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C-17 Globemaster III - History

In the late 1970's, the U.S. military recognized a growing demand for rapid deployment of military forces and equipment that would exceed the capabilities of the existing C-141, C-5, and C-130 fleets. In 1979, the Air Force was focused on the Advanced Medium STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) Transport (AMST) program as the single aircraft that could perform the total airlift mission. However, the Carter administration killed the AMST on the same day they formally initiated the C-X program as a follow-on to the C-5 and the C-141.

In December 1979 the DoD initiated the Cargo-Experimental (C-X) competition to identify a new aircraft incorporating the capabilities to fulfill strategic airlift needs. The C-X request for proposal required an aircraft that could deliver a full range of combat equipment over intercontinental distances; operate through a 3,000-foot runway environment; airdrop troops and equipment; have ground maneuverability characteristics that would permit routine operations through small, austere airfields; be designed for survivability; have excellent reliability, maintainability, and availability; and have a low life-cycle cost The C-X was expected to carry, over intercontinental distances, military equipment such as the new XM-1 tank and other outsize cargo that now can be airlifted only by the C-5. The C-X was also to be capable of operating into austere fields, greatly improving the capability to respond to global contingencies.

Early in 1980, the Department of Defense issued the request for proposals (RFP) for the new Cargo Experimental (CX) Program. Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas submitted variants of civil transports, derivatives of the prototype YC-14 and YC-15 aircraft, and completely new aircraft in response to the RFP.

Douglas Aircraft Company, a component of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, was announced as winner of the competition in August 1981. The winning design incorporated many features proven earlier on the YC-15, a McDonnell Douglas aircraft developed and flight tested in the 1970s as part of the Advanced Medium Short Takeoff and Landing Transport program. This design was later designated the C-17. As the C-X evolved into the C-17, the concept of direct delivery -- putting troops into the forward portion of the combat zone without a stop at an intermediate staging base -- became even more important.

Secretary of Defense Harold Brown had justified using a fixed-price incentive contract to produce the C-17 for two reasons: (a) Congress and President Carter wanted to eliminate cost-plus contracts in order to reduce excessive overruns, and (b) all the technology for the C-17 was already proven. The Advanced Medium STOL Transport (AMST) prototypes proved short-field take off and landing (STOL) could work and all hardware and software was off-the-shelf. The Air Force request for proposal stated that "...Undue complexity or technical risk will be regarded as poor design..."

After McDonnell Douglas won the competition, this theme was carried over into the C-17 technical planning guide: "The C-17's systems are straightforward in design, are highly reliable, and represent current technology. For example, a version of the C-17's engine has been proven in commercial airline service since 1985. New-technology systems, like the onboard inert gas generating system (OBIGGS), are used only where they offer significant advantages over previous methods....Avionics and flight controls that include computer-controlled multifunction displays and head-up displays enable the aircraft to be flown and all its missions accomplished with a flight crew of only two pilots and one loadmaster.

However, the C-17 experience revealed what studies conducted during the AMST had proven: the technology was not as well defined as some believed. Although McDonnell Douglas did not develop new technologies for the C-17, the way in which the technologies were used was new. The C-17 was a new cargo airlifter dependent on a complex integrated avionics system to reduce the aircrew size to two pilots and a cargo loadmaster. By comparison the C-141 and the C-5 use two pilots, a navigator for tactical and airdrop missions (C-141 only), two flight engineers, and two cargo load-masters when carrying passengers. Also, using STOL capability on a plane expected to fly 2,400 nautical miles (NM) with a 172,200-pound payload to include outsized cargo was much different than using STOL on a plane expected to fly a 400-mile radius with a 27,000-pound payload. The plane would require a new wing and, there is more technology in the wing than in any other part of an airframe ... production schedules are keyed to wings. The differences in design between a tactical STOL and a strategic STOL were the catalysts that caused schedule slips and cost money.

The C-17 aircraft program had been plagued by technical difficulties, cost overruns, and related contracting/program management problems. The C-17 had many early problems, including being delivered a year late and over budget. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s the contractor, McDonnell Douglas Corporation's Transport Aircraft Division (located in Long Beach, CA), was consistently behind schedule and over budget on the program.

The C-17 passed Milestone II in February 1985. In 1987, after McDonnell Douglas missed delivery of the first test aircraft, DoD reduced funding during budget reductions and moved delivery schedule for the first test aircraft three years to the right (to July, 1990). In addition, in January 1988, Congress deducted $20 million from the C-17 during its budget review, but invited DoD to ask for reprogramming of funds (SAF/AQ, 1989). DoD declined.

In 1987 the Sperry Corporation (the flight-control subcontractor) told McDonnell Douglas that the mechanical flight control system could not prevent pilots from putting the airplane into an irreversible stall. After confirming that the aircraft configuration and the mechanical flight control system could allow the aircraft to enter an uncontrollable stall during certain tactical maneuvers, Douglas directed Sperry to change the mechanical flight control to a fly-by-wire system. During this same period Honeywell, Incorporated, purchased the Sperry Corporation.

