One-Seven is go
Gary Stedman reports from RAF Brize Norton on the official introduction of the C-17
"Flash to bang in a year and a day", was one of many enthusiastic comments from Russ Cole, C-17 Integrated Project Team Leader at the Defence Procurement Agency, speaking to the assembled press at RAF Brize Norton during the 99 Squadron media day. Perhaps surprisingly, given the recent media coverage of other 'Smart Acquisition' programmes, the C-17 lease has proceeded smoothly and ahead of schedule. The first UK C-17 was delivered to the Royal Air Force in a ceremony at the Long Beach assembly plant, California, exactly a year and a day after a ministerial announcement that the UK was planning to acquire the aircraft.
The final lease agreement with Boeing has its origins in the Ministry Of Defence 'Short Term Strategic Airlift' capability programme. The STSA requirement was borne out of the UK's need to acquire a heavy airlifter capable of carrying outsize equipment to support Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) operations world-wide. In the longer term this requirement is planned to be met by the Future Transport Aircraft, almost certainly the Airbus A400M, expected (perhaps, rather hopefully) to enter service during mid-2008. The original STSA competition was terminated in August 1999, as although the C-17 Globemaster III was the obvious choice, a conventional purchase (depending on what figure you believe, a C-17 costs between $180-240 million) was found to be unaffordable from a shrinking UK defence budget.
It was on 16 May 2000 that the Defence Minister announced that in addition to a commitment to acquire the Airbus A400M as the RAF's FTA, four 'new build' C-17A Globemaster III aircraft would be leased from Boeing for a seven year term. Two one-year extensions are optional on the deal, as is a belated outright purchase if required. To support the new aircraft in RAF service the C-17 project team have been equally innovative, 'buying-in' to the existing 'Flexible Sustainment' program between Boeing and the USAF, through a Foreign Military Sales contract. An additional bonus was the availability of the new Block-12 configuration. This latter model has a additional fuel tank fitted to the upper cargo compartment - an important point to remember as the UK aircraft cannot be air-refuelled by RAF tanker aircraft.
Barely a month after the initial announcement had been made, assembly of 'UK-1' commenced at the Long Beach Plant with delivery planned for May 2001, continuing until the fourth and final aircraft in late August. As part of the Flexible Sustainment/FMS programs, Boeing and USAF personnel will offer technical support and maintenance training at RAF Brize Norton for the lifetime of the lease. Basic conversion training on the C-17 for RAF aircrew is undertaken at Altus AFB, Oklahoma, where the USAF conduct all their aircrew training for their various strategic transports. The first four pilots and four loadmasters joined the first operational USAF C-17 unit, the 437th Airlift Wing at Charleston AFB, to gain experience of USAF C-17 operations before returning to form the nucleus of the newly reformed 99 Squadron. Subsequent aircrew will only attend the basic course at Altus, completing their training in the UK. At full establishment the squadron will have ten crews and expects to fly 3,000 hours each year. 99 Squadron's engineers and technicians undergo their training alongside USAF personnel at Charleston.
Despite having survived a long and protracted development, not to mention a critical operational review early in its USAF career, the C-17 was still required to pass formal UK military aircraft release procedures before entering RAF service. Following intense speculation, during which many possible dormant squadron numberplates were suggested, RAF Strike Command announced on 19 December 2000 that the new C-17 unit was to be 99 Squadron. The squadron would return to the location of its disbandment 25 years ago, RAF Brize Norton. Long before the first C-17 for the new unit arrived, construction on a new headquarters and supply building was well underway. To allow training on new loads without the need for a airframe, a cargo bay mock-up has been assembled on the base.
UK-1 arrived at Brize Norton on 23 May this year, six days after the formal handover at Long Beach. The new arrival was soon put to work, the first support flight (a cargo of Land Rovers) being flown just ten days later. The RAF C-17s retain the standard overall grey finish carried by USAF aircraft, as well as both their RAF and US serials on the nose. The squadron's badge, a puma, is marked on the tail. The second aircraft was delivered in mid-June, initially going to Boscombe Down until the beginning of July. 99 Squadron made its public debut at this year's Waddington Airshow, ZZ171 appearing in the static park. The very public departure of the aircraft on the Saturday evening was a disappointment to many visitors only attending on the Sunday (including your scribe), but is also a excellent example of why the C-17 was procured at such great cost. The fact that UK-1 was required to fly to Brize Norton and ship a replacement engine for a RAF TriStar stranded at Dover AFB in the US has been well publicised elsewhere. What has not, is that from Dover, the C-17 flew another urgent sortie to the Caribbean, then returned for the 'dead' engine before flying home. By undertaking such a mission, barely a month after introducing a new type into RAF service and a full five months before their formal in-service date, 99 Squadron have demonstrated a capability that the RAF previously woefully lacked. As the OC 99 Squadron, Wg Cdr Malcolm Brecht pointed out - three C-130s would have been required for the TriStar operation alone.
The RAF C-17 can carry 18 NATO standard pallets, Puma, Chinook and Apache helicopters, and it is planned to operate in the aeromedical configuration in the near future. USAF aircraft can carry the standard US Main Battle Tank, the M1 Abrams and UK aircraft will be capable of lifting the heavier Challenger I/II MBT if required. If carrying a heavy tracked vehicle, its centreline must be within eight inches of the aircraft's centreline. Various pallet load combinations can be airdropped, although it seems unlikely the RAF will use this capability as it is planned to operate the C-17 on strategic 'route' flights and not for tactical operations.
