As USAF McDonnell Douglas C-17s are withdrawn from Bosnia, assessment of the transport aircraft begins

Tim Ripley/BOSNIA

WHEN THE HARSH Balkan winter halted US Army efforts to bridge the River Sava and troop trains became backed-up in Hungarian marshalling yards, US military planners began to look for alternative ways to get their heavy armour to Tuzla. The answer was based at Rhein-Main airbase, near Frankfurt, in the shape of the US Air Forces's newest transport - the McDonnell Douglas C-17A Globemaster III.

During the first four days of January, 12 C-17s, temporarily based in Germany since mid-December 1995, were used to move a full US Army mechanised infantry battalion to Tuzla, including some 28 Bradley fighting vehicles and M109 155mm self-propelled howitzers. It was the first major test of the aircraft in an operational setting.

C-17 crews from the 437th Airlift Wing, based at Charleston AFB, South Carolina, say that the contribution of the aircraft to speeding the deployment of NATO's Implementation Force to Bosnia, vindicated the 1995 decision by the US Defence Acquisition Board, to give the green light for the USAF to buy 80 more Globemaster IIIs.

"The C-17 has moved more than just heavy armour," says Lt Col Joe Reheiser, commander of the composite airlift squadron at Rhein-Main. "We moved trucks, heavy containers and bridging units. You can't carry these on [Lockheed Martin] C-130s or [Lockheed] C-141s, and the [Lockheed] C-5 cannot go into austere strips such as Tuzla or Sarajevo. The C-17 was the only aircraft capable of flying outsized cargoes into Bosnia," he says.

"This was a great proving ground for the C-17. It validates the Defence Acquisition Board decision to buy more of the aircraft," says Reheiser. "Originally, we only went over with six aircraft, but then our customer shifted the emphasis from moving cargo by ground to air when they saw what the aircraft could do."

Proposals by Boeing for the USAF to buy cargo versions of its 747-400 instead of the C-17 were treated with some sceptism by C-17 operators at Rhein-Main. "On one occasion, I watched two Bradleys pull up behind a C-17 and load up on to the aircraft - you could not do that with a Boeing 747," says Reheiser.

With only 19 C-17s in the USAF inventory, the deployment of the majority of them to support NATO's Operation Joint Endeavor raised the profile of the aircraft considerably, and the 437th Wing personnel in Germany report that the aircraft performed well in demanding weather and threat conditions. "The aircraft proved very reliable. Things that went wrong were minor and we were able to fix them quickly. There were no show stoppers," says Reheiser.


From late December, a C-17 was landing at Tuzla, in northwest Bosnia, or at Taszar, the major US logistic base in Hungary, at a rate of one every hour, 24h a day. The major limitation proved to be the lack of unloading space at Tuzla preventing more than one C-17- or C-141-sized aircraft being on the ground at a time. Tuzla airbase is still heavily littered with land mines and it is taking time for US Army engineers to complete the task of clearing them and open up more working space.

C-17 crews say that they were keen to maximise use of nighttime missions into Tuzla because they reduced their vulnerability to Serb artillery, which is within range of the air base. Each aircraft, is flown with a fourth crew member to provide an extra pair of eyes, to watch for surface-to-air missile threats.

Pilot Capt Pat Tibbetts says that the C-17's head-up display proved particularly useful during landings at Tuzla because of the need to reduce stopping distances.

Once on the ground, cargoes were unloaded and the aircraft was airborne again within 30min. Anything longer would seriously disrupt the tight schedule for follow-on flights. The age of the US Army's tracked vehicles proved a problem for the C-17 loadmasters because many of them have worn rubber track pads, so wooden planks had to be laid in the cargo holds to prevent the aircraft's floors being damaged.

Source: Flight International