Modern Day

C-5 Galaxy – The Big Daddy

The C-5 Galaxy is a huge heavy cargo-lifting airplane the length of an American football field and as high as a 6 story building, making it the biggest military transport plane ever built.

From its inception in 1961, it has served all over the world in variety of humanitarian, military, and transportation roles, and even today the US still has 52 of them in its air fleet. However, the C-5 wasn’t always respected, and throughout its service record has shown it can be equally as dangerous as it is impressive. 


C-5 Galaxy Background & Design

In October 1961 Lieutenant Joe W. Kelly, commander of the Military Air Transport Service, announced that the US Air Force (USAF) were looking for a brand new heavy transport aircraft that could lift cargo weighing up to 100,000 pounds over a distance of 4,500 nautical miles before refueling.

The C-141 Starlifter performed its role for 58 years.
The C-141 was not able to lift anywhere near the payload of the new aircraft.

This was echoed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in December 1964, who revealed more publicly that a new military craft known as the CX-HLS, capable of transporting helicopters and even tanks, would be constructed alongside 250 more existing C-141s in order to increase the Military Air Transport’s airlift capacity 600% by 1970.

Additionally, the CX-HLS was going to be twice as heavy as the C-141 and have the ability to land on small airfields up to 4,000 feet.

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In April 1965 Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, alongside Boeing and Douglas, answered the call, producing blueprints for their own versions of the CX-HLS. In September, it was unveiled by McNamara that Lockheed had won the contract, worth more than $2 billion, becoming primary contractors alongside General Electric, who were delegated $500 million to provide the engines.

The C-5 was the exact aircraft the USAF needed.
The first model C-5A Galaxy on take off. Photo credit – Manhhai CC BY 2.0.

In October 1965, Joe Kelly’s successor, General Howell M Estes Jr, recalling the October 1963 Operation Big Lift, which moved 15,500 troops and their equipment from Texas to Germany, provided an eyeopening example of how the C-5 was going to revolutionize military transport:

“We used 234 aircraft [C-118s and C-124s], each flying one mission, and completed the lift in 63 hours. By comparison 42 C-5As could do the same job in only 13 hours.”

In June 1967, as development started, it was disclosed that a Lockheed employee, L.L. Kitchens Jr, had won the company naming contest. He christened the new craft with the name ‘Galaxy’ while also receiving $500 in US saving bonds as well. 

The C-5A cockpit.
The C-5A cockpit looks extremely busy.

By March 1968, the first C-5 Galaxy, designated serial number 66-8303, was presented to the public for the first time at a ceremony attended by President Lyndon Johnson and 100,000 guests. In another insightful comparison, Lyndon outlined how the C-5 was going to help them win the Vietnam War:

“Today it takes 88 cargo planes to move an infantry brigade from Hawaii to Vietnam. Their heaviest equipment would have to go by sea. That entire operation could be handled by 20 of these aircraft”.

The C-5 Galaxy, manned by a crew of 7, is gigantic, measuring in at 247 feet and 10 inches in length, 65 feet and 1 inch high, and possessing a wingspan of 222 feet and 9 inches.

The C-5M brings the C-5 into the 21st century.
The much newer C-5M Super Galaxy cockpit is an ‘all glass’ cockpit.

It has five sets of landing gear, 28 wheels and is powered by four F-138-GE100 General Electric engines which can produce 51,250 pounds of thrust, giving it a maximum speed of 919 kph, a cruise speed of 869 kph, and a range of 5526 km at full capacity.

It can carry 281,001 pounds of cargo, which can be loaded and unloaded at the same time because both the nose and the aft doors can open. Its ramps are so wide that 2 vehicles can be loaded aboard at the same time. In fact, the C-5 can ferry a 102,000Ib M-60 tank at a maximum speed of 470 knots over a distance of 5,500 nautical miles without stopping to refuel.

Testing and Achievements

In June 1968, Lockheed kicked off its extensive flight program as the C-5 made its maiden voyage from Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia, being operated by chief engineering test pilot Leo J. Sullivan, test pilot Walter E. Hensleigh, flight engineer Jerome “Jerry” H. Edwards, flight test engineer E. “Mitt” Mittendorf, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Joseph S. Schiele, the chief USAF test pilot.

There is no load too big for the C-5.
A C-5M Super Galaxy swallowing an M1 Abrams tank.

All went well as the Galaxy took off at a speed of 123 knots, climbed to 10,000 feet at 140 knots, achieved a cruising altitude of 11,000 feet, and landed with a touchdown speed of 116 knots.

On December 17th 1969, the 66th anniversary of the Wright brothers epoch-changing flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the first C-5 unit was delivered to Military Airlift Command (MAC) at Dobbins Air Force Base.

