Kuwait C-17A Jet

Boeing C-17A Globemaster III

Strategic Airlifter

Boeing C-17A Globemaster III 

One of the most significant military transport aircraft of all time, the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III equips eight nations’ air arms, plus NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability consortium, in which 12 further nations are involved. As a strategic airlifter, the C-17A transport troops, troop equipment and other cargo to main operating bases, or forward operating bases (as mission requirements dictate) located the world-over. Its heavy-lift capability, combined with its capacity to operate from makeshift airstrips, make it among the most versatile and deployable types in service today.

 C-17A Development

The C-17A Globemaster III (so-named because it was the third aircraft type – after the Douglas C-74 and C-124 designs – to be called ‘Globemaster’) first flew in 1991 but work on it had started many years earlier. The USAF has been seeking a new strategic transporter of the C-17A’s calibre since the late-1970s. 1979 saw the C-X program’s launch. The following year, proposed submissions were invited-in. Longstanding aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas’ entry was heavily influenced by a preceding design, the YC-15, which hadn’t ever entered service. In August 1981, it won the contest and, after a lengthy development phase, the prototype C-17A took to the air more than a decade later.

 C17A Globemaster - Boeing

Within the next few years, test flights gave way to full-rate production and entry-into-service. After 1997, with McDonnell Douglas having been taken over by Boeing, the C-17A officially became a Boeing product.

C-17A Features And Roles

The C-17A is a large four-engined aircraft featuring high-mounted wings, swept back 25 degrees, and a ‘t-tail.’ Cargo enters and exits the aircraft via a rear loading ramp. Inside, the C-17A boasts an 88 foot-long, 18 foot-wide and 12-foot-high cargo hold. Reconfigurable, the hold’s floor lets palletized cargo pass in and out on rollers but can also be flattened for armoured vehicles up to M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank size. A single M1, plus other vehicles, would be a typical C-17A load: others include 102 paratroopers, three Bradley IFVs, a single CH-47 Chinook heavylift helicopter or other cargo up to an overall limit of 170,900 pounds (77,519 kilograms). The C-130J Hercules’ maximum payload, by comparison, is 44,000 pounds, giving the C-17A well over three times its capacity.

Besides its key strategic airlift role, the C-17A can also be configured as a MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) platform. MEDEVAC-tasked C-17As can accommodate up to 36 stretcher-bound patients and 54 mobile patients, plus all medical personnel charged with looking after them.

C-17A Capabilities

The C-17A’s developers, according to Boeing, designed it to be 74 per cent mission-ready at all times and needing just 20 hours of maintenance for every hour flown. Able to land on runways just 3,500 feet long and 90 feet wide, it can fly into traditional airbases or more makeshift affairs. If a quick turnaround is required, the C-17A can carry out a full 180 degree turn, to face the other way, within an 80-foot radius. Thrust reversers can be deployed after touchdown. These work on not only completely flat surfaces but slightly elevated ones, too, meaning the C-17A can travel backwards while climbing at angles of up to two degrees. The thrust reversers vector engine exhaust upwards and forward – not downwards. Consequently, there’s little-to-no chance of FOD being ingested – a particular bonus when rough airstrips are being used.


C-17A Operators

With 223 examples delivered, the USAF has considerably more C-17As in service than any other operator. The first USAF C-17A squadron to reach IOC (Initial Operational Capability) status was the 17th Airlift Squadron, which did so in January 1995. In 2016, the C-17A equips 11 USAF, 10 Air Force Reserve and six Air National Guard squadrons, plus a pair of training squadrons and single flight test and weapons squadrons. These are stationed at a total of 14 bases. 

Other C-17A operators comprise Kuwait (two in service), India (10 in service with No 81 Squadron at Hindon Air Force Station), Australia (eight equipping No 36 Squadron at RAAF Base Amberley), the UAE (six), Canada (five, carrying the CC-177 designation, equipping No 429 Transport Squadron at CFB Trenton), Qatar (four, including the 279th and very last C-17A manufactured) and the UK (eight equipping No 99 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton).


Additionally, three Globemaster IIIs reside at Papa Air Base, Hungary. These all entered service during 2009 and spearhead NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) initiative. 12 nations (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, the US, Finland and Sweden) are involved. All have shared access to the three aircraft which, between them, have carried out some 1,000 sorties over the past six-or-so years. On 20 December 2010, the world’s in-service C-17As had accumulated a combined two million flying hours. By 2015, that figure had reached three million flying hours. 

C-17A Operations 

C-17As have participated in numerous frontline operations during the past 20 years. Operation Allied Force (the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, staged between March and June 1999), as US lawmakers subsequently recounted, saw the type carry out around 50 per cent of all associated airlift missions, its unprepared strips capability really coming into its own. Next came operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. During the latter, the C-17A made its combat airdrop debut and did so in some style. Involving 15 C-17As, the sortie staged on 26 March 2003 saw 1,000 paratroopers jump out to land and help secure Bashur airfield, in Northern Iraq. This was the largest airdrop mission carried out in years.

Five years earlier, eight C-17As had made history with a 14,816 kilometre airdrop mission – the longest ever, lasting over 19 hours. That was just one of the 33 world records that this remarkable transport aircraft has established. Another saw 44,000 pounds of cargo hauled into the air after a 1,400-foot take-off run. The subsequent landing was, again, only 1,400 feet long.

What now lies ahead for the C-17A? Production has ended but spare parts will still be manufactured for some years yet. Retirement, meantime, is decades off – one USAF official having predicted, in 2015, that it’ll be the 2040s before any C-17A goes out of service.


C-17A: Key Facts


Role: Strategic airlifter
Length: 174 ft 0 in (53.04 m)
Wing span: 169 ft 10 in (51.76 m)
Engines: Four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofans, producing 40,700 Ib thrust each
Maximum speed: 515 mph (830 km/h)
Maximum range: 4,741 miles (7,630 km)
Maximum height: 45,000 ft (13,716 m)
Crew: Three (pilot, co-pilot, loadmaster)
Weapons: None
First flown: 15 September 1991


Nine USAF C-17As flight, C-17A prototype and Kuwaiti C-17A images all copyright/courtesy Boeing

All other images copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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