On September 15, 1991, a camouflage-painted, pointy-nosed Boeing C-17A took off for the first time from the Long Beach, California airport. The initial prototype, dubbed T-1, lifted off with throngs of gathered onlookers cheering and ushering in a new era of USAF aviation.
Despite cost overruns and early underperformance, the “Globemaster III” would prove to be a highly effective and capable transport platform with both strategic and tactical airlift applications. Initially the C-17A was born from the McDonnell Douglas YC-15 entrant in the Advanced Medium STOL Transport (AMST) competition in the late 1970s, intended to replace the Lockheed C-130 Hercules.
The AMST program was canceled when the USAF decided it wanted both a tactical as well as strategic transport, and a new C-X program soon took over the reins. A modified YC-15 still proved superior to both the Lockheed and Boeing offerings, and was re-designated the C-17.
Whether you call it the Moose, Barney, or Buddha, the jet is a 4-engined behemoth; however, its size belies its nimbleness and tactical capability. It features center-mounted control sticks and HUDs, and for a few years the USAF even routinely flew airshow demonstrations with the airlifter. It’s taken SAM hits over Baghdad and landed gear up in Afghanistan (oops!), but with only 1 fatal crash in its 24 year history, the aircraft has a remarkable safety record considering it has seen combat for many of those years.
From low-level flight to high-altitude, long-haul strategic transport, the C-17 is easily one of the most capable military transports ever flown. It’s also one of the only aircraft ever built that routinely uses reverse thrust in flight as part of a tactical descent, reaching rates of 15,000 feet per minute downhill. The jet is quite literally dropping out of the sky and the earth is rushing up to smite thee at 170 miles an hour.
That’s over 20 times the normal rate of descent for an airliner on approach. Nothing else comes close to matching that descent rate, save for NASA’s Space Shuttle. In my trade, the ground proximity warning system (not to mention the passengers) would be absolutely screaming at me with that kind of vertical speed, but this is just another day in the life for C-17 crews.
It’s an asset in high demand in theaters around the world, and earlier this year the C-17 fleet surpassed 3 million flight hours, a huge milestone for Boeing’s fabled airlifter. With under 300 aircraft produced, that means at any given moment over the last 24 years there have been 14 C-17s airborne.

photo © Jonathan Derden
A C-17A from the 452nd AMW banking hard while performing a minimum radius turn

Boeing delivered the last C-17 for the USAF in late 2013, and since then the jet has relied on foreign interest to keep the production line on life support. The Barney has also proven itself in the air forces of the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. A NATO contingent also operates a trio of C-17s out of Hungary, giving several smaller countries access to the C-17s heavy airlift capabilities.
Production of the C-17 ended earlier this year, but the 279th and final airframe has not yet been taken up. Hedging on future demand for their airlifter, Boeing built 10 C-17s on their own without buyers, though the last few have yet to be sold. For the right price, you could have a C-17 of your own… so don’t delay, take one home today!