However, during its first operational flight for MAC in June 1970, the C-5 would make less of a good impression as it landed at Charleston Air Force Base. A few seconds after it touched the runway, a wheel from the left-landing gear broke off and bounced behind the plane, followed by the popping of the adjacent tire.

Accidents with large aircraft can have disasterous results.
A C-5 crashed at Dover AFB in 2006.

Addressing concerns, Congressman L. Mendel Rivers, a great supporter of the C-5, used the occasion fire back at one of the plane’s notable critics, Senator William Proxmire:

“That’s why we put 28 wheels on one of these things… and if Proxmire doesn’t like it, I say to hell with it. He’s been saying a lot about a wing falling off. That’s never happened so I guess he’ll be happy with a wheel.”

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Fortunately, the C-5’s first foray outside of the USA that same month was markedly more successful, completing a 10 day tour with stops at Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and Alaska before returning to Charleston.

The C-5 galaxy taking off towards some snow tipped mountains.
Despite her size, the C-5 is rather elegant.

Equally, its inaugural trip to Europe, where it made visits to Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain, the plane was toured by more than 27,600 people . The whole undertaking was considered an “unqualified success” by MAC officials.

The C-5 was met with even more acclaim in August 1970, flying a non-stop 20.5 hour flight which was its longest operation to date, and was followed by another impressive achievement in May 1971, when it landed at Asuncion, Paraguay for the Inter-American Air Force Chiefs Conference hosted by the Paraguayan Air Force, marking its first ever touchdown in the southern hemisphere.

In October 1979, a C-5 broke the world record for the heaviest single item airlifted when it delivered a ship reduction gear weighing 88 tons to Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine, obliterating the previous benchmark of 65 tons.

People look like ants compared to the C-5.
People lining up to look inside the beast puts the size into perspective.

10 years later in October 1989, the C-5 made its first landing in Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze, which annually resupplied scientists based at McMurdo Sound. 

Lastly, in 2009, the new C-5M Super Galaxy unofficially broke 41 records in one flight, including altitude attained in horizontal flight, the greatest amount of payload transported to 2000 meters, and the fastest time-to-climb record as it carried 178,000 pounds of cargo to 12,000 meters in less than 28 minutes.

Problems and Upgrades

A year before it was meant to make its first appearance on the battlefields of Vietnam, the C-5 was involved in an incident that would undermine its stellar reputation.

A KC-46 refuels a C-5M.
The C-5’s huge range, plus ability to refuel in flight gives the Galaxy the ability to fly almost anywhere in the world.

In September 1971, the left outboard engine broke off during a routine taxi procedure at Altus Airforce Base, Oklahoma.

On review, cracks were discovered in the engine pylons of two Galaxies, prompting the MAC to ground all C-5s until the next month for inspections. By November 1971, 38 out of 47 C-5s were cleared to fly.

This was compounded by more embarrassments in 1974, when a 106 pound wing flap from a C-5 flying with the 105th Airlift Group crashed into the backyard of a home in Newburgh, New York. That same year, a 238 pound door fell also fell from another C-5, landing 2000 feet from the end of the runway at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where it took off.

The way the nose folds enables huge loads to be placed inside.
Although generally safe, the C-5 did have a few known issues.

Furthermore, in April 1975, a C-5 carrying Vietnamese orphans was forced to make a crash landing after a massive decompression majorly damaged the flight controls, taking the lives of 76 children and 60 adults.

Concerns with the C-5s were addressed in April 1975, when Air Force Chief of Staff General David C. Jones approved a comprehensive safety study.

Despite the tragedies, they found no major safety deficiencies, their only recommendation being for manufacturers to produce a modified C-5 wing, which was approved by the Air Force Council in August 1976.

The design for the new wing was finished in June 1978. It was to be made out of a sturdier special heat-treated aluminum alloy, engineered to prevent cracks from forming and a repeat of the incidents of 1974, when parts of the wings had fallen off.

The Galaxy flying over the moutains.
With its tremendous payload capability, the gigantic C-5 Galaxy, an outsized-cargo transport, provides the Air Mobility Command inter theater airlift in support of the United States national defense.

The wing was forecasted to improve the C-5’s service life by 30,000 flight hours, and it would also increase its fuel capacity slightly from 318,000 to 332,500 pounds.

The first modified C-5 took to the skies in August 1980, beginning a series of flight tests that confirmed the advantages of the new wing. In 1981, General Wayne E. Whitlatch, commander of the Air Force Test and Evaluation Center, reported that the modified C-5 had:

“…demonstrated satisfactory operational effectiveness and suitability while performing 73 operational sorties.”