The C-17 passed Milestone IIIA in January 1989. At MS IIIA DOT&E recommended that a system maturity matrix be developed to outline performance criteria to be demonstrated during testing at key program events. This system maturity matrix was included as an annex to the August 1989 TEMP update. AFOTEC completed an early operational assessment (EOA) in September 1988 to support the MS IIIA decision, and completed an operational assessment (OA) in January 1990. Results of the EOA indicated attainment of the MS IIIA criteria in the TEMP. Both the EOA and OA stated that readiness for IOT&E and the progress of requirements/test criteria development were on track. The EOA and OA also determined the major risks in the areas of system development and conduct of IOT&E were software development and avionics integration. In June 1989, Honeywell officials had established April 25, 1991, as the new delivery date for flight qualified software. The additional delay added four years from the time Douglas first asked for the system change until delivery (1987-1991). Even though Honeywell successfully completed an interface control document (ICD) in July 1989, showing how the electronic flight control system (EFCS) interacted with subsystems, the additional delay was too much. Brig.Gen. Michael Butchko, Air Force C-17 Program Manager, convinced Douglas Aircraft to hire General Electric (GE) for development of a similar system as a precautionary measure (Hopkins and De Keyrel, 1993). Douglas ended Honeywell's contract for the EFCS in July 1989. GE delivered the version 1 software for integration testing in October 1990.

The program was restructured following the OSD Major Aircraft Review in 1990, reducing the planned buy from 210 to 120 aircraft. After several delays, the C-17 successfully accomplished its first flight on 15 September 15 1991.

The C-17 program is managed by the Aeronautical Systems Center's C-17 System Program Office (SPO) as agent for Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), the implementing command. The C-17 SPO, in its role as program manager, coordinated long range planning of the C-17 system level testing using the C-17 Test Planning Working Group (TPWG). The TPWG acts as the forum for T&E related subjects integrating the requirements of all organizations into the System Test Plan. It assists in establishing specific test objectives, defining organizational responsibilities and relationships, estimating test costs, developing the test schedule, defining test resource requirements, and generating test documentation.

The flight test program was a combined Developmental Test and Evaluation (DT&E) IOT&E multi-service program under Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) operational procedures. As the Responsible Test Organization (RTO), AFFTC formed a Combined Test Force (CTF) for the implementation and completion of the test program approved by the C-17 SPO. The CTF integrated development and operational test objectives; however, independence of OT&E planning, execution, and reporting was maintained under the control of the Air Force Operational Test Evaluation Center (AFOTEC). Membership in the CTF included personnel from the AFFTC, DAC, AFOTEC, US Army, and US Marine Corps.

Key test articles included one durability article, one static article, one EMD test aircraft, four production test aircraft, and associated support equipment. Production aircraft P-1 was heavily instrumented for structural loads and air delivery systems testing, and includes provisions for the nose-mounted airspeed boom. Production aircraft P-2 was instrumented for performance and avionics testing. P-3 had full instrumentation to support its test assignments, but no major test modifications. P-4 was minimally instrumented and was used for tests requiring a standard production configuration. P-4 was the primary test article for dedicated IOT&E. The fifth production aircraft (P-5) underwent full-scale electromagnetic radiation (EMR) and lightning testing at Patuxent River Naval Air Warfare Center. Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) testing was accomplished on P-5 at Douglas Aircraft Corporation's Long Beach CA facility prior to deploying at Patuxent River.

The first C-17 scheduled to fly (known as "T-1") became airborne nearly 18 months after the date indicated in the contract. Thanks in part to the fixed-price development contract, and due to the sting of the A-12 program cancellation, the company was suffering financially. In fact, there was considerable concern within the Pentagon's acquisition and contracting communities about the company's viability. These tight purse-strings constrained the ability of corporate managers to invest in much-needed process and equipment improvements. To compound these woes, the company had a tumultuous experience implementing a total quality management system (TQMS), wherein a large number of experienced managers were laid off. To make matters worse, in hearings before the House Sub-Committee on Government Operations, the Air Force was accused of making improper progress payments to McDonnell Douglas that, in effect, were "bailing out" the struggling corporation. The Air Force was even accused of accepting the aircraft with structurally weak or "unsafe" wings.

The failure to initially use a computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) system to design the aircraft caused both design and production problems. After T-1 finally flew on its maiden voyage in September 1991, it had a series of fuel leaks, resulting in a highly publicized grounding (for about three weeks). The persistent fuel leaks around the wing resulted from holes that were not drilled and fastened properly. The problems stemmed primarily from a lack of production discipline and unscheduled work. The aircraft's aluminum-lithium alloy flooring had many problems associated with cracks.

Combined DT&E/IOT&E began on 03 June 1992. In October 1992, the wing failed a wing-strength test. Even though Air Force had reduced the maximum payload requirements in December, 1989 from 167,000 pounds to 160,000 pounds at 2,400 NM, the wings were still not strong enough to handle a full payload along with the fuel and structure weight at a 1.5 safety factor. Causes of the failure included a computational error in the initial design, optimistic design assumptions, and the method used to determine compression stress. The wing modifications covered a large area because McDonnell Douglas used the erroneous computation throughout the wing structure. The failed wing-strength test and persistent fuel leaks around the wing cost McDonnell Douglas more than $1 billion, and modifications added an additional 700 pounds in aircraft weight.

