Super Seventeen

C-17’s ‘Major Join’ sees first IAF heavy-lifter come together at Long Beach plant

Atul Chandra

Long Beach, California: The quest by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to boost its airlift capability took a significant step forward last month when the ‘Major Join’ ceremony took place at Boeing’s Long Beach assembly plant. The ‘Major Join’ is an important event in the assembly of the IAF’s first C-17 Globemaster III strategic heavy-lift transport. The event saw the integration of the forward, centre and aft fuselages along with the wing assembly. The programme has been progressing to the satisfaction of the IAF. India’s first C-17 will begin its flight test programme on schedule early next year.

C-17’s ‘Major Join’ sees first IAF heavy-lifter come together at Long Beach plant

The momentous occasion took place in the presence of Consul General of India in San Francisco N. Parthasarathi, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from California’s 46th District, India’s Air Attache Air Commodore Sanjay Nimesh who drove ceremonial rivets into the aircraft and senior officials from Boeing and the United States Air Force (USAF). Speaking on the occasion, Parthasarathi said, “Just a decade ago, America and its defence companies were not considered a likely partner for India’s defence requirements. Now just a decade a later, the relationship is strong and growing with India having placed orders for defence equipment to the tune of USD9 billion.”

Later, he told FORCE that India will look at increased defence co-operation with the US in the areas of co-production of defence equipment, joint research and Transfer of Technology (ToT) agreements.

Prior to the ‘Major Join’ ceremony, this correspondent was taken on a tour of Boeing’s impressive C-17 assembly plant at Long Beach. This was followed by a comprehensive briefing on India’s C-17 programme by Patrick M. Druez, business development mobility, Boeing Defence, Space and Security who was a key member of the team supporting the field evaluation trials for the IAF.

Globemaster III for the IAF: FORCE was told that while the first flight is scheduled for January next year, it is likely to take place a few weeks earlier in December itself. This will be followed by a few weeks of testing for the India-unique items requested by the IAF.

Post the first flight, the aircraft will be handed over to the IAF in January after which flight tests will take place in the US for certification. The certificates are scheduled to be given in May 2013 prior to delivery to the IAF in June 2013. The remaining nine aircraft will be delivered within 14 months to complete the order for 10 aircraft. The IAF will receive the latest version of the C-17 which will have the most advanced flight deck available on the C-17 fleet globally. The aircraft delivered to India will essentially be 99 per cent of the standard USAF configuration, according to Boeing officials, apart from a few proprietary systems requested by the IAF. The first batch of IAF crew for the C-17s are now undergoing training at Altus, Oklahoma in the US. A total of 10 crews comprising 20 pilots and 10 load-masters will undergo training. FORCE was also told that the training and maintenance manuals would be delivered by the USAF to the IAF, 90 days before delivery of the first aircraft to India.

Presently, the IAF and the USAF teams are working together for sustaining the site activation at Air Force Station (AFS) Hindon, which is outside Delhi and where the aircraft will be based. All support facilities for the C-17 will be at Hindon and the aircraft in IAF service is expected to log 500 flying hours per year. In USAF service, the C-17 had demonstrated the highest mission capability rates in the USAF heavy lift fleet over the last seven years, and the fleet availability across the entire C-17 fleet globally stood at 85 per cent last month.

With regards to offset obligations, Boeing has already concluded a number of activities and purchases with Indian companies and has contracted for ground support equipment from them. Boeing says that offset obligations were tough to meet as more than 240 C-17s had already been manufactured and it was difficult to dovetail existing production contracts to cater for offset obligations, not to forget keeping the costs in check. Boeing will also be setting up a wind tunnel for Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) as part of its offset obligations.

IAFs team with Dana Rohrabacher

Field Evaluation Trials: The IAF put the Globemaster III through a rigorous field evaluation and Boeing had to demonstrate every requirement as part of the Air Staff Requirements (ASR) laid down by the IAF. The C-17 for the trials was flown in from Jackson, Mississippi and flew into India on a Saturday; it took to the air again on Sunday morning and flew almost every day of the week during the trials. The field trials saw the aircraft being based in Agra and from there the aircraft was flown to Leh. Short field capability was demonstrated at Kangra airfield near Dharamshala on a 3,000 feet runway. After landing at Kangra, the C-17 took-off using 1,500 feet of runway with an unspecified payload. Boeing says that the aircraft can land with its full payload of almost 75 tonne on a 3,000 feet runway.

However, taking off with a heavy payload from that runway would have to be with little fuel and mid-air refueling would be required later in the flight. During the course of the trials on 20 June, 2010, the C-17 demonstrated its capability when it flew into Leh with a payload of 30 tonne, the IL-76 being unable to carry any payload due to the temperature and altitude on that day. The trials did not include a tank being loaded onto the C-17 as the field trial requirements revolved around performance parameters only.

A key asset of the C-17 and one that will be made full use of by the IAF is its ability to approach an airfield at low speeds and land with precision. This is aided by the Head Up Display (HUD) for the pilots provided on the aircraft. Along with other features such as Blown Flaps (where the engine exhaust is deflected downward by the slotted-flaps to increase lift) and the advanced flight management system, Boeing says that the C-17 can touch down on the runway within 150-200 feet from the pre-determined point (a typical commercial aircraft would land around 1,500 feet from the pre-determined point). This allows the aircraft to land on 2,000 feet runways.

The supercritical wing section includes winglets which were added at design stage itself and keep the aircraft narrow and allow it to operate off short and narrow aprons. The C-17 was designed to be wide enough to accommodate two trucks side by side and the height inside the cargo hold was designed to accept Chinook and Apache helicopters without dismantling their gearboxes. The C-17 can carry one Chinook helicopter with the blades stored inside the helicopter and it can carry three Apache attack helicopters without pods and two Apaches with armament pods.

The IAF is yet to place further orders for the type, estimated to be between six-10 more of the heavy lift transport. Boeing has said that there are no specific deadlines for further orders to be placed by the IAF. The company, however, expects that any orders placed will take place only after the first batch of aircraft is inducted. Hence, further orders by the IAF will come in only by the fourth quarter of 2013. This could make things very tight for Boeing as the C-17 production line at Long Beach has already slowed down production to 10 aircraft a year, allowing the line to be kept open till 2014.

Boeing has been talking to a number of customers, both existing and new, in search of new orders. The IAF currently operates Russian IL-76 MD transports which have been plagued with poor serviceability ever since they were acquired more than 25 years ago. For the IAF, the delivery of the C-17 will provide a tremendous boost to its strategic and tactical airlift capability. The C-17 features excellent short and rough field performance providing a veritable force multiplier on India’s eastern borders where the airfield infrastructure is still being developed.