At first it was no more than a buzzing sound, bouncing off the green-walled hillsides of the Northfield Gulf. Then he realized it had to be an airplane; an extremely-low flying one. The small tow-headed boy ran to an open spot on the lawn on the south side of the rambling white Vermont farmhouse, shading his upturned eyes with one hand. Much to his excitement, he watched the approach of the small bright yellow aircraft obviously planning to fly right overhead. To his further delight he noticed that the side-opening door of the Piper cub was open, and the pilot was leaning out and waving to him, as it passed no more than one hundred feet overhead, seeming to barely clear the century-old sugar maple tree which dominated the front yard. Neither the daring 23-year-old pilot nor his five-year old nephew below could have known that for the latter – and others who would follow - this moment on the morning of a warm July day in the year 1956 would be a life-changing experience.
As a grown-up, the star-struck young observer on that boyhood occasion learned to fly himself, spending every hour he could in the skies over his Kansas home in single-engine Cessna aircraft, setting an example for his own son, with whom he shared the excitement of every local air show they could get to. It was no big surprise when aviation-loving descendant number three chose to pursue his education at the Air Force Academy. Like most academy graduates who moved on to flight training, young Tom of course elected to use his upper class standing to request assignment to Air Force jet fighter school; it was where all the eager, hot shot pilots wanted to go. And Tom had earned it.
A far-sighted training commander was not only impressed by Tom’s natural piloting skills, but something even more significant. “Everyone likes you and everyone likes to fly with you. With your talent for team-building you deserve to pursue your love for flying in a crew-based aircraft.” With that he diverted the eager young cadet to the cockpit of transport aircraft where Tom was destined to discover the love of his life.
And that brings us to an overview of one of the world’s most spectacularly-impressive airplanes; a super-giant of such superlative dimensions and capabilities that it defies easy description. Nick-named the Globemaster III, the C-17 transport developed by McDonnell-Douglas and manufactured today by Boeing is much more than just a BIG! airplane. Capable of carrying a 59-ton Abrams tank or a fully-equipped Airborne combat team anywhere in the world at speeds in the region of 500 mph and altitudes of 45,000 feet, this sleek behemoth can land in as little as 3500 feet of very unfriendly landscape, turn on a dime, and even back up thanks to thrust reversers which divert the outflow of its four powerful Pratt & Whitney jet engines upward and forward, thus making even sand-plagued desert operations possible. All of this with a highly self-reliant crew of 3 or 4!
The ability of a sovereign nation to exercise peace-keeping influence in a troubled world depends on the capacity of that nation and its partners to project that power in both good times and bad on a global basis. To move a naval task force from one place to another takes time and high visibility. Thanks to the rapid response capability of U.S. Airlift resources centered in the technology embodied in the globe-trotting C-17 and the dedicated air crews that fly it, we and the world are all safer and more secure.
When asked what it was like to take command of a 200 million dollar 500,000+ pound C-17 on a world girdling mission with ticklish mid-air refueling thrown into the mix for the first time, Tom replied “It was sheer shock and awe!”
Today, Major Tom Cooper teaches others to fly the aircraft in which he has enjoyed a 5000 flight-hour-long love affair, and I must confess to some personal hubris in the knowledge that my own long-ago flight in that 90 horsepower, 850-pound yellow Piper Cub helped to get it all started.
: A C-17 Globemaster III of the 137th Airlift Squadron arrives “home” at New York State’s Stewart ANGBase. U.S. Air National Guard Photo
: Troopers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division fill the cargo ramp of a C-17.
U.S. Air Force Photo