Fifty years after it first entered operational service with the US Air Force (USAF), the C-5 Galaxy remains on call to provide a global airlifting capability. Khalem Chapman speaks with Col Brian Trumble, the commander of the 22nd Airlift Squadron (AS) 'Mulies' at Travis Air Force Base (AFB) in California, about this true titan of the sky.
KA: Operating the C-5M sounds like a really cool job, and more so the be in charge of a squadron – what is it like to be in charge of a Super Galaxy unit?
Col Trumble: It’s an immense honour – pun intended there – and it’s an exceptionally unique experience. There’s only two active-duty C-5 squadrons in the entire world, as you’re probably aware of. Historically speaking, as the 58th commander, since the squadron’s inception in 1942, I’m part of this 80 year history and [the] long blue line of legacy combat airmen that dedicated our lives to the service of something greater. I’m really proud of that. It’s a great opportunity and something that I’m going [to] take forward for the rest of my years.
KA: Do you personally have a long history of working with the Galaxy?
Col Trumble: I’ve had the privilege to fly all of the models of the C-5. I started ten years ago, initiated my training on the C-5A legacy model, which was all analog gauges and also the old engines and electrical systems. Then I was upgraded to the C-5B model, which included the avionics and modernisation programme.
I had the opportunity when coming here, two years ago, as the director of operations and now the commander to operate the C-5C model, which is our space cargo module aircraft. We have two of those. Then now the C-5M model, which has all the full suite of upgrades that we have, including the engines, electronics and navigational equipment.
I’m a “grey beard”. They say that I’ve had the opportunity to see this growth and this modernisation of this amazing aircraft. It’s where it needs to be right now.
KA: Could you detail a typical, normal operational day for the 22nd AS?
Col Trumble: As an operational unit, we have both a mission in garrison at home at Travis AFB here in California. At any given time, we have between about one third and half of the personnel in our squadron that are on the road, they’re flying operational missions. You almost have two sides of a coin for each airman that we have in the squadron.
The squadron does look a lot different now with COVID, where if we can telework, then we will telework, because one of our biggest priorities is minimising any type of exposure or spreading of COVID. On the road, we’re still flying operational missions and you see the tail flash of Travis and Dover all around the world, executing rapid global mobility.
Our crews that are on the road are taking some additional precautions, if you will, to protect themselves, protect others they’re around, but we [remain] at full [operational] capacity. Each of those crew members typically starts their day with an alert we call it. That alert comes from our command and control (C2) at Scott AFB in Illinois via either a phone call notification that’s passed down through local C2, whatever station we’re at.
From there, we start a sequence of events. A lot of that all just comes down to doing a route study, getting the aircraft prepared with their flight engineers and loadmasters, getting any additional fuel and cargo loaded in preparation for that mission. At any given time, while we’re in crew rest at any location and the aircraft is [just] sitting there, our mission could change. So, our aircrews typically wake up to a new day and sometimes a different mission set they weren’t expecting due to higher priority missions that are occurring around the world.
What makes flying the C-5 so unique is, since we can carry almost anything that’s airlift capable, we’re often the go to for something that needs to be, in short notice, airlifted anywhere around the world. We can typically take all of that mission set load and cargo and get it there faster than any other type of airlift capability that exists in our inventory.
KA: We live in a completely different world today in comparison to this time last year, how has COVID-19 impacted day-to-day operations for the 22nd AS and Travis AFB in general?
Col Trumble: Travis was really the lead air force installation that really started off with the impacts of COVID-19. Whether that was accepting passengers and repatriated US personnel from [China’s] Wuhan province, or the local cruise ships with potential patients there. We really kind of set the standard at Travis AFB for accepting these COVID patients and setting certain protocols to take care of and have these precautions to minimise any type of spread or exposure.
