Thursday, October 28, 2010

USAF C-5 Galaxy Orientation Ride

Reprinted by CAWG's Bear Facts Winter 2011 Edition.

On Monday, 25 October, I had the pleasure of accompanying 21 CAP Cadets from Squadrons 18, 44 and 192 along with 8 other Seniors from Group 2 on an O-Ride. We were able catch a four-hour ride on a USAF C-5 Galaxy based out of Travis AFB. We all gathered at the welcome center just outside the main gate at Travis at 0745 Hrs. We were bused as a group onto the base. We had a brief stop at the terminal building for an ID check before heading over the Wing Operations building. We had the obligatory “hurry up and wait” for 45 minutes while the flight crew pre-flighted the aircraft. A short bus ride from the Ops building to the flight line and the excitement was starting to brew!

USAF C-5 Galaxy looming large
We sat on the bus gazing at the HUGE C-5 sitting 50 yards away. The landing gear on the C-5 looks more like industrial piping with multiple wheels slapped on than actual landing gear. The cockpit sits more than two stories above the ground! Our group was loaded into a rear passenger compartment that sits on the top deck behind the wings. Isolated from the front flight deck, we received all our instructions over a loudspeaker from a very knowledgeable and very friendly Tech Sergeant/Loadmaster stationed in the far aft of our Cave. I use the word “cave” because this passenger compartment is actually an enclosed area above the cargo deck and has only four very small windows; one window located on each exterior door. Essentially, once in your seat you cannot be quite sure if you are in an aircraft or the interior of a US Navy frigate! There is no real reference to the outside world. An interesting note about the ~ 70 seats in the rear passenger compartment of the C-5 is that they face the tail of the aircraft. The only forward facing seats in the Cave are the two aft most seats occupied by the Loadmasters. That way they could keep an eye on us passengers!

Loadmaster and SQ18 Seniors
After getting all the Cadet and Seniors settled in, the Loadmaster gave us a preflight briefing and instructed us to move our seats and tray tables to the full and upright position in preparation for takeoff. We were wheels up at roughly 1015 Hrs. Without any tanks, trucks or other heavy equipment in the cargo bay, the C-5 leaped up off the runway. The mission for this flight was mid-air refueling currency for the six pilots up on the flight deck. One of the pilots was actually the Squadron Commander. Good to see he gets to keep his currency! Although regulations prevented the aircraft from actually taking on fuel while passengers are on board, each pilot had to hook up to the KC-10 and maintain the connection for a specified time before disconnecting from the refueling boom. Shortly after reaching our cruising/refueling altitude of FL200 the Loadmaster started cycling the cadets (four at a time) from our Cave, down the steep ladder, through the massive cargo bay, and back up the front ladder to the cockpit. They allowed only four cadets at a time to the cockpit with the next group of four waiting in a much smaller passenger compartment just behind the cockpit.

Maneuvering into position under the KC-10 Tanker
For those of us in the rear compartment, we could easily tell when we were in simulated refueling because even the massive C-5 would buffet and bounce in the turbulence created by the KC-10 merely 20 feet above and only barely ahead of us. The Loadmaster made sure we were all in our seatbelts during the simulated refueling, and for good reason. Not only were we bounced around due to the turbulence, but also on one occasion (and with no warning) the pilot performed what is called an “emergency breakaway.”  This interesting procedure calls for the aircraft taking on fuel (simulated in our case) to quickly and abruptly both dive toward the ground and bank away from the tanker above.

Breakaway Maneuver
Additionally after what seemed like an eternity of falling, but I am sure was no more than five or six seconds, the pilot then pulls back hard on the controls (presumably so as not to bust or perhaps get back up into the assigned block altitude) bringing the aircraft from zero or negative G’s to at least 1.5 or more G’s for a few brief seconds. If you have ever heard of NASA’s “Vomit Comet”, it gets its name for the effect on humans from performing roughly the same maneuver.  Tucked away in our Cave, with no reference to the ground or horizon outside, the pilot commenced his emergency breakaway. Before I go any further, I need to add that as part of our O-Ride the Air Force Food Services division had prepared a very nice and hearty box lunch for each of us. For a mere $4.25 we received a ham or turkey sandwich, an apple or orange, a snack bar of some sort, a snack size bag of chips and a soda.

