Why the C-5 Galaxy Is Such a Badass Plane


The C-5 can swallow main battle tanks and take them to Antarctica … and that’s just the beginning.

The largest military transport in the U.S.’s arsenal is also one of the largest planes in the world—and its five decades of operation is worth celebrating. With the ability to swallow 50-ton main battle tanks and deposit them on another continent, the Galaxy is an essential part of the global logistics system.

“[The C-5] symbolized the size, power, might and majesty of the United States Air Force,” says Air Force Historian John Leland, and it still does to this day. For a half-century, the Galaxy has kept America’s armed forces, allies, and far-flung scientists well supplied in the most remote corners of the Earth, and it will continue to do the job for the foreseeable future.

24,844,746 Ping Pong Balls of Big

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It’s hard to wrap your head around the sheer size of the C-5.

The most recent version, the C-5M, is 247 feet long. That’s twelve feet longer than an Airbus A380 superjumbo civilian jetliner. It has a wingspan of 222.8 feet, with each wing as long as a basketball court. The aircraft stands 65 feet tall, the equivalent of a six-and-a-half story building.

The Galaxy is so galactic it won’t fit inside many hangars. In some cases, the C-5 mostly fits inside, and the Air Force simply cuts a hole in the sliding doors for its whale-shaped tail to stick out. Other times, it just sits outside.

The C-5 was built to carry more cargo than any other plane. The C-5M can lift more than a quarter million pounds, and the approximately 34,000-cubic-foot cargo bay is large enough to contain one tank, six helicopters, or 24,844,746 ping pong balls. The gargantuan airplane can fly 5,524 miles with 120,000 pounds of cargo without refueling. With midair refueling, the C-5 has practically unlimited range.

Cold War Tank Mover

U.S. Air Force

The C-5 Galaxy started with a requirement: The Air Force wanted a transport capable of carrying all the equipment necessary for a U.S. Army division halfway across the world. While transports of the time, including the C-130 Hercules and now-extinct C-141 Starlifter, were big, they simply couldn’t handle the most important item: the new M60 main battle tank.

The M60 was 30 feet long, ten feet high, and weighed 50 tons. The Air Force issued a requirement for a new super heavy transport plane, CX-LHS, and set a performance goal of carrying 100,000 pounds a distance of 4,500 nautical miles at 440 knots. The plane that could do it would be not only the largest airplane in U.S. military service, but the largest airplane in the world. It was a heady time in American history, when the country could easily fund a race to the moon, the Vietnam War, and build the largest airplane ever.

The plane’s “cargo box” is 13.5 feet high, 19 feet wide, and 143.75 feet long. This adds up to 34,734 cubic feet of cargo space, or what C-5 maintainers call a “warehouse with wings.”

Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed competed for the contract. After a six-month deliberation, Lockheed won the contract to build 58 of the cargo planes, while General Electric won the engine contract. In today’s dollars the C-5A would cost $268 million per plane. Boeing’s proposal didn’t go to waste. It would eventually become the 747 civilian airliner.

The C-5A was an ambitious airplane. Lockheed’s specs called for an aircraft capable of carrying an outside load of 250,000 pounds, or 125 tons, for a distance of 3,200 miles unrefueled. With a 100,000 pound payload, the C-5A could fly 5,300 miles. That was enough to fly from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Torrejon Air Base in Spain, or from Travis Air Force Base in California to Yokota Air Base in Japan.

The C-5 was projected to fly more and bigger cargo, and do it faster and with fewer planes. In 1965, Gen. Howard Estes, commander of the Air Force’s Military Air Transport Service, said the C-5 would have radically sped up Operation Big Lift, an exercise that flew 15,500 soldiers from the U.S. to Germany.

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

The C-5A would be capable of landing on unprepared airfields no longer than 4,000 feet. Following Lockheed’s tradition of naming aircraft after astronomical objects and bodies, the company named the flying behemoth “Galaxy.”

Hustling Cargo

A U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter is unloaded at Riga International Airport, Latvia, March 2017.//Getty Images

The plane’s “cargo box” is 13.5 feet high, 19 feet wide, and 143.75 feet long. This adds up to 34,734 cubic feet of cargo space, or what C-5 maintainers call a “warehouse with wings.” The cargo plane has outlasted the M60 main battle tank and can theoretically carry two M1A2 Abrams tanks, though just one Abrams is 50 percent heavier than the C-5’s maximum cargo weight. Alternately, a C-5 can carry 350 people plus equipment, six UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, and six M2 Bradley fighting vehicles.

Getting cargo on and off the Galaxy is a lot easier than it looks. The C-5’s bulbous nose is hinged, allowing it to rise up over the cockpit and providing full access to the cargo box. This is nicknamed the “knight’s visor.”

A ramp at the rear of the plane allows ground crews to drive vehicles directly onto the aircraft, where they are tied down to prevent load shifting in flight. The airplane’s landing gear—and 28 landing wheels—can hydraulically kneel to truck-bed height, allowing cargo to be offloaded directly from the plane to waiting trucks.

