Saluting the C-5 Galaxy!

What is taller than a six story building, can carry 120 tons of battle tank over 2000 miles and could stage the Wright Brothers’ first flight within its cargo hold? The answer is the largest aircraft in the US Air Force inventory, the Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy.


Over 50 years since its first flight, the heavy-lift leviathan is still going strong, and a recent upgrade to Super Galaxy standard should ensure service until at least 2040.

Size isn’t everything, but in the world of strategic airlift it certainly helps. The Galaxy is NATO’s largest airlifter, so big in fact it can carry a C-130 Hercules in its cavernous hold. Fully loaded with cargo and fuel, it weighs a little over 381 tons – roughly the same as 65 African elephants.

Whilst most military transport aircraft feature a large opening in the tail, the C-5’s entire nose raises up too, making on and off-loading cargo much more efficient. Above the main cargo bay is a second deck, with a large crew rest area and seating for up to 80 troops.

The Galaxy was born out of a 1964 competition to provide the USAF with an aircraft capable of carrying loads too large for its then primary transport, the C-141 Starlifter. After governmental assessment, Lockheed (later Lockheed Martin), Boeing and Douglas were awarded one-year contracts to further develop their designs.

Although all three companies submitted similar designs, in December 1965 Lockheed’s design was announced the winner, thanks in part to its overall lower cost. General Electric was selected as engine supplier with their revolutionary TF39, the world’s first high-bypass turbofan engine.

In April 1965 the aircraft received the designation C-5A and work on the first airframe began the following August. Less than two years later, on June 30 1968, the world’s largest military aircraft took to the skies – but success was far from guaranteed. Ground testing discovered serious failures in wing and fuselage structural standards and as development continued the aircraft began to exceed its predicted design weight. Despite changes to increase the structural strength of the wing, the C-5’s maximum payload was reduced by 20%. Although Lockheed won the competition with the cheapest aircraft on offer, the C-5 became the first US defence development program to be $1 billion over budget.

The first of 81 C-5As was delivered to front-line units in June 1970 and in July they were flying combat operations in support of the Vietnam War. C-5s would support the war with strategic airlift and troop evacuations until the cessation of hostilities in 1975. Towards the end of the conflict C-5s took part in Operations Babylift and New Life, a mass evacuation of 110,000 children and refugees from South Vietnam to the United States and other nations.

During the ’70s, C-5s undertook operations with US allies, notably delivering vital supplies to Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Over the course of the two-and-a-half week conflict the US airlifted over 22,000 tons of tanks, equipment and ammunition to the region.

To remedy the previously identified structural wing deficiencies a contract was signed in 1975 to begin ‘re-winging’ the fleet. The first aircraft flew in August 1980 and later that year Congress approved funding for the development of the C-5B, which featured over 100 system modifications and upgraded engines.

For the next 30 years the C-5A/B would remain at the forefront of US operations. Aircraft lifted Apache attack helicopters in support of Operation Just Cause, the 1989 invasion of Panama and provided a vital air bridge to the Gulf during Operations Desert Shield/Storm. C-5s transported over 84,000 passengers and 200,000 tons of equipment to the region, which accounted for 17% of people and 38% of cargo moved by air. Galaxies also contributed to moving the 200 tons of mail sent to the Persian Gulf every day.

The ’90s would prove a busy decade for the C-5 fleet, with the aircraft engaging in numerous humanitarian operations. Galaxies responded to flooding in China, earthquakes in Turkey and India and flooding in Pakistan and Nepal. Four aircraft would also be called on to make urgent deliveries of flour to Armenia, in response to a shortage of bread. The fleet formed an integral cog to Operation Provide Hope, the donation of humanitarian aid to the 11 members of the former Soviet Union, now called the Commonwealth of Independant States (CIS). The first C-5 mission landed in Armenia in February 1992 and over the next 19 days, Galaxies and Starlifters delivered more than 2000 tons of food and medical supplies to the country.

Despite undertaking mammoth humanitarian work the Galaxy wouldn’t escape the fight for the former Yugoslavia, which dominated the 1990s. The aircraft transported UN peacekeepers and aid throughout the early stages of turmoil in the region and in 1999, during Operation Allied Force, C-5 crews flew 1,594 sorties over a 78-day period. 

A late ’90s study into how much structural life remained in the fleet determined that the aircraft could operated efficiently and economically until 2040, but that modernisation would be required. As Galaxies supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first upgrade was rolled out. The Avionics Modernisation Program introduced new cockpit displays and flight safety equipment. With this work complete by 2002, attention turned to a more substantial reliability and re-engining program. The first of the current standard C-5M aircraft was delivered to the USAF in February 2009 and immediately set about breaking world records. In September that year a C-5M set 41 records, including altitude, payload and time-to-climb, in a single flight. But that wouldn’t be all for the C-5M: in 2015 it set over 45 further records for a world-beating total of 89.

The C-5M will undoubtedly continue to support US and NATO operations across the globe for years to come. No other Western aircraft can transport as much, as far as the Galaxy. If the aircraft continues to serve until its new predicted out-of-service date of 2040, some airframes will be approaching an impressive 70 years old. However, thanks to comprehensive upgrades and maintenance work, the mighty C-5M Super Galaxy may just fly on a little longer.

Images courtesy of US Department of Defense. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.