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The C-5Ms engines are automatically ignited by electronic engine controls, said Lt. Col. Mike Semo. "You push the button, and three seconds later the engines start." (COLIN KELLY / STAFF)
Capt. Cory Damon explains the new C-5M's digital cockpit at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (COLIN KELLY / STAFF)
The four new General Electric CF6 engines each produce 7,580 more pounds of thrust than the old TF-39 engines. (COLIN KELLY / STAFF)
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — From a distance, the gray C-5 Galaxy parked on the flight line looks the same as the dozen or so others lined up on the concrete.
But climb up into the cockpit of the "Spirit of Global Reach" — the name is painted just to the right of the crew door — and there is no mistaking you're in a different plane: A computer keyboard is bolted onto the flight engineer's table. Digital display screens spread across the pilots' consoles. And in the middle of each pilot's yoke is "C-5M" in big print.
This plane is among the first C-5s upgraded to C-5M Super Galaxy status. The Air Force plans to upgrade 52 Galaxys by the end of 2016.
At a cost of $148 million a plane, the improvements — more powerful engines, the digital cockpit and many other changes, most buried inside the three-story-tall fuselage — are intended to boost the C-5's reliability rate, cut fuel demand and enable the jet to fly nonstop without refueling from here to the Persian Gulf.
Lt. Col. Tom Loper, chief of the C-5M program office at Dover's 436th Airlift Wing, recalls the first time he flew a C-5M.
"You get pushed into the seat. For a C-5, that's different," said Loper, one of the first operational pilots to fly the gigantic transport made by Lockheed Martin. "I don't think you could have washed the smiles off our faces."
The four General Electric CF6 engines each produce 50,580 pounds of thrust, up from the 43,000 pounds pushed out by the old General Electric TF-39 engines. Now, a C-5M with 50,000 pounds of fuel needs only 1,500 feet to get airborne, while the older C-5s need 3,000 to 4,000 feet.
"Faster than a Corvette in a quarter mile," commented Lt. Col. Mike Semo, Loper's counterpart with Dover's Reserve unit, the 512th Airlift Wing.
Dover is home to the first three C-5Ms and will host the C-5M's initial operational test and evaluation phase starting in August. Before arriving at Dover, the C-5Ms were put through their paces by teams working out of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Besides a shorter takeoff, the C-5M beats the older models by climbing higher and faster, too. The C-5M hits its cruising altitude of 34,000 feet in 18 minutes. The older jets need 33 minutes to reach 25,000 feet.
Both the plane's power and speed caught the attention of Dover's air traffic controllers.
"Are you the M-model?" Semo recalled one controller asking.
The C-5M's faster climb shouldn't be confused with speed, which is determined by aerodynamics and not thrust, Semo said. The transport still tops out at 518 mph.
The faster climb, though, saves fuel because the plane uses less once it is cruising. The estimated fuel savings should allow a C-5M with cargo leaving Dover to reach bases in the Persian Gulf nonstop without being refueled. Today, C-5s typically stop for fuel in Spain or Germany before continuing east, the Dover pilots said. The landings for gas often trigger crew rest rules, delaying the journey while the crew sleeps or a new crew takes over.
The upgrades also brought the cockpit avionics up to current commercial standards.
Electronic engine controls automatically ignite the engines.
"You push the button," Semo said, "and three seconds later the engines start."
If an engine doesn't start on the first try, onboard computers will adjust settings and fire again.
On the older C-5s, the aircrew members had to manually adjust engine settings for engine starts and use their best judgment if an engine didn't ignite.
After the engines are running, you'll hear another difference: no trademark high-pitched whine of the TF-39 engines.
"There is something of a nostalgic loss about that," Loper said. "They [C-5 airmen] are used to hearing the whine."
Along with losing the whine, the new CF6 engines are quieter. The old engines were noisy enough to limit when and where C-5s could land, especially in Europe.
The new engines meet the latest noise reduction standards — "Stage 4 compliant" in official terms.
For takeoffs, the electronic engine controls also have two power presets that automatically regulate fuel flow into the engines based on the required thrust.
The engine automation lets the airmen focus on guiding the plane and watching for a range of problems from birds to anti-aircraft threats instead of looking down to adjust power settings, Semo said.
During landings, the main upgrade is something many aircrew members already have in their cars — GPS navigation. Old C-5s depend on an inertial guidance system that can be several miles off by the time the plane crosses the Atlantic.
The GPS navigation system tells the crew exactly where the plane is. On this day, the GPS display showed the parked C-5M sitting next to a Dover taxiway.
The upgrades should make maintainers' jobs easier.
A new, built-in monitoring and diagnostic system records engine performance and tracks aircraft malfunctions. After the plane lands, crew chiefs download the data into computers on the flight line, said Staff Sgt. Gered Crawford, a C-5M crew chief.
For example, when a console warning light came on, indicating a malfunctioning wheel brake in the old C-5s, maintainers had to inspect all 24 brakes until they found the problem. The new system tells crews which brakes to inspect.
Improved engine reliability is another projected advantage, airmen said. The TF-39 engines typically had to be removed for inspections and overhauls at least every 2,000 hours. The new engines are projected to run for 10,000 hours without having to come off the wings.
For loadmasters, significant change is better lighting in the jet's cargo bay Clustered across the ceiling are hundreds of bright white LED bulbs, casting enough light to make you think you were standing outside. For night operations, the lights can be dimmed. Fluorescent lights dimly illuminated old C-5 cargo bays.
For the time being, your best chance to see or hear a C-5M is at Dover.
In preparation for the operational testing starting in August, Dover crews are flying familiarization sorties along the East Coast and overseas to Europe.
When a Dover crew lands a C-5M at an airlift base, there always is a stream of airmen approaching to ask questions and wanting to look around.
"They can't wait to get one," remarked Capt. Cory Damon, a C-5M pilot with the 436th.
C-5 Galaxy facts
* C-5A 1969
* C-5B 1980
Mission-capable rates for 2008
* C-5A: 47.4 percent
* C-5B: 57.8 percent
* C-17: 86.4 percent
(The C-5M's predicted rate is 75 percent.)
* 2 M1A1 Abrams tanks
* 6 Apache AH-64 helicopters
* 36 pallets
* 6 Army Stryker vehicles
* 3 large MRAPs
Unrefueled range with 120,000 pounds of cargo
* C-5A/B: 4,785 miles
* C-5M: 5,775 miles
Bases set to receive C-5Ms through 2016
* Dover Air Force Base, Del.
* Travis Air Force Base, Calif.,
* Westover Air Force Reserve Base, Mass.