ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
There are aircraft -- some more than 40 years old -- flying across the sky every day specifically designed and built to preserve our nation's interests here and abroad.
Helping to ensure those aircraft are sustained and flying safely is the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's C-5 Galaxy Division, responsible for the operational support and effectiveness of the Air Force's fleet of cargo transport aircraft.
There are about 200 people working in offices at Robins and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, whose efforts include writing and updating manuals for C-5 programmed depot maintenance lines here and in the field; defining work to be performed on each aircraft; and managing various modernization and modification efforts across the fleet.
Currently, one of the division's biggest development efforts, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, is the C-5M Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program, which provides the Air Force's largest airlifter with improved reliability, efficiency, maintainability and availability.
Other significant modifications coming up include early testing on replacement of the aircraft's color weather radar and updating its mission computer. Another is modifying several communications systems, one of which will kick off this year to comply with a new requirement by 2020 to fly in controlled air space anywhere in the world.
In 2015 when the first C-5M was installed with a prototype of a lavatory system, kinks were worked out that will replace the system's original 1960s design with a vacuum-flush system, now in line with the commercial airline industry.
The 559th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here is currently installing a second lavatory. Once completed, production kits will be built that will enable the system to be installed on all C-5s.
As part of the C-5M RERP effort, new commercial engines are added to each aircraft, along with new pylons, and about 70 additional major enhancements.
The program is scheduled to be completed in April 2018. To date, 33 airplanes have been modified. Five A models will retire in 2017.
"When it's finished it basically looks like a new airplane with most of its interior touched up and refurbished," said Col. Raegan Echols, AFLCMC's C-5 Galaxy Division Requirements Branch chief. "These airplanes first flew in the late 1960s, early 1970s from the production line, so they're very old airplanes."
Once each aircraft is modernized, it will take a flight to Stewart Air National Guard Base in New York, where interior refurbishments will be made to recondition things like its seat and panel upholstery.
Modernization efforts like this will enable aircraft such as the C-5M to rewrite how strategic airlift is played out in the battle space.
The engines in particular deliver a 22-percent increase in thrust, a 30-percent shorter take-off roll, 58-percent faster climb rate and will basically allow more cargo to be carried over long distances when needed. Reduced noise levels are also attributed to the new engines; at takeoff the M model is quieter than its A and B predecessors.
"With the new engines, the performance is phenomenal, allowing us to climb into the premium air space," said Echols, adding its new capabilities will allow aircraft to get to that air space more quickly, saving fuel and flying more efficiently. "That allows us to carry larger cargo for longer distances without having to stop to refuel in the air or make short stops en route."
A record-setting flight in 2015 claimed 46 new world aviation records, including altitude in horizontal flight, altitude with payload, time-to-climb with payload, and greatest payload to 9,000 meters, while loaded with pallets, fuel and the air crew (for a total of nearly 366 tons).
Records such as that led to the National Aeronautic Association nominating the C-5M Super Galaxy as one of nine finalists for this year's prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy, known as the benchmark of aerospace achievement.
"This record setting performance demonstrates the M's ability to quickly get out of harm's way and fly at operational altitudes, all with a payload heavier than any other U.S. airlifter can carry," according to the nomination package.
This year's winner will be announced in early March.
The aircraft's largest operators hail from Dover and Travis Air Force bases, as well as from Westover Air Force Base and Joint Base San Antonio.
A report recently sent to Echols from Air Mobility Command reflected how C-5Ms directly supported real-world movement overseas. In early December to early January, three C-5Ms transported helicopters and other equipment from Rota, Spain, to Afghanistan.
During that time period, the aircraft flew 41 sorties, achieving an impressive 90.5 percent mission capable rate operating under wartime conditions.
"You just don't see mission capable rates like that. It's really making a difference to the warfighter in being able to achieve their missions," said Echols.
Citing feedback he received from another report, Echols added that on a mission where three C-5s were fully mission capable, he was told that two C-5s could've accomplished the task. That's huge, given that in years past, C-5 mission capable rates weren't nearly as high as they are now.
"What that means is the work we're doing here is having a direct impact," he said. "The warfighter is able to get the job done more efficiently, more effectively -- that's less time they're in harm's way."