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The C-17 has provided the UK with a vital strategic lift capability, plus access to a Boeing logistics support network set up for the US Air Force
In under two months' time, the UK Royal Air Force will complete its first 10 years of flying Boeing's C-17 transport, with its use of the type continuing to run well above planned rates.
Seven of the tactical heavy airlifters are now assigned to 99 Sqn and flown from the RAF's transport super-base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The unit's final example, ZZ177, arrived at the site in mid-January, and has already completed its first missions into the UK's current main point of focus for military operations: Afghanistan.
"Our main job is supporting Operation 'Herrick' by moving outsized loads," says Wg Cdr David Manning, officer commanding 99 Sqn. "Ninety percent of my trade is into [Camp] Bastion at the moment." Current priorities include transferring materiel from Kandahar airfield to the expanding site, and supporting a major relief in progress operation.
FOCUS ON AFGHANISTAN
Representing the movement of a large volume of equipment and British troops as their tours of duty overlap, the latter requires several of the UK's C-17s to provide troop transport services from hubs elsewhere in the Middle East. Using palletised centreline seating, each of the countermeasures-equipped aircraft can move up to 131 personnel at a time, up from the type's standard passenger capacity of 54.
Flying into Camp Bastion has recently been boosted by the opening of a second, 3,660m (12,000ft)-long paved runway. This represents a marked improvement over the previous use of a 2,135m-long strip, which Manning says at just 27m wide and with a guaranteed crosswind offered "very rewarding flying" for the crew of a heavy transport aircraft.
Since entering the RAF inventory, C-17s have provided a vital part of the "airbridge" used to resupply UK forces in Afghanistan. They have moved transport, utility and attack helicopters, armoured ground vehicles, plant and equipment and everything in between, down to "bog roll and bubble wrap".
The aircraft typically carries a payload of around 59,000kg (130,000lb), five times that of a Lockheed Martin C-130, and Manning says that each hour flown using a C-17 equates to 7h using the smaller type.
99 Sqn's fleet has now logged more than 65,600 flight hours, with their use currently running at around 15% above planned rates. An annual total of around 8,300h was being flown with six aircraft, and the availability of a seventh could push this up to around 8,800h a year, says Manning.
The UK bought its first four C-17s at the end of a seven-year commercial lease deal with Boeing in 2008, when it also opted to acquire two more. Its planned last example was accepted in the USA last November, less than a year after the Ministry of Defence had signed for its purchase in December 2009.
In reality, the recent fleet expansion will cover the removal of the squadron's first aircraft for a roughly eight-month period of modernisation at Boeing's San Antonio facility in Texas. With a second aircraft ordinarily in "forward" maintenance at Brize Norton, the unit's planning assumption is on the availability of five aircraft. "The C-17 is an electric jet, and likes to be flown hard," says Manning. "We're regularly flying five from five."
In keeping with the size of its aircraft, 99 Sqn is a large unit, totalling around 340 personnel. This includes 56 aircrews, provided at an active ratio of four crews per transport, plus uniformed engineering staff.
Given its new aircraft, busy operational nature and strong career prospects, the unit has no trouble in attracting or retaining personnel. "People are clamouring to fly or work on the jet," says Manning. And while the UK has no current plan to increase the size of its C-17 fleet, he notes: "If we had another aircraft we'd certainly use it."
In addition to drawing from its C-130J/K community, the RAF already places new pilots on to the squadron for their first active duty tour. This follows their completion of multi-engine transport training with 45 Sqn's Beechcraft King Air 200s at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire and instruction at the US Air Force's Altus AFB in Oklahoma.
Students pass through a syllabus using 100% simulator- and computer-based training there, before returning to the UK to complete two base check flights, accompanied by a captain, instructor and safety pilot. Their first mission flown in support of the airbridge with Afghanistan can come as early as their third flight.
The C-17's ability to respond to humanitarian and disaster relief operations has also been called upon over the last decade, with the UK's aircraft having flown supplies to nations including Chile, Haiti and Pakistan.
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Up to four Lynx helicopters can be carried
One was also used early this month to transport a donated fuel tanker to Malta, which was experiencing a spike in air traffic activity due to the growing unrest in Libya.
"This task, and recent humanitarian aid flights, has underpinned our broad strategic utility for the UK," says Manning.
The C-17's cargo hold can be rapidly reconfigured for tasks ranging from medical evacuation to delivering urgent supplies, says Flt Sgt Jon Tweedle, who has been a loadmaster with 99 Sqn since 2001. Its flooring can be changed from a rail to roller configuration by one person in 7min and accommodate up to 18 463L pallets. Alternatively, up to 36 stretchers can be carried, or nine patients given intensive care-level treatment using special litters.
Although the type can be flown by a crew of two pilots and one loadmaster, operations into Afghanistan are usually augmented by two ground engineering personnel. A third pilot and second loadmaster are used during medical evacuation missions - typically a 24h commitment from Brize Norton.
Along with all international C-17 operators, the UK is a member of Boeing's Globemaster III Sustainment Partnership. Signed via the US government's Foreign Military Sales system, nations access a so-called "virtual fleet" of spares, and benefit from the US Air Force's operation of more than 200 of the type.
"Wherever we are, we can get access to spares pretty quickly," says Manning.
Fifteen Boeing employees are also at Brize Norton to provide spares support and technical services, and to oversee configuration management issues. "We're embedded with the squadron," says Bob Rabbitt, the company's lead official at the site.
Although the UK's planned troop draw-down in Afghanistan is still several years away, 99 Sqn is already starting to consider its role beyond the current campaign. "We've gone through a period of a seven-year lease to a permanent squadron," Manning says. "I'm now looking at post-Herrick."
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99 Sqn's aircraft dominate the ramp at the RAF's Brize Norton transport super-base
The squadron has an interest in potentially acquiring a simulator at Brize Norton, which would remove the need for pilots to travel to the USA every six months to undergo training checks. Crucially, the device could also enable the RAF to prepare for activities for which its pilots do not currently receive instruction. These include formation flying, dirt strip landings and para and airdrop tasks.
But whatever the future holds, Manning knows that his unit will remain busy. "The air force, army and navy will all need to go off and train after Afghanistan, so there will be a requirement for us to delver lots of kit to far-flung places," he says.