of the IAF with folded blades along with 38 personnel.
Another story he tells is how a C-17 transported a Chinook to Afghanistan and then took off to refuel from a tanker hovering above, to bring fuel back for the helicopter, which then began operations. He says the C-17 can offload fuel to support the immediate operations of other aircraft, like the Chinook and the Apache.
If the trials are satisfactory he thinks a Letter of Acceptance could be issued in a month or two.