These problems culminated in the Congressional decision to reduce the number of aircraft purchased (to 4 from an original 6 in 1993, and to 8 from an original 12 in 1994). These actions helped to drive a deeper wedge between the program office and the contractor. McDonnell Douglas found itself in a position of reduced buys, and therefore cut personnel to compensate for the reduced revenue. This action inhibited its ability to take advantage of learning curve efficiencies, made it tougher for the company to attract and retain quality subcontractors, and resulted in greatly reduced morale and increased chaos. The program was dangerously close to cancellation.

A direct impact of the decision to temporarily cap the program at 40 was to greatly inflate the cost of each C-17. During the Congressional reporting cycle in December of 1993, the total program cost (research, development, production, and maintenance) divided by 40 worked out to well over $500 million per aircraft. The acquisition community could hardly endure these headlines and expect a 41st aircraft [by the summer of 1995 cost savings brought down the cost of the C-17 to $172 million in "flyaway cost" per aircraft in constant 1995 dollars].

The Defense Science Board noted in a December 1993 report that lack of computer aided design and engineering changes contributed to production delays. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, John M. Deutch summarized some of the most glaring weaknesses as: (a) technical risks involved in flight test software and avionics integration; (b) structural deficiencies in the wings, flaps and slats; and (c) uncertainty of flight test program requirements.

In the late summer of 1993, there was a concerted and highly guarded effort to develop a way to wipe the slate clean for both government and contractor. It was one of the better-kept secrets in the infamously leaky halls of the Pentagon. Specifications were rewritten to account for shortfalls and to represent actual operational requirements, various government and contractor legal claims were added up, and vigorous debates on the appropriate (money, consideration, additional investment, etc.) relief ensued. On January 6, 1994, at least five months later than the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Air Force staffs had originally anticipated, the settlement was approved and signed by John Deutch and John McDonnell.

The C-17 airlifter program took logistics testing to a more comprehensive level, and introduced the logistics test management system (computer software) which used a database system to record, track and analyze logistics test data collected by the maintainers. The C-17 program had 355 recommended improvements, found during logistics testing, incorporated into the production model. Initially, only 40 C-17 aircraft were ordered, with further orders pending the correction of some of the program's major problems. Ordering more than the initial 40 C-17s depended on the contractor getting production costs down and production efficiencies up.

In January 1995, DoD, Congress, and McDonnell Douglas agreed to decrease the payload requirement. If the C-17 were to carry a 160,000-pound payload using short-field take-off and landing capability with the weight of the plane and the required fuel, it needed more powerful engines. Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce, had produced more powerful engines, but the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, John M. Deutch, said changing to more powerful engines was too costly. He preferred to reduce payload specifications rather than change engines, especially since the C-17 did not need to carry a greater payload to perform its mission.

The original requirement set in the early 1980s was for a 130,000-pound payload, the weight of an M-1 tank then. By 1995 this specification was not considered the most critical. It was linked to the Cold War goal of transporting 10 Army divisions to Europe in 10 days, rather than how to deal with the types of regional contingencies the Pentagon was focusing on in its planning. An absolute critical leg for us in the new world was how much can this airplane carry 3,200 miles. So DOD established a 110,000-pound payload threshold at the 3,200-mile range which did not exist before. The aircraft met that goal and was projected to exceed it. Sticking to the original specification would have required switching to more powerful engines.

McDonnell Douglas subcontracted a majority of software for the C-17 to subcontractors and suppliers. During this process Douglas did not specify a specific computer language, which resulted in software for the C-17 in almost every known language of the time. Integration of the software was a nightmare that GAO said resulted in "...the most computerized, software-intensive aircraft ever built, relying on 19 different embedded computers incorporating more than 80 microprocessors and about 1.3 million lines of code" (Hopkins and De Keyrel, 1993). The final software release was in September, 1994 with upgrades through March 1995.

The C-17 program successfully completed a rigorous Reliability, Maintainability and Availability evaluation in July 1995. Topping the list of statistics were launch reliability, the plane's on-time departure rate, which exceeded 99 percent; a mission capable rate of 90 percent; and a fully mission capable rate of 84 percent. The aircraft posted outstanding maintenance rates as well. The evaluation, built to compare actual aircraft performance with design requirements and goals, put the aircraft through operationally realistic scenarios, including a week of wartime activities. As part of the wartime phase, several Globemaster IIIs filled with 125,000-pound Army M1A1 main battle tanks flew from North Carolina to California's Mojave Desert, then stopped on a short dirt runway in less than 2,800 feet. Additional wartime flights were made to RAF Mildenhall, England, and Fort Irwin, CA. All total, the 437th Airlift Wing and its Reserve partner, the 315th Airlift Wing, flew 513 sorties and 2,252 flying hours.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:28:16 ZULU