Despite its size, the plane carries a small crew: pilot, co-pilot, two flight engineers, and three loadmasters. The plane’s extreme range—it can travel 7,000 miles without refueling—means it often carries multiple crews and has provisions for up to 15 relief crew members. It can also carry 75 more passengers in airline-style seating separate from the cargo area.

A Humongous History

C-5 Galaxy at McMurdo Station, 1989.Wikimedia Commons

The first C-5 Galaxy flew on June 30, 1968, and soon began flying the transpacific run from California to Southeast Asia to support the Vietnam War. In 1973, C-5s were the backbone of an emergency airlift of supplies to Israel, which had been the victim of a surprise attack by its Arab neighbors. The airlift, nicknamed Operation Nickel Grass, saw the first C-5 in the air ten hours after it began, with the first plane delivering 194,000 pounds of supplies. Over a course of 145 sorties, C-5s flew a total of 21,600,000 pounds of supplies, including tanks and helicopters, into the beleaguered country.

The C-5 flew cargo throughout the Cold War, particularly to Europe for annual NATO exercises. In 1990, it participated in the air and sealift operation supporting Operation Desert Shield, the effort to defend Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Months later, C-5s participated in the buildup that enabled Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait. Together the two campaigns formed the largest airlift in history.

In addition to Desert Storm and Desert Shield, C-5s took part in military and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Haiti, and Panama. After the attack on 9/11, C-5s ferried cargo into countries neighboring Afghanistan, and then the country itself, once a suitable airfield had been secured. C-5s often accompany the U.S. president, carrying the vehicles of the presidential motorcade in advance of Air Force One.

The C-5 could have carried the Space Shuttle. The Air Force converted two C-5As to C-5C status, modifying them to carry “space containers” that safely transported satellites and other payloads. The C-5C could also carry an entire Atlas IIA rocket and sections of the International Space Station.

The Galaxy has flown to Antarctica, too. In 1989, a C-5 flew to McMurdo Airfield in support of Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. government’s annual resupply run for scientists studying the frozen continent. The C-5 carried 72 people and 84 short tons of cargo, including two UH-1N Huey helicopters. The ice runway, located on the Ross Ice Shelf, was 10,000-feet long, 350-feet wide, and at least 7 feet thick.

Launching Missiles By Plane

Lockheed’s super-heavy transport was even at one point evaluated as a launch vehicle for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In 1974, aircraft Zero One Four was loaded with a 43-ton Minuteman I missile. The Minuteman I was normally stored and launched from silo complexes in the Midwest, but the Air Force was investigating alternate basing schemes. At some point, someone asked: What if we could air launch the Minuteman I? Unlike a silo, which is fixed in the ground, an airplane flying over the United States was pretty much invulnerable.

On October 24, 1974 at 20,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, Zero One Four opened her rear cargo door, and the long, slender missile slid out. The aircraft shuddered—the crew described it as similar to “dumping a wheelbarrow full of water.” A parachute slowed the missile’s fall, and then the solid rocket fuel motors ignited, sending the nuclear missile soaring high into the clouds.

The C-5 Galaxy also supported classified programs. The world’s first purpose-built stealth aircraft, the Have Blue demonstration plane, was airlifted out of Lockheed’s facility at Burbank, California in the middle of the night and whisked away for flight tests in the Nevada desert. The C-5 could carry the entire plane without having to disassemble it. F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters, the first operational stealth warplanes, were also secret and flown from southern California to Groom Lake, Nevada.

A More Modern Aircraft

A C-5M Super Galaxy flies into Travis Air Force Base, April 2018.U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Joey Swafford

Perhaps the wildest version of the C-5 Galaxy never came to be. The L-500 was envisioned as a civilian airliner with space for an astonishing 844 passengers, 50 percent more than today’s Airbus 380. But as a military aircraft, the C-5 was built for performance, not affordability and fuel efficiency, and the aircraft would have been too expensive to fly as a commercial jet. Although there was some interest from the major airlines, the L-500 was ironically crowded out of the civilian market by the same plane it beat in the military airlifter market—the Boeing 747.

Despite its limited commercial capability, the C-5 Galaxy is going strong, a half-century after its first flight. Although it is no longer the world’s largest plane (that distinction belongs to the Antonov An-225 “Mriya”), there are still 56 C-5s still flying.

Many of these planes have been upgraded to the C-5M standard, with new F138 commercial engines that have increased power, fuel efficiency and reliability, an all-glass LCD-equipped cockpit, a new autopilot system, GPS navigation and a ring laser inertial navigation system, an all-weather flight control system, and new flight and engine instrument suites.

The C-5 is such a big airplane with a large historical role that it has become a flying representation of American military power. The C-5M “Super Galaxy” is projected to remain in service until at least 2040, at which point there will a demand for a newer—likely even bigger—aircraft.

What’s bigger than a Galaxy? We’ll find out.