The C-5 looks like a cross between a C-17 and a 747.
The Warner Robins Air Logistics Center at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., received an award for its use of operations research to streamline maintenance procedures for the C-5 Galaxy. Maintenance is an extremely important part of keeping these birds in the sky.

From 1982 to 1987, each of the MAC’s 77 C-5s received the vital wing upgrade, which involved the fitting of two new center wings as well as two inner and outer wing boxes, which increased its total weight by 18,000 pounds.

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The C-5 was given additional upgrades from December 1978, including increasing passenger capacity by 75 and the installation of a triple interval navigation system (INS) that would cost $47.3 million.

They were also repainted from June 1983 with the “European 1” camouflage paint scheme which reduced corrosion.

In December 1982, Lockheed were awarded a $609.1 million contract to produce 50 updated C-5s, now named the C-5B, which were to all feature a new engine and state-of-the-art avionics systems.

No where is off limits to the C-5.
Even Antarctica can’t stop the C-5.

In January 1986, the first C-5B was flown from Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma by General Duane H. Cassidy, followed by the delivery of 49 more, increasing MAC’s outsize cargo capacity by 60% and their airlift capability by 8 million ton-miles per day.

In 1999 a study concluded that the airframes of the US’s C-5 fleet were structurally sound enough to continue service up until 2040, ushering in a modernization program which included the installation of new engines as well as Global Air Traffic Management, Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance, and All-Weather Flight Control systems.

In 2001, $1.1 billion was allocated to Lockheed-Martin to commence the C-5’s Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining program which would perform the necessary upgrades.

The Galaxy has transported cargo all over the world.
A U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy arrives at RAF Mildenhall, England, Apr 22, 1999.

In 2018, the last of the Air Force’s 52 C-5s were modified into the C-5 Super Galaxy and plans set out for it to incorporate advanced weather radar, mission computing, as well as communication and air traffic management systems in the future.

Humanitarian Operations

As a transporter of disaster relief supplies, the C-5 Galaxy has helped save thousands of lives in catastrophes all over the globe.

In 1979 they provided 479 tons of aid to Tehran after the Iranian government bought 25,000 sets of cold weather clothing and 10,000 insulated food containers.

Furthermore, in March 1985 a fleet of C-5s would supply refugees from an earthquake in central Chile with 60 tons of plastic sheeting to be used to build temporary shelters. As well as this, famine relief efforts in Sudan were greatly supported by the delivery of three Boeing VETROL 107 helicopters loaded into a Galaxy, which were dropped off at Wadi Seifna Air Base in August of that same year. 

The C-5 ominously lurks behind the KC-135R.
The C-5 approaching a KC-135R for refueling.

The Galaxy would additionally fly the first humanitarian relief mission to Afghanistan in October 1986, providing 63 tons of aid to refugees in Peshawar fleeing from the Soviets after their invasion in 1979.

In 1989, 17 C-5 Galaxies were commissioned to help clear up one of the worst oil spills on record in Alaska, transporting Navy oil skimmers, boats, bladders, UH-60 helicopters, and a communication trailer required for clean-up.

Moreover, another squadron of C-5s also provided medical supplies, including a portable disaster hospital, to African countries including Gambia, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Niger, and Cameroon in an operation known as AFRICA-2 in April 1989.

In a rare call for international assistance, in 1991 a C-5 dropped off 75 tons of blankets to Shanghai, China, after widespread flooding killed at least 1400 people.

The C-5 can carry loads no other military transport can.
Even the C-5A was monstrously big. The later model C-5M Super Galaxy is even larger.

In addition, with the fall of the Soviet Union, a fleet of C-5s supplied 2274 tons of cargo to the 11 new former Soviet Republics in 1992 during Operation Provide Hope.

C-5s would also come to the assistance of Turkey after a devastating earthquake in 1999, bringing with them 5 search and rescue dogs, 70 search and rescue specialists, 56,000 pounds of equipment, and 3 vehicles.

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They also helped similar efforts in 2000 after the crash of an Alaskan Airlines plane off the coast of California, transferring a side-scanning radar and remotely operated underwater vehicle to search the submerged wreckage.

Military Operations

The C-5 Galaxy has also been used effectively on battlefields spanning 4 continents.

In May 1972 the C-5 made its combat debut in Vietnam transporting six 49-ton M-48 Tanks from Yokota Air Base in Japan to Da Nang Airbase in Vietnam.

The C-5 can swallow helicopters with ease.
A CH-53E Super Stallion being loaded into a C-5A.

At Da Nang, the tanks were unloaded in less than 7 minutes and sent directly into battle. C-5s would perform many similar operations until the end of the war in April 1975.

