Retrotechtacular: The US Air Force Has The Biggest Fleet

When it comes to the superlatives of aviation, there are aircraft larger than the C-5 Galaxy. [Howard Hughes]’s Spruce Goose has the largest wingspan, and the Soviet and now Ukranian Antonov AN-225 Mriya has the largest cargo capacity. When it flies in the next year or so, Scaled Composites Stratolaunch – a twin-hulled beast of a plane designed to haul rockets up to 30,000 feet – will be the aircraft with the largest wingspan and the greatest cargo capacity.

These superlatives, while completely accurate, fail to realize these huge planes are one of a kind. There is no plan to build a second Stratolaunch, and the second airframe for the AN-225 is rusting away in a field. If you want to find a fleet of enormous aircraft, there’s only one contender: the C5 Galaxy, the largest plane in the US Air Force inventory.

This video, from the USAF Archives circa 1968, goes over the design, construction, and operation of the C5 Galaxy. It covers the program beginnings, the shortcomings of earlier aircraft, and – of course – completely disregards the initial problems of the C5.

While not the largest aircraft to take to the skies at the time, or the heaviest, the C5 featured an enormous number of technological innovations. Not least of these was the massive Ge TF39 engines hanging off the wing. Before this engine, turbofans had very low bypass ratios. Lower bypass ratios for a turbofan means lower efficiency. The TF39 changed this with a bypass ratio four times larger than any before it, leading the way for modern aviation powerplants. Just look at a few old pictures of jet airliners – you’ll notice the older aircraft used long, skinny engines. These were still turbofans, but highly inefficient. Look at modern airliners, and you’ll see engine nacelles nearly as large as the fuselage itself. These high bypass turbofans run cleaner and more efficiently, and they were first found on the C5 Galaxy.

Of course the C5 wasn’t without its problems. Initial tests of the wing revealed structural weaknesses, which lead to the Air Force derating the cargo capacity of the first generation of C5s. This was due to poor aluminum forgings in the wing, and while this was fixed in later airframes (and earlier airframes modified with the new wing spars), this problem led to the C5 being called a massive blunder. Cost overruns plagued the project, and congressional investigations investigated the problem.

Despite these initial problems, and calls for the cancellation of the program, the C5 is a remarkably successful aircraft. Few other aircraft have the payload capacity or volume of the C5, and there is no other fleet of larger aircraft. The C5 will be in service until at least 2040 – 70 years since its introduction – and will go down in history as one of the most successful aircraft development projects of all time. Keep that in mind when you hear about the Air Force’s latest snafu over a new aircraft program.

27 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The US Air Force Has The Biggest Fleet

  1. B-52, TU-95, C-5, it’s amazing that when most things are obsolete before they’re on the market that these old fu…fellas just keep soldiering on. Guess some things are built to last. Oops, almost forgot the C-130, if it was a car it would be an antique, not a daily driver like the C-130.

        1. To give a sense of perspective: if the C-130 were a car, it would be as if Chevrolet was still making brand new tri-5 Bel-Airs. That’s how long the C-130 has been around, though age is where the comparison between it and cars ends.

          1. I’m going to argue this a bit – the real comparison would be among motor vehicles that have a long, visible lineage – Jeeps and Harley Davidson motorcycles come to mind for the U.S – rather than a single model year. The new models of all of these often have been substantially redesigned and re-engineered to fit a particular market segment (for aircraft this would approximate the “type approval” that rules everything, or the design parameters) but still appear to be very similar to the casual observer: New engines, new materials, certainly new electronics, differing mission capability, etc. etc. but the outer hull is about the same size and shape.

          2. I second Thinkerer. I’d almost go so far as to say that Mustangs and Camaros have been made for long periods of time too, but today’s models share absolutely nothing but the name with their forebears. Aircraft may have avionics and engine upgrades – and perhaps the occasional structural improvement – but the same models tend to look alike regardless of when in the production run they’re made.

          3. I think the Land Rover Defender would be a good comparison, based on a design from 1948 with no real big changes to the look of it until they ended its production run in December 2015. That’s 67 years and I heard they only stopped because the design was deemed too unsafe for any unfortunate pedestrians that happened to get in it’s way.

      1. But even the C-130 is a baby compared to the Douglas DC-3 (aka C-47, Dakota, Skytrain, Li-2 etc.), and hundreds of those are still flying. Most of them are over 70 years old now.

    1. However cars as old and older than this aircraft, are daily drivers for many. Their owners lacking the budget of the US military those cars aren’t upgraded to modern performance and safety standards, if their owners desired to do so.

  2. Having the biggest anything doesn’t matter – if it doesn’t work.

    The bloated U.S. Government has essentially bankrupted itself by giving people (and themselves) stuff for free in exchange for their votes. So now the Air force has to cannibalize some jets just to keep others flying. But the Air Force isn’t the good guy either, they’re on the gravy train too. Just look at the bloated mess they made out of the F35. The only thing that’s saving their bacon right now is the force multiplier effect brought on by technologies like advanced radar and targeting systems, directed munitions, improved reconnaissance (including drones), and shared data in the battle-space. But these boosters will only go so far, and we’re at that end of the rope.

    Today, if we ever need to fight a real war run by real warriors (not lawyers) – we’re toast.

    1. the us military is alarger souce of bloat than anything else in your government, you spend and have more than most civilized countries combined, absolutely ridicoulous waste of resources all round.

    2. I completely agree that the F35 is a waste of money, but disagree that we could not win a real war run by real warriors. It our nation’s military was allowed to actually fight without a rule set that ensures significant casualties before action things would be much different. How can one not expect to sustain casualties when one sends their warriors into a hostile area and tells them not to fire unless your brothers and sisters are getting shot, not just shot at.

    3. Who are you going to fight anyway? The USA has nukes. That means it can’t be invaded, that’s the basic principle behind them. At least, not by an organised army. For any other sort, jet fighters are no good. The whole thing protects the interests of the rich, and only that.

      1. “Who are you going to fight anyway?”

        How about that bunch ISIS head-loppers that just got vaporized by a precision guided JDAM GBU dropped by an F-16 from 20,000 feet over the “Islamic State”? One more of of those roaches dead in-country is one more who won’t be allowed to come to America and kill your family.

        That’s who…

        Fortunately, the F-16 still has sharp enough talons to safely get it to the target and back again with some margin of safety. But if we don’t do something soon, that won’t be the case any more, especially with Russian and Russian-supplied Syrian fighters staring down our throats. And no – the F35 can’t do it, they blew that one.

  3. The current “Air Force One” 747’s are slightly smaller than the C-5, but when they are retired they’ll be replaced with 747-8 models, which are larger than the C-5 in overall length and wingspan and have a greater payload capacity, more thrust per engine and higher top speed.

  4. The C5 Galaxy was my ultimate dream aircraft I aspired to be a load master on them. Unfortunately my commander didnt feel them same, she wouldn’t approve my cross training, bah, humbug. ……

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