By Col. Michael Coolidge, DCMA Boeing Long Beach
/ Published October 17, 2008
LONG BEACH, Calif. --
November 19, 2007, started like any other day, but turned out to be very special. That day marked the start of assembly of the 194th C-17 Globemaster III (dubbed "F-194") at the Boeing Long Beach plant in Southern California. The C-17 is assembled at the Long Beach plant, and 10 aircraft are in production inside the hanger at any given time.
Shortly after F-194's wing skins and struts were started at the plant, Thanksgiving was upon us. The C-17 production wheels kept turning.
December was busy. We flew, accepted and delivered two C-17s; one to Dover Air Force Base, Del., and another to Australia. During this time, the fuselage of F-194 was laid, and initial "bending of metal" happened. Various parts from all over the U.S. and Canada arrived so this plane could be built. It was all coming together.
The first quarter of 2008 was relatively quiet. As the country was building up for the presidential primaries, Boeing Long Beach was focused on delivering C-17s to our allies. We delivered four aircraft that quarter; two to Canada, and one each to Australia and Great Britain. These planes were a mixture of Direct Commercial Sales and Foreign Military Sales.
By April, the Defense Contract Management Agency was full swing into preparing the fiscal year 2009 budget. All DCMA offices were pulling out their hair trying to manipulate numbers in new forms and fashions as people dreamed up new ways to analyze the existing data. In short, for most of DCMA management, we were just miserable.
However, on April 22 our new baby, F-194, had a historic day. The four major parts were lugged from the different departments throughout the Long Beach factory and all loaded into the Nicholson tool; a monstrous, mechanical jig that aligns the wings, center fuselage, nose and tail to within thousandths of an inch.
For the first time, F-194 looked like an airplane. Its final journey within the Long Beach plant had begun.
During the remainder of the second quarter of 2008, we delivered three more C-17s, one each to Dover, Travis AFB, Calif., and Great Britain. As we made these deliveries, F-194 received its landing gear, flaps, control surfaces and engines. It moved three major workstations forward on the assembly line. Also during this period, the aircraft stopped being "F-194" and became "P-177," or the 177th C-17 delivered to the U.S. Air Force.
Finally, July was here. We wanted to take time off to celebrate; but first we had to deliver an aircraft (P-174) to Dover on July 3. Its delivery was our local symbol that we could start celebrating our nation's birth. Once the aircraft successfully took off, everyone's attention turned to celebrating the Fourth of July.
Throughout July we worked hard to deliver P-175, while P-177 moved from final assembly to the paint hanger. Both Boeing and DCMA worked tirelessly to streamline the final inspection and acceptance process.
This was the first time we were using a new inspection and delivery procedure. Both Boeing and DCMA were doubling their efforts to reduce preparation time while delivering a defect-free product. That meant the entire month was focused on flying, and fixing any problem that was uncovered. This jet was going to be "clean." We were determined to have it "combat ready" from day one.
On July 25, P-175 was delivered to Dover AFB. Unbelievably, the very next day, P-175 received its first tasking. It was needed in Iraq. Less than 24 hours after it left Long Beach, P-175 was heading into harm's way, delivering needed supplies to our troops. That surprised all of us. Most aircraft do not go from acceptance to combat that quickly. We were proud that our new, streamlined ramp procedures worked.
August proved to be just as busy as we prepared both P-176 and P-177 for delivery to Dover. We quickly overcame several small problems as these two aircraft were prepared. On Aug. 19, we delivered P-176 to Dover and discovered that it too was deployed the next day; our second in a row that went from the factory to the fight. Things were looking up as we headed into the Labor Day weekend.
September started in a flurry of activity as we performed "First Flight" on P-177. First Flight is always a cause for concern. We can never perform enough pre-flight inspections, engine tests, and low- and high-speed taxi tests to completely remove all concern that goes with taking off for the first time in an aircraft that you have seen and followed from the start.
To everyone's relief, P-177 leapt into the air and performed flawlessly. In fact, its first flight lasted almost 5.5 hours, much longer than normal. Nearly every system performed flawlessly the first time. The one troublesome area was the "ramp toes," the extensions at the back of the rear cargo door that allow trucks and tanks to easily drive on and off the aircraft. During First Flight, the ramp toes would not engage at altitude without a lot of wiggling and forcing. The toes needed to be adjusted.
The aircraft flew the next day with a load of mechanics focused on fixing the toes. For nearly two hours, both DCMA and the contractor worked hard to solve this problem. Finally, the team determined that the problem centered round some springs not being at the right tension. Unfortunately, those springs could not be accessed in flight. So they landed, adjusted the springs, and scheduled a flight for the next day. The third flight was short, as the ramp toes worked the first time. Success. P-177 was ready for delivery.
On Sept. 10, Brig. Gen. Barbara Faulkenberry, the deputy director of Strategic Plans, Requirements, and Programs at Headquarters AMC, toured the C-17 plant and received her "check-out sim ride" so she could deliver P-177 to Dover AFB. General Faulkenberry is a KC-135 navigator, but was getting prepared to accept this newest C-17 on behalf of the U.S. Air Force.
The next morning, before dawn, the general and the aircrew arrived. Waiting for her to speak were 30 of the 6,000-plus men and women who built this aircraft.
The general addressed the Boeing workers and thanked them for a job well done. After shaking every hand, she told them how the brave men and women she serves alongside have used this aircraft. She recounted two stories of how the C-17 and our troops are making a difference.
On day five of Operation Iraqi Freedom, she saw a Special Operations force unload in a hot zone in Iraq. The C-17 swooped in quickly, and a back-end full of men and equipment was unloaded "in no time;" far quicker than she expected. While on the ground, a piece of equipment parked next to the aircraft caught fire. The Airman operating the equipment quickly evacuated the area. One of the Chiefs grabbed him and told him that the C-17 was more important than anything else right now. Save it. With that, the Airman turned around and ran back to the piece of equipment and drove it away. He ignored his own safety so he could ensure the overall mission succeeded. The Airman survived, but was burned.
The general's final story was of a Soldier she had met a year earlier at the Airlift and Tanker Association conference. Approximately two years ago, this Soldier was in Iraq when a crowd jumped him. The attackers managed to thrust a knife deep into his skull. His buddies retrieved him and got him to a local aid station. The decision was quickly made that this troop needed America's best neurosurgeon to remove the knife.
General Faulkenberry said a C-17 was diverted and dedicated to flying the Soldier from Iraq to Maryland. The plane had to fly at low level because the wounded soldier might not survive the pressure change. To make it even more challenging, the pilots had to tackle sovereign airspace of more than a dozen countries between Iraq and the United States. Once each country learned of this mission of mercy, each allowed direct over-flight rights.
The soldier was delivered home by the most direct route. Once at Bethesda, surgeons began to operate on him. About a year later, the general and the entire Airlift and Tanker Association Conference welcomed this brave Soldier and his family onto the stage.
That Soldier is with us today because of the C-17 and the men and women who built her. "If ever you doubt that this fine aircraft, your daily effort, is making a difference, his walking onto that stage is confirmation that you are," said the general.
She also relayed that P-177 would be pushed into service early. When it arrived at Dover later that day, it would likely be turned around and sent to aid in hurricane evacuation efforts. Once again, the Air Force, and the products we deliver, were needed, both here in the United States and overseas, to save lives and perform our mission.
The general and crew then boarded the aircraft, taxied, and took off. As they lifted off, they gave a wing-wave "good bye" to Long Beach and those who had brought the U.S. Air Force's 177th C-17 to life.
All in all, a memorable start for everyone present for this Sept. 11, 2008, ceremony.