SSgt. Tyler Waters, a loadmaster with the 9th Airlift Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, gives us a tour of the C-5 Galaxy. (Video // Jimmy D. Shea)

Since 1969 the C-5 Galaxy has dwarfed all other airframes in the Air Force inventory. Providing the U.S. Air Force with heavy intercontinental-range strategic airlift capability capable of carrying oversized loads and all air-certifiable cargo, including the M-1 Abrams Tank.

Development and Design

During the Vietnam War, the USAF saw the necessity of moving large amounts of troops and equipment overseas quickly. Lockheed was able to meet the ambitious design requirements of a maximum takeoff weight twice that of the USAF current airlifter, the C-141 Starlifter.

“We started to build the C-5 and wanted to build the biggest thing we could… Quite frankly, the C-5 program was a great contribution to commercial aviation. We’ll never get credit for it, but we incentivized that industry by developing [the TF39] engine,” said Gen. Duane H. Cassidy, former Military Airlift Command commander in chief.

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C-5A flight test
The C-5A Galaxy undergoing flight testing in the late 1960s.

U.S. Air Force photo

See more C-5 photos on Flickr

The C-5 is a high-wing cargo aircraft with a 65-foot tall T-tail vertical stabilizer. Above the plane-length cargo deck is an upper deck for flight operations and seating for 75 passengers. With a rear cargo door and a nose that swings up loadmasters can drive through the entire aircraft when loading and offloading cargo. The landing gear system is capable of lowering, allowing the aircraft to kneel, making it easier to load tall cargo.

3D Graphic // Alfredo Tirado

The rear main landing gear can be made to caster enabling a smaller turning radius, and rotates 90 degrees after takeoff before being retracted.
The C-5 Galaxy is capable of airlifting almost every type of military equipment including the Army’s armored vehicle launched bridge or six Apache helicopters.
In the early 2000s, the Air Force began a modernization program on the C-5 upgrading the avionics with flat panel displays, improving the navigation and safety equipment and installing a new auto-pilot system. In 2006, the C-5 was refitted with GE CF6 Engines, pylons and auxiliary power units. The aircraft skin, frame, landing gear, cockpit and pressurization systems were also upgraded. Each CF6 engine produces 22 percent more thrust, reducing the C-5’s take off length, increasing its climb rate, cargo load and range. The new upgraded C-5s are designated as the C-5M Super Galaxy.

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An air-to-air right side view of a 22nd Military Airlift Squadron C-5A Galaxy aircraft returning to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., after being painted in the European camouflage pattern at the San Antonio Air Logistics Center, Kelly Air Force Base, Texas.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Bill Thompson

Operational History

In the past four decades, the C-5 has supported military operations in all major conflicts, including Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. It has also supported our allies, such as Israel, during the Yom Kippur War and operations in the Gulf War, and the War on Terror. The Galaxy has also been used to distribute humanitarian aid and supported the U.S. Space shuttle program.

On Oct. 24, 1974, the Space and Missile Systems Organization successfully conducted an Air Mobile Feasibility Test where a C-5 air dropped a Minuteman ICBM 20,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. The missile descended to 8,000 feet before its rocket engine fired. The test proved the possibility of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile from the air.

The C-5 was used during the development of the stealth fighter, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, as Galaxies carried partly disassembled aircraft, leaving no exterior signs as to their cargo and keeping the program secret.

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A 433rd Airlift Wing C-5 Galaxy begins to turn over the runway before landing Nov. 14 2014, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.. The reserve aircrew of the “heavy” aircraft brought Army 7th Special Forces Group personnel and equipment to the base for delivery.

U.S. Air Force photo // Samuel King Jr.

Did You Know?

  • The cargo hold of the C-5 is one foot longer than the entire length of the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.
  • On Sept. 13, 2009, a C-5M set 41 new records and flight data was submitted to the National Aeronautic Association for formal recognition. The C-5M had carried a payload of 176,610 lbs. to over 41,100 feet in 23 minutes, 59 seconds. Additionally, the world record for greatest payload to 6,562 feet (2,000m) was broken.

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C-5 Galaxy loads Pave Low IV helicopter
A load team from the 352nd Maintenance Squadron, along with the crew of a C-5 Galaxy from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., loads a 21st Special Operations Squadron MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopter to be transported to the 'Boneyard,' or the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Tucson, Ariz., Oct. 5, 2007.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Tracy L. DeMarco

General Characteristics

  • Primary Function: Outsize cargo transport
  • Prime Contractor: Lockheed Martin-Georgia Co.
  • Power Plant: Four F-138-GE100 General Electric engines
  • Thrust: 51,250 pounds per engine
  • Wingspan: 222 feet 9 inches (67.89 meters)
  • Length: 247 feet 10 inches (75.3 meters)
  • Height: 65 feet 1 inch (19.84 meters)

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Graphic showing how large the C5 is
The C-5 Galaxy has been the largest aircraft in the Air Force inventory since 1969.

Graphic // Travis Burcham

Cargo Compartment

  • Height: 13 feet 6 inches (4.11 meters)
  • Width: 19 feet (5.79 meters)
  • Length: 143 feet, 9 inches (43.8 meters)
  • Pallet Positions: 36
  • Maximum Cargo: 281,001 pounds (127,460 Kilograms)
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 840,000 pounds (381,024 kilograms)
  • Speed: 518 mph
  • Unrefueled Range of C-5M: Approximately 5,524 statute miles (4,800 nautical miles) with 120,000 pounds of cargo; approximately 7,000 nautical miles with no cargo on board.
  • Crew: Pilot, co-pilot, two flight engineers and three loadmasters

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C-5M cockpit
Capt. Grant Bearden (left) and Lt. Col. Timothy Welter, both pilots with the 709th Airlift Squadron, go over their pre-flight checklist in the C-5M Super Galaxy March 28, 2016, at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. Reservists from Dover Air Force Base, Del., in the 512th Airlift Wing, conducted an off-station training event to satisfy most deployment requirements in one large exercise.

U.S. Air Force photo // Capt. Bernie Kale