Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Visit to 356th Airlift Squadron

A friend of mine (hello David!) has a friend who is a C-5 pilot, based at Kelly AFB in San Antonio. He asked if his friend, Major Matt Van der Walle, would give me a tour of his squadron. Maj Van der Walle kindly agreed, and so it was that I found myself heading to San Antonio on the day before the Lackland Airshow.

I was visiting 356th Airlift Squadron, part of the 433rd Airlift Wing. They fly the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy aircraft and supply training to future C-5 crews. They are trained not only as pilots, but loadmasters and engineers also. A C-5 flight crew consists of two pilots, one flight engineer and two loadmasters.

Student pilots arrive at the 356th after training in T-6A Texan, and T-1 Jayhawk aircraft, in which they receive their initial and advanced, multi-engine flight training.

The majority of the flight training is done in the simulator. The 356th has two simulators, one featuring a glass cockpit and the other equipped with standard analogue instruments, reflecting the two variants of C-5 model operated by the Squadron. The machines are huge - although I have seen pictures of this kind of machine before, I was not prepared for the size of the room into which we walked, with two behemoths housed within.

Going inside, the view is really very realistic. Sure, you can see it is a computer projection, but it's placed a good few feet outside the windows, enough to provide some convincing depth. When the simulator is running, hydraulic rams move the entire capsule, providing a sense of motion. Although we did not get the chance to actually run the simulator - it was booked already by others - I could instantly see how powerful a training method this is.

They train here to fly missions to all parts of the world. A normal flight is around eight hours in duration. Students will make around forty flights in the simulator, experiencing bad weather, engine failures and all other kinds of emergencies. They then make flights in the real aircraft, of which the squadron has nineteen examples.

Going outside again, we were entertained by practise demonstrations from the F-22 Raptor, MiG 17 and the Thunderbirds F-16 display team. They were gearing up for the weekend's show, and it was an unusual treat to be able to watch the displays from a different angle to normal. We were across the other side of the base, well behind the show flightline.

Maj Van der Walle took me airside, onto the ramp, to have a close look at the C-5A Galaxy aircraft. Many were parked nearby, being worked on by maintenance crews, but one was currently unattended and available for us to look at.

The C-5 is the largest aircraft in the USAF inventory. It measures 66 feet high at the tail, and can carry 31,000 cubic feet of cargo. The cargo bay is 121 feet long. I asked the Major about how it was to fly such a large aircraft, and he repeated some advice he'd been given: "Just get the front end where you're going, and the rest will follow!"

The C-5 has four of these General Electric TF-39 engines, each putting out 43,000 lb of thrust. The intake is eight feet in diameter. Apparently you can fit a VW Beetle in there!

We ascended the steps into the aircraft, and with the ramp door closed at the back, the light fell into shadow along the length of the interior. It looked huge! I have walked through the C-5 at airshows, as many folks have done, and it doesn't look as big there as when you can't see the end of the interior.

Onwards up a second flight of steps, into the flight deck area. The example we were in had glass panels in the cockpit, although without power running, they remained dark. The engineer's panel is behind the pilots.

The nameplate on the center of the control yoke.

I was surprised at just how much space there is upstairs in the C-5. The only thing visible from outside is the cockpit windows, so I hadn't realised that there is a lot more accommodation behind the cockpit area. There is a crew rest area, with large airliner seats that recline almost flat. They looked well worn, yet comfortable. There is a head, and a galley, and behind this is another room that can be closed off, for transporting VIP passengers.

There is another ladder behind the cockpit, which leads up through a small hatch, from which you can pop your head up through the top of the aircraft. It is not every day you get to see the tail from this angle!

Many thanks indeed go to Maj Van der Walle for his time and generosity in giving me this splendid tour of his Squadron and aircraft. I really enjoyed it.

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