Diving down into the 22nd AS, we’ve nested ourselves with that risen bar that the standard has been set by our parent wing headquarters. Inside the squadron, if we can telework, we’re going to telework, but we’re still in full operating capacity. We’re doing many of our meetings, [much] of our professional development virtually and then in concert with that on the road. We’ve just taken those extra special precautions with personal protective equipment and gear for our aircrew, so they can continue to do the mission, do it well, and not have COVID be a limiting factor to our global mission.
KA: Has the 22nd AS been tasked with supporting the fight against COVID-19 and, if so, could you detail some of the tasks you and your unit have undertaken?
Col Trumble: Absolutely. So just recently in July, we flew a Denton humanitarian airlift mission that was transporting COVID-fighting supplies down to Honduras and Southern Command. Denton is non-governmental organisation that will essentially locate any type of equipment or cargo that can assist developing nations in central and South America that any type of US aircraft, if they’re available, can transport that cargo down there.
[We transported] 58,000lb of cargo and that included some generators, hospital equipment and other types of first aid equipment. We picked it up locally here in the US and then flew it down there in one leg essentially. We were able to unload all that cargo and come back in the same day, which again is a unique capability of the C-5. We do have some long legs, if you will, with long unrefuelled range so we can get that done and some unique offloading capabilities with cargo.
KA: The C-5 celebrated 50 years of USAF service in June – a truly remarkable milestone for any aircraft to reach – does any extra care have to be given when operating an aircraft that was designed more than half a century ago?
Col Trumble: I would say just like any piece of complex machinery, whether it’s meant for the air, the ground or the sea, if it’s maintained properly and it’s provided incremental improvement over its lifespan and applicable upgrades over the years, as far as long range vision is concerned, the aircraft can operate indefinitely.
The tricky part is that as the aircraft does get older and older, those lifetime costs do add up, and at some point, someone is going to have make a decision and say, has the operational environment changed? Do we need to come up with a different aircraft that can execute this specific mission set?
This aircraft was designed during the heyday of Lockheed, where this was a very unique aircraft coming out, as far as an aviation perspective [is concerned]. The airframe is solid and [we] just worked with that airframe and its unique capabilities to translate into what a 21st century airlifter should be for the USAF.
KA: The C-5 is a head-turning aircraft and leaves people in awe when the see its sheer size, but what is it like to fly? During flight and when on the ground, does the aircraft have to be handled differently due to its large size in comparison with something like a C-17A?
Col Trumble: I typically liken flying the C-5, if I’m going to make a comparison to folks that aren’t operating a large aircraft, is it’s like driving your grandfather’s 1979 Cadillac. The bells and whistles are all there, but sometimes since its not a fly-by-wire aircraft, that’s very similar to something like a C-17 or F-16, it’s all pulleys and pretensioners and different types of cabling and rigging around the aircraft.
When I am turning that wheel, there’s a myriad of pulleys and cabling that’s making that hydraulic actuator actually work, so each aircraft feels just a little bit different. The translation of all that analog movement is an absolute departure from what modern aircraft will feel like with a C-17 or F-16, where that movement is translated into ones and zeros. The C-5 can manoeuvre but it definitely has a different feel than one of the modern aircraft that had been designed in the 1980s and 90s going forward.
KA: Could you detail the training process for the C-5? Is it different to training for other USAF airlifters?
Col Trumble: So, inherent with its size, there is some unique training aspects that we provide to really kind of ensure we have safe operations of the aircraft. One of those is taxiing and that’s probably the hardest thing to do in this aircraft – whether its on the ground or in the air. Taxiing is one, I would say aerial refuelling is the other.
With taxiing this aircraft, from doing a very detailed study of the airfield where if we’re not taxiing over stressed pieces of pavement, we could crush the pavement beneath us and do lasting damage to the airfield. In addition to that, with our new engines, we have a significantly increased amount of thrust and we can literally blow down hangar doors and blow over buses and different things even while taxiing.
When we’re trying to get out of some tough parking spots with a very high cargo load, we can double our gross weight, if you will, where there is an additional amount of thrust that’s required on the ground. It’d be very cognizant from one an airfield study standpoint to also an aircraft capability standpoint that when you’re sitting in that aircraft, four stories above the ground and those throttles are in your hand, when you do move them forward two to three inches, you’re talking tens of thousands of pounds of thrust that can be a real hazard to people that are hundreds of yards away from the aircraft.