Having acquired an important asset in such a short timescale, the RAF were quite understandably swift to parade their new aircraft before the media. So, on 19 July an impressive who's who of the aviation press (and a correspondent for Air Scene-UK!) assembled just inside the main gate at RAF Brize Norton for a briefing, and more in hope than expectation, a flight. A quick introduction from the station's CRO, Sqn Ldr David Rowe, followed before the briefing was turned over to the DPA's Russ Cole. The C-17 project team leader was keen to recall how the C-17 program had been a milestone in procurement for the MOD, as well as emphasising how an initially sceptical USAF and Boeing became such exemplary partners. Tommy Dunehew from Boeing demonstrated how the UK Globemasters would fit into the USAF "Virtual Fleet" support arrangements with Boeing. The RAF would have full access to US C-17 logistics support at various locations world-wide, including RAF Mildenhall. Likewise, if unavailable elsewhere, the USAF will be able to call on support from Brize Norton.
As well as presenting a historical look at 99 Squadron, Wg Cdr Brecht also provided a couple of priceless anecdotes. His slide presentation of previous 99 Squadron mounts finished with their new aircraft as reported in a well known and highly respected defence journal - a KC-135R Stratotanker! A sheepish groan, followed by a quick "it wasn't me", suggests the journal may well get it right next time. Prior to being allocated a squadron identity, the new C-17 unit's aircrew were seen sporting a squadron crest containing a question mark. A design replacing this with a '99' ice-cream cone appeared before finally adopting the traditional black puma of 99 Squadron.
Of course, what most of us were really looking forward to was a flight, and with only two C-17s at Brize Norton, not to mention much speculation about the aircraft only being flown on the most urgent of tasks, one did not hold out too much hope. If that was not enough, the presence at the station of a certain modified USAF 747, and the highly sensitive arrival of a Concorde test flight the previous day, would ensure that if operational commitments did not scupper the flight, then security would! My lack of faith soon evaporated however, as we were bussed out to a recently arrived ZZ172 waiting at dispersal. Much to our amazement, a seemingly unattended VC-25 and friends were parked on the opposite hardstanding - surely hoards of US Secret Service agents were watching our every move? Strange how a organisation seemingly so paranoid about security could appear so relaxed, unless as many people suspect - it really is just for show!
A walk around UK-2 gave the chance to photograph the aircraft from most angles, all without having to worry about the usual airshow irritations, the only downside being a dull and overcast sky, which was itself a major improvement on the downpours I had left behind in Suffolk that morning. A 10 Squadron VC10 parked next door provided a interesting comparison, its long sleek airliner heritage looking so at odds with the short, dumpy airlifter of a far later generation. The C-17 is fitted with 54 Permanently installed sidewall seats, most of which were taken as we taxied out. The loadmaster informed his 'cargo' that 'Ascot 885' would be airborne for about a hour, up to about 8,000 feet over North Devon and Cornwall before returning to Brize. Unfortunately there is not a lot that can be said about a empty cargo bay, except that I did wonder if other airlifters come with no smoking and seat belt lights as standard. With only six small observation windows in the cargo bay, chances to look out were going to be slim. Departure from Brize Norton was surprisingly smooth, with a gradual climbout before heading west.
climbed above the cloudbase, the view across the Severn Estuary was
spectacular from the flight deck, with Cardiff and Newport visible
over to the right. The C-17 flightdeck is quite roomy, with two jump
seats behind the two pilots' seats. In addition to the usual collection
of Multi-function displays, both pilots are provided with Head-up
Displays, usually more commonly seen on combat aircraft than transport
types. After a approach into Cardiff Airport (must have some flight
training while flying a bunch of journalists around!), the Globemaster
heads back, down to low-level past the Severn Bridge. The approach
into Brize Norton is again surprisingly smooth. Touchdown was so gentle,
that to be honest, I was not even aware we were down until I saw the
terminal out of the tiny windows. Rather than head back to the hardstanding,
the crew taxi UK-2 to the main ASP outside the terminal before lowering
the main ramp to disembark its passengers, just over a hour after
we had left. Within a few minutes, UK-2 is back in the air again.
With UK-1 visible in the hangar undergoing work on the fuel tanks,
Even with just a few hours spent at RAF Brize Norton, it is clear that the C-17 will become a vital asset to future UK military operations, particularly with the current emphasis on rapid deployment abroad. This begs the obvious question - can we afford to be without it in the long term? Press reports indicate that the A400M programme has every chance of deteriorating into a very typical European farce, with, as always, politics, rather than military requirements being the driving force behind the programme. For the UK, frustrating memories of the Eurofighter programme are likely to return, particularly as it is the same partner that again appears to be vacillating. Even when (or perhaps if) the A400M enters service, and although the aircraft should bring greater capability than a C-130, it will simply not be in the same class as a true strategic airlifter like the C-17. From a UK military standpoint alone (without the political requirements of a European programme, jobs, etc..), there must be a strong case for a further order of C-130Js, combined with a high-end capability provided by a outright purchase of additional C-17s.