In October 1973, a C-5 carrying 186,200 pounds of cargo was sent to Lod International Airport in Tel Aviv, undertaking the first mission of Operation Nickel Grass which aimed to support the Israelis as they fought against Egypt and Syria during the Yom Kippur War. In total, the Galaxy flew 146 missions, providing around 11,000 tonnes of supplies.

In 1978, a C-5 crew transported 130,000 pounds of vital aid to the government of Zaire as they fought against rebel forces, enabling them to break the rebel stronghold at Kolwezi.

C-5s also helped out the Thai government in April 1983, airlifting howitzers and ammunition to Bangkok for use against Vietnamese incursions at their northern border.

The C-5 Galaxy is operated from bases across the US and NATO members.
A pair of C-5s awaiting their cargo.

During the American invasion of Panama in 1989, C-5s dropped off 58% of the total cargo and 23% of the 53051 passengers that were ferried during the 3 month conflict.

In Iraq, by the end of the Gulf War in March 1991, C-5s had airlifted 84,385 personnel and 201,685 tons of cargo. C-5s were also involved in military intervention in Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope in 1993, airlifting 621 Nigerian soldiers and 495 tons of equipment.

Furthermore, C-5s took part in the Bosnian War, airlifting British and Dutch soldiers assigned to the peacekeeping effort to Split, Croatia in 1995 over 27 missions.

It has also seen action in Afghanistan and Iraq during the War on Terror starting from 2001, transferring 48% of all cargo to both war zones during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

With more cargo, the take off length increases.
Due to its high weight, the C-5 requires a long runway. Photo credit – Marksontok CC BY 2.0.

Transportation Services

Finally, the C-5 has transported some of the heaviest, most expensive items and some of the most important people on Earth.

In June 1977, a C-5 airlifted a 40 ton superconducting electromagnet from Chicago to Moscow as part of a Soviet-American energy research program, for which the crew were later awarded the prestigious Mackay Trophy.

It delivered 4 F-5Fs weighing 40 tons to Taegu Air base in South Korea the same year, 8 T-38 training aircraft to the Turkish Air Force in February 1980, and 8 F-5s to Prince Hasan Air Base in Jordan in September 1981.

In September 1987, a C-7 was tasked with shuttling the entourage and vehicles, including the famous bulletproof ‘Pope-Mobile’ of Pope John Paul III for his trip to America. On each leg of the tour, the C-5 carried 75 passengers as well as 49 tons of cargo.

In November 1978 it also helped lug an enormous computerized axial tomography scanner from California to Algiers on behalf of Algerian president Houari Boumedienne, and in 1979 it provided the Cambodian government with cranes and trucks needed to build their capital city.

A C-5 sat on the runway in the sunset.
The C-5 Galaxy has had an excellent career and will continue to serve well in to the future.

Moreover, in 1992, a C-5 helped move a pair of Soviet Topaz nuclear reactors worth $13 million each from St Petersburg to Travis Air Force Base in California. 

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In 1994 a World War One airplane, the Vickers Vimy bomber, which in 1919 was the biggest plane in the world, was carried by a C-5 to RAF Mildenhall in the UK, and in 1998, 33 C-5s transported Bill Clinton and his entourage for the first visit of an American president to China since 1989. 

It has even been utilized for sporting events such as the 2000 NFL Super Bowl, when a C-5 displayed at Dover Airfare Base acted as an entryway for celebrities and other eminent people attending a watch party. More recently, the C-5 Galaxy was employed in the evacuation of Kabul in order to lighten the workload of C-17s after the Taliban’s reclamation of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.

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  • Crew: 7 typical (aircraft commander, pilot, 2 flight engineers, 3 loadmasters)
  • Length: 247 ft 1 in (75.31 m)
  • Wingspan: 222 ft 9 in (67.89 m)
  • Height: 65 ft 1 in (19.84 m)
  • Empty weight: 380,000 lb (172,365 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 840,000 lb (381,018 kg)
  • Fuel capacity: 51,150 US gal (42,590 imp gal; 193,600 l)
  • Powerplant: 4 × General Electric F138-100 turbofan engines, 51,000 lbf (230 kN) thrust each
  • Maximum speed: 462 kn (532 mph, 856 km/h)
  • Range: 4,800 nmi (5,500 mi, 8,900 km) with a 120,000 lb (54,431 kg) payload. 2,300 nmi (4,260 km; 2,647 mi) with maximum cargo capacity
  • Service ceiling: 41,000 ft (12,000 m) at 750,000 lb (340,194 kg)
  • Rate of climb: 2,100 ft/min (11 m/s)