The sheer size of the task has forced operators to rethink how they load, operate and maintain the upgraded aircraft, which are carrying what's called outsized cargo — stuff that can't be packed on a pallet, such as armored vehicles. The changes they've made are producing major efficiencies and record loads that are surprising everyone involved.

Early-mission load plan adjustments have the three Dover C-5Ms assigned to the so-called "retrograde" mission carrying 20 percent more cargo than expected, officials say. In addition, the C-5Ms are flying shorter "legs" — from Afghanistan to an undisclosed airfield near a seaport in the region rather than, say, back to the United States. With a reduced need for fuel, each jet can lift more cargo weight.

That means equipment is moved out of country faster. So far, Dover's C-5Ms have moved 22.6 million pounds. The efficiency gains are also saving taxpayers millions of dollars, operators say.

"This is a Dover success story, for sure," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Diaz, director of operations for Dover's 9th Airlift Squadron, who served as initial commander of the C-5M detachment after deploying in mid-August. "But it is a total force effort, and a national effort. We have folks from all over the country that are participating."

Five Dover aircrews rotate among the three C-5Ms. Along with maintainers and other support specialists, the base's 436th and 512th airlift wings are supplying more than half of the 150 active-duty and reserve airmen from Dover supporting the retrograde mission every day. They're assigned to Detachment 1 of the 385th Air Expeditionary Group and the 5th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron.

California's Travis Air Force Base is also supplying C-5Ms and personnel to the retrograde effort. Other bases are supporting the heavy-lift effort with smaller cargo aircraft, fliers and support personnel.. These include Dover-based C-17s and airmen from the 3rd and 326th airlift squadrons, officials say.

The upgraded jumbo jets are no larger than the C-5 models they replaced. But their more powerful commercial engines generate 22 percent more thrust, and that has made a difference, fliers say.

"I think the Air Force in general, and our customers, are still trying to understand the capabilities of the C-5M – and even our own community," said Lt. Col. Tim Morris, the current detachment commander, like Diaz, a pilot and unlike Diaz, a reservist with the 512th.

"When we first came over, they were giving us plans, fuel plans and load plans, that were designed for the limitations of a C-5B. Why? Because that was what the computer model gave them."

The C-5M's additional power helped send those plans out the window, he said. "It's made our airframe so much more capable that we can carry more weight, more cargo, and still climb out of a mountainous terrain – whereas with a regular C-5, we just weren't able to do it, so we had to carry that much less."

Morris and Diaz both attribute more of the gain in efficiency to better load planning.

The C-5's cavernous cargo hold, 143 feet long, 19 feet wide and 13½ feet high, can carry the equivalent of five C-17 loads, Diaz said. Load planners typically try to maximize the weight on a given cargo flight, or maximize the available space. During this operation, Morris said, "I think what we've managed to do is to try and maximize both."

That's been particularly evident when transporting large equipment, such as MRAPs, the large, heavily armored troop carriers that were designed to deflect the blasts from roadside bombs so prevalent during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and that range from seven to more than 20 tons.

"Because we're actually located a lot closer to the fight, if you will, our fuel requirement is less, so we can use more of our weight limitation on the cargo itself," said Morris, who spoke with The News Journal at the Dover base via a satellite hookup. "And so we've really been able to put a lot more of these vehicles in one load.

"The load teams aren't used to seeing that," he said.

The result has been faster transfers – and records for total poundage flown at one time. One mission set an all-time high for the C-5: On Oct. 5, a C-5M left Afghanistan with eight MRAPs chained down inside – a total of 280,880 pounds of cargo.

The ability of the C-5M, a long-haul strategic airlifter, to keep up with the pace of tactical operations has also come as a surprise. "The C-5, traditionally, wasn't designed for this kind of mission – meaning shorter legs and heavier loads," said Morris. "So really, this has raised a lot of eyebrows."

"In the two months I was there, we flew more missions and more cargo than the squadron I'm at now did for the entire year last year," said Diaz, referring to his 9th Airlift Squadron, which falls under the 436th Airlift Wing. "And with only the five crews and the three airplanes."

The 436th has a total of 18 C-5Ms; the other five now in the Air Force inventory are at Travis.

Diaz and Morris also heaped praise on the airmen who are fueling and maintaining the jets. The latter group was slated to perform only minor maintenance. They've been called on to do more.

"We're turning these aircraft much quicker than we thought was initially possible," said Staff Sgt. Chris Shorkey, a crew chief who joined Morris on the satellite call. Maintenance, he said, remains a trick despite the avionics and engine upgrades. "It's still a 40-year-old airplane, in some instances," he said. "So it has its quirks. But we're able to get past those and keep the jets mission-capable."

Because the maintenance teams are smaller than normal, members have had to multi-task so they can pitch in where needed. "We tried to get other specialties spun up on other tasks that might not necessarily apply to their system," said Shorkey.

For instance, jet engine mechanics. "If I've got a tire that needs to be changed, or a brake that went bad, I've been able to pull our jet troops down into the landing gear with me ... I can just point, and get things done. They can be working one task, the tire change, while I'm working another."

Changing a C-5M tire is not exactly like changing a tire on one's car, Shorkey pointed out. "The tire itself is a couple hundred pounds, 49 inches tall and takes three people to change," he said.

Diaz and Morris said the retrograde mission is currently scheduled to end in mid-December.

"We're incredibly excited to be a part of this operation," said Shorkey, an eight-year veteran. "A lot of us are younger guys. So when everything kicked off over here, a lot of us were still in school. It's something that ... we're kind of writing the final chapter on things."