ABOARD THE SPIRIT OF DENALI — The huge C-17 transport planes starting to make their new home at Elmendorf Air Force Base look thick and blocky, like humpback whales with deformed flippers.
But in flight, these ships are as agile as birds, say the airmen who fly them, including men who have taken them to Iraq and Afghanistan. Two Globemaster III’s, as the C-17 jet transports are known, took off from Elmendorf on Tuesday morning as part of Red Flag-Alaska, a multinational, multi-aircraft, air combat training exercise.
Each C-17 successfully completed its “mission.” One of them, The Spirit of Denali, had arrived at Elmendorf last month, the first C-17 to take up residence there. The other C-17 in the air Tuesday was from Hickham Air Force Base in Honolulu.
Racing at nearly 400 mph, the four-engine Spirit of Denali hugged the rolling range east of Fairbanks, low enough to avoid radar. It dropped a pallet of fake cargo within 25 yards of its target.
The plane carried a crew of six and roughly 15 passengers, including staff from 3rd Wing Public Affairs at Elmendorf and members of the media.
The flight offered its riders the sensations of being weightless and then of being jammed into their seats at twice the force of gravity. After 60-degree banked turns and the violent twists of the nastiest roller coaster, it seemed a miracle that only four passengers upchucked their breakfasts.
The Globemaster, a Boeing aircraft first built in 1993, is considered the most flexible cargo carrier in the Air Force. It is replacing the smaller C-130. It can speedily deliver scores of troops and their gear to various war zones, directly through a landing or by parachute.
Capt. Pete Axtell, commander of Tuesday’s flight of The Spirit of Denali, called the Globemaster the primary airlift fighter in Iraq. The C-17 can also extract the wounded and the dead. Its cargo bay — wider than a two-car garage and high enough to hold a tank — can accommodate 36 patients on litters and support another 54 ambulatory patients, according to Capt. Charley Morris, operations flight commander of the 517th Airlift Squadron at Elmendorf.
“I have transported fire trucks to Iraqi airfields,” Morris said. “Lots of normal stuff — bullets, beans, butter, toilet paper, truck tires, millions of trucks, Humvees, a Winnebago, giant helium tankers to Iraq. You never know what you’re going to carry.”
The plane is nearly 175 feet nose to tail and has a wingspan almost as long – 170 feet. Its four engines are those that power Boeing’s 757 passenger jet. Its maximum gross takeoff weight — the heaviest it can be and still get off the ground — is more than a half-million pounds. The Globemaster can do something that Bush pilots are likely to admire: As large as it is, this beast of a plane can land on a runway made of gravel or crushed rock, one as short as 3,500 feet. The Boeing 737, Morris guessed, needs a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 feet.
Red Flag-Alaska, 10 days of air-combat training that ends Friday, has drawn to Alaska more than 80 aircraft and 1,500 military personnel from NATO and six countries (the U.S., Japan, Spain, Thailand, Turkey and Mongolia).
The planes, taking off from Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, enact their combat-training scenarios as members of the Red Forces, the enemy, or the Blue Forces, the “good guys.”
The enemy deploys surface-to-air missiles and other air defenses, including fighter aircraft, while the Blue Forces try to penetrate enemy air space. Fighters engage in mock one-on-one combat high up over the Pacific Alaskan Range Complex east and north of Eielson. The Spirit of Denali’s mission profile on Tuesday was “aggressive,” said Morris, a member of the ship’s crew. Under the guidance of an AWACS jet high above, whose crew told them when enemy fighters were closing in, the crew had to drop two training pallets, each with 800 pounds of load, on a precise point in territory controlled by the Red Forces.
To stay under the radar and missile batteries presumed to be on the hilltops, Axtell and 1st Lt. Jeff Hoelscher, the co-pilot, flew as low as 300 feet above a tumble of hills, ridges and valleys.
The passengers, who were strapped to seats on either side of the bay, had no direct idea what the ground looked like. The craft has no windows. It does have a handful of small portholes, but they were beyond reach of the sitting riders. Therefore, the passengers were forced to feel the flight without any reassuring fix on the horizon.
The portholes, however, let in just enough direct sunlight to place a disc of light on the floor or on the walls. During the deception maneuvers, when Axtell quickly climbed to follow the contour of a ridge and just as quickly dropped the nose down when the terrain fell away, or when he screamed into a tight turn to keep aligned with the valley floor, the disc darted around like a pinball.
UPS AND DOWNS
As the defensive maneuvers began, 90 minutes into the flight, the blood began draining from some of the passengers’ faces. Nervous smiles were exchanged.
Some closed their eyes.
It seemed a time for reflection, perhaps a summons to will power or a prayer of gratitude for the anti-motion-sickness pill swallowed two hours earlier.
On looking up, a passenger was surprised to see one of the Air Force public affairs officers holding a plastic bag to her mouth. She did not move or shake, but bent over calmly as the bag became cloudy. Soon, a TV reporter also was discreetly holding a bag to her face, in the same calm working position.
The maneuvers lasted 30 minutes. Before they were over, two more passengers had need of the bag. It was impossible to avoid the thought: How long can a person hold out? Especially because subtle signals, like that peculiar harbinger taste in the mouth, were announcing themselves more and more often.
But then the giant rear hatch opened, the airdrop occurred, the hatch closed, and the craft leveled off and thankfully headed back to Elmendorf.
Find Peter Porco online at adn.com/contact/pporco or call 257-4200.
Copyright © 2007 The Anchorage Daily News (www.adn.com)