Hello, FighterSweep fans!  I hope you’ve having a great week and I’m so happy to share my latest aviation adventure with all of you. Since my first article, I have been quite busy with all of my travels, making new friends within the aviation community, and deciding what will be my next challenge on the road to becoming a better, more complete pilot.

If you’ll recall, FighterSweep recently announced it was looking to expand into the world of General Aviation and, in a stroke of good timing, I have been hoping to learn more about the military side.  Things fell into place and I had another wonderful opportunity to do just that!

Last Wednesday, I was invited out to March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, California. The days objective? To fly the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III simulator and get the opportunity to be up close and personal with this massive, amazingly agile aircraft.

C-17 Flightline

When I first arrived at the installation, I was so humbled by the warm welcome I received by all of the airmen working that day. When I visited Hill Air Force Base in Utah a couple months ago to welcome the first F-35s, the atmosphere had a more serious, no-joking-around sort of feel.  It was interesting to see how the heavy airlift community is compared to their brothers and sisters flying fighters. As I had been told, it certainly is two different worlds.

My hosts at March escorted me to a large building where the simulator lives, and I was greeted by a very nice man by the name of Marcel, whom his comrades affectionately refer to as “the Dungeon Master.”  He is the text book go-to guy for anything and everything anyone needs to know about the C-17.  Even pilots with thousands of hours in the aircraft turn to him for questions and/or challenges they have.  Very impressive, to say the least!

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Even when we first met, Marcel was very informative and thoroughly explained what I would encounter going in, as well as what to expect thereafter.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take our phones or cameras into the sim, so no pictures from that portion of my visit!  I was joined by two mission-qualified C-17 pilots, Scott and Jon.  They sat left and right seat, respectively, while I was in the jumpseat, observing the whole thing. I watched them go through each procedure, from how to pre-flight and start the aircraft, to takeoffs and landings, as well as different approach tactics and in-flight refueling.

My overall first impression was “Wow.”

photo © Jonathan Derden
A Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from the 517AS lifts off from JBER. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

The “Moose” and its capabilities are quite amazing.  This monster jet is 585,000 pounds, has a payload of 130,000 pounds, takes 60,000 lbs of fuel, and was designed to operate on even small, austere fields.  The C-17 can land on a 3000-foot runway in 1,500 feet with no problem.  Even on runways as narrow as 90 ft wide, it can use its backing capabilities and do a 3-point turn without departing the pavement.  I can’t even do that in my Columbia!

The engines on this beast are so powerful–and fully reversible by the way. When the Globemaster III is in a hostile environment, they can get up and out fast, and within a small radius in order to stay in a protected zone.  The massive thrust, as well as an incredibly well-designed wing, make “Barney” highly maneuverable–even for its overall size and weight. All this time in the jump seat, I am watching the Dungeon Master play “dial a disaster” out at the control panel, throwing many different obstacles the crew’s way to test their skills.

All of a sudden, I see us coming up upon a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.  Apparently we need fuel.  It was quite impressive to see the boom come down, all while Scott and Jon try to keep stable enough so as to not break it off. I guess it’s called a Unicorn when you do!  Scott did a great job keeping her steady enough to get the fuel and then we were on our way to come in for a landing.  He certainly made it look simple.  Once they got us back on the ground, Scott got out of the cockpit, and it was my turn to take the left seat!  No pressure, Rachelle!

C-17 Flightline Tour

After getting myself all situated so I could see everything in the Heads-Up Display, I was ready to get her going!  Mind you, I had never used a HUD before, so that took a bit of getting used to.  After some brief explanations of what would be expected of me, and the reassurance they would talk me through the different steps, I pushed the throttles full forward and before I knew it, it was time to rotate!

I did some maneuvers, a few landings, and flew through different weather conditions. What was most interesting to me was learning about the “backside” of flying. It is certainly a different approach to the front side that all of us general aviation pilots are accustomed to–using your stick and rudder to direct the airplane versus the Globemaster. In this airplane, you set the pitch–which locks in a certain airspeed, and you control the aircraft’s altitude and rate of descent by increasing or decreasing power.

The only analogy I can use for the GA folks to understand is this: if you are coming in on an ILS approach, you have your aircraft trimmed up, everything configured properly, and when you maintain the glide-slope, you have to adjust power to stay on it (if you fall below you add power, you rise above you decrease power).  You don’t adjust your pitch.

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The reason for this type of flying is to keep the aircraft behind the power curve on purpose–to keep her slower to get down faster, and land on such a short runway like I mentioned above.  Another pertinent reason is when in a time of need, since the engines are so powerful, you can escape much more quickly.

Another feature I learned about, something that we GA pilots don’t have, is the Tactical Air Navigation, or TACAN.  There are two inputs–one for X and one for Y.  One is ground-based and the other is air-based.  TACAN is used by military aircraft only. Say for instance you are flying a C-17 over the ocean and your GPS is messed up due to weather or mechanical failure.  The crew can dial in a KC-135’s TACAN and find exactly where it is located.  That’s pretty badass!

Speaking of in-flight refueling, now that I have taken off, done some maneuvers, and a couple landings, I am ready to try what Scott made look so easy–getting “plugged.”

So I am waiting and waiting and finally see us approaching the KC-135 ahead.  I know how fast he is moving compared to us so I have to adjust my speed accordingly.  It’s one thing to be far away from another aircraft, but to be coming up right underneath is quite the experience!

So I see the boom, and I am trying to get closer and can’t quite stay stable.  I am literally swaying back and forth behind the tanker.  Jon and Marcel keep telling me, “Slow movements on the stick,” and that I only need to use two fingers to do so.  This is more difficult than hovering a helicopter!  So, earlier what Scott made look easy, certainly was one of the most difficult things I have tried.  I said “Forget it! Can’t we just land and get fuel on the ground like everyone else?!”

Rachelle Cockpit

The last two challenges I got to experience were landing at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, and then doing a tactical departure out of it as well.  Pretty amazing how this airplane can take off at full power, nose pitched 30 degrees high with a 60 degree bank to the left–like it was a tiny aircraft.  Needless to say, I left the simulator very impressed.  The next part of my day consisted of going to the flightline and exploring the real aircraft.  The size is quite massive, but what really stood out were different purposes the C-17 serves and the support it can provide.

Aside from its incredible flying capabilities, the litany of what it can carry on board is endless.  All of the Army’s air-transportable, oversized combat equipment can be flown, for example.  It is also able to airdrop paratroopers and cargo.  Lastly, they can literally line gurneys all the way up and down the inside and it can act as a fully-functioning, airborne hospital.  So impressive.  Even though I spent about 45 minutes visiting the C17 outside, it certainly wasn’t long enough before we had to say our goodbyes.

Until we meet again, gentle giant…

(All photographs, unless noted, from the author’s personal collection)

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I would like to send out a warm-heartfelt thank you to all the men and women of the 729th Airlift Squadron, the 452 Air Mobility Wing, Captain Jon Millmann for making this day happen for me, and lastly all of those at March Air Reserve Base for letting a civilian pilot get a glimpse of your world.  I was truly humbled by my experience!