Rear Passenger Compartment as known as the "Cave"
Of course, riding along in the Cave there is not much else to do but sleep (as many of the Cadets did), converse with CAP member sitting next to you, or eat. Well before we reached the halfway mark of our flight, most all of the lunches had been consumed in full. That having been said it was at roughly the half way mark of the flight that we experienced the unannounced emergency breakaway. I am sure you realize by now where this story is headed.. Let me just extend an enormous thanks to Capt. Tammy Sturgill for bringing a full box of gallon size zip lock bags. At the beginning of the flight, passengers in the C-5 are issued earplugs to protect their hearing. The Loadmasters on the other hand have nice David Clarks to both protect their hearing and keep in contact with the cockpit. Now I have heard that just seconds before an emergency breakaway is performed the pilot calls out on the internal comms “Breakaway! Breakaway! Breakaway!” Now I am not completely sure of this, but in the seconds before the emergency breakaway I thought I might have seen a grin on the Loadmaster’s face.

C-5 Cargo Bay
As the flight progressed, the Loadmaster continued to cycle the groups of four to and from the cockpit of the C-5. Unfortunately, the last groups up to the cockpit were of course the Seniors. What can I say is, us old guys are slow! Climbing down the long steep ladder with only one hand was a bit of a challenge; my other hand was occupied with an emergency oxygen hood we were made to carry when moving to and from the front of the aircraft. I must say it was an interesting experience trying to walk from the rear of the cargo bay to the front of the cargo bay while in the turbulence of the KC-10 tanker. The only thing I can compare it to is like trying to walk on a small boat with no handrails in very rough seas. I will also admit it was rather funny watching those in front of me attempting to walk through the cargo bay. 

Three of the Six Pilots
I was in the last group of four and by the time we made it behind the pilot’s and copilot’s seat all the refueling had been completed. I am sure it was an incredible sight, but I missed it. I did get to spend roughly five minutes kneeling just behind and to the left of the pilot’s seat. In fact, for a few minutes of my time there, there was no pilot in the seat at all! This gave me a good opportunity to snap some good shots of the panel. Many of the C-5s have been in service for 35 plus years. The C-5 we were in was the upgraded to the M model and had the newer glass panel displays. Very nice!

Just a few minutes after buckling up in my seat in the Cave, the Loadmaster announced we needed to put our seat and tray tables up in preparation for landing. On approach, we could easily hear the engines throttle back and the flaps extend. After a few moments, we heard the engines spooling up again. That’s right! Aborted Landing! Regulations prevent pilots from performing Touch-and-Go’s with passengers onboard; however, they are allowed to conduct Tactical Approaches and Aborted Landings (these maneuvers are more aggressive than the standard approach to land or go around and are used in combat situations). 

C-5 on Takeoff
Now don’t forget, we had six pilots on our flight so consequently we had to experience six Tactical Approaches and Aborted Landings; which if we were facing forward in a standard commercial airliner would have been no big deal. However, in our case, we were facing the tail, bouncing around for the previous three and a half hours and were in the Cave. Now for those of you with experience with pattern work, picture the physical forces on your body during the whole process: pitching down (leaning back in our case), deceleration, followed by abrupt pitching up (leaning forward in our case) and acceleration, then add in the rolling of the aircraft as we turn to maneuver back to the airfield to start the process all over again. Oh… and did I mention we are also in the Cave? That’s right! Break out those zip lock bags!!

Deplaning for Home
Back on the tarmac at roughly 1430 Hrs we loaded back up onto the bus for the short ride back to our vehicles just outside the front gate of the base.

Now I realize that I have made light of and focused on the harsher aspects of this unique flight. However, overall it was a very fun and enlightening experience. I am thankful for having been given the opportunity to participate in this event. I would like to thank the US Air Force, Travis AFB, and the 22nd Airlift Squadron of the 60th Air Mobility Wing for hosting this O-ride and a very special thanks to Maj Mark Fridel and 2d Lt Joanne Miles for coordinating this event.

1st Lt Chad Fisher is Squadron 188’s Search and Rescue Officer and is a qualified Mission Observer

Images courtesy of 1st Lt Chad Fischer, Capt Ken Sturgill, United States Air Force, and Wikimedia Commons.

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