Just that mindset shift is very important for our aircrew members that they are operating 800,000lb plus aircraft on the ground with four massive high-bypass engines that are producing a significant amount of thrust.
We usually do one to two local familiarisation flights with the aircraft and these individuals have gone through Lackland AFB [where] they receive four to five training sorties along with additional simulators, so they’re qualified to fly, but the local familiarisation is important. Also, the familiarisation with the mission, because one thing they don’t teach you so much at the initial training at Lackland for all C-5 pilots is a mission set. That’s probably the biggest growth opportunity for our individuals is how to operate this aircraft really alone across the world with your crew of 10/14 folks and do it safely and then do it effectively well.
KA: Do you have many cross-flow pilots that transfer onto the C-5 from platforms like the C-130, C-17 or a tanker aircraft?
Col Trumble: Absolutely. So, we are probably the least tactical airframe as far as [the] airlifter is concerned in the military inventory, with the C-130 being typically the most tactical and the C-17 is kind of a good blend. For us, its really about global airlift where C-130 is usually intra-theatre airlift with let’s say a thousand mile AOR [(area of responsibility)]. We have what we call around the world missions fairly often, where if this crew is gone for two weeks on their own executing multiple missions… and coming back 10-14 days later with potentially cargo from the Far East.
There are some definite differences. A mindset shift is required both with the aircraft [and] the mission. I would say that the translation happens pretty quickly because they do have that aviation experience to rely on and whether you’re loading eight pallets or 36 pallets for the C-5, it’s pretty much transparent to the pilot for other than knowing now I have that much more weight that I’m operating with. That mindset shift has to take place. We see it happen in about half the time as it would take a new pilot coming from pilot training.
KA: How often does the 22nd AS support the USAF’s ongoing global airlift mission? Could you detail a recent mission as an example?
Col Trumble: I would say fairly often and in our C2 parent organisation at Scott AFB, when there are valid airlift missions that come down to be filled, they look at what can be filled in the C-5 typically first, because there are some things that are airlift capable that can only go in the C-5.
We do have space cargo module aircraft here. We have two of them at Travis AFB. We do a lot of NASA support missions, airlifting special types of satellite support type cargo. One that was published recently in the past year or so was the James Webb telescope, where we have flown it through multiple locations, whether its down to Cape Canaveral or to locations here on the west coast.
They can only be taken on a C-5 completely assembled because of our voluminous cargo space that we have in that aircraft and unique to that C model. [The C-5C doesn’t] have a troop compartment, which is a second deck in the aft part of the aircraft. It’s been removed to create more of a capacity in the aft part of the aircraft. Our doors are actually modified to open to a wider capacity to absorb some outsize cargo, [or what] we like to call our special cargo. So that’s just one example, but really this aircraft is kind of the Walmart of planes, that if it’s meant to fly, that can’t fly, it can go on to [the] C-5. It’s kind of a one-stop shop.
KA: Do you use the two C-5C’s to support NASA often?
Col Trumble: In comparison to all missions, I would say no. A lot of the time we use those aircraft just for local training sorties, but it’s just an added capability that we have on the west coast and exclusive only to us because of the proximity we have to Vandenberg AFB for one and with Space Force now becoming its own unique force, I can see us only being used more in support of NASA and other things that need to be outsize cargo lifted.
In the second part of this interview - which will be released on August 26 - Key.Aero speaks to Col Trumble about the C-5M Super Galaxy's capabilities and future. The interview is also included as part of a feature celebrating 50 years of C-5 Galaxy operations in the October issue of Combat Aircraft Journal.
Key.Aero would like to extend its thanks to the Col Trumble, the 22nd AS and wider 60th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) public affairs office for their time and assistance with this interview and associated features.
To learn more about the C-5 Galaxy, check out our Saluting the Galaxy feature by following the link.