The Air Force’s newest $250 million cargo jet touched down Tuesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in time to join the air fleet south of Tacoma for its big weekend at the 2012 Air Expo.
If all goes according to plan, the new jet will be among the last models of the Boeing-made C-17 Globemaster III to come off the assembly line in Long Beach, Calif., and fly for the Air Force.
The Pentagon is planning to buy only six more. Two weeks ago, it announced a $500 million contract for Boeing to plan for postproduction work on the C-17, including buying critical spare parts to sustain the fleet for decades to come.
That means McChord Air Field likely will have only a couple more opportunities to greet a brand new plane, as it did this week.
It marked the occasion by bringing in a four-star Air Force general to deliver the plane from Southern California. Gen. William Fraser of the Air Force Transportation Command later spent a few hours at McChord meeting with officers and airmen. He was not available to talk about the plane or the program with reporters.
“A C-17 delivery day is always a good day for us,” said Boeing spokeswoman Cindy Anderson, who was with the general when he took control of the plane Tuesday morning in Long Beach.
McChord is one of the country’s largest C-17 hubs with 51 of the jets. Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina has 57.
Five Lewis-McChord C-17s will be on ground display at the free air expo on the base this weekend. Members of the public will have a rare chance to step inside and look around the aircraft they normally see flying over the skies of Tacoma.
McChord’s concentration of heavy airlift jets next door to 35,000 active-duty soldiers gives the Pentagon a global reach with an emphasis on Pacific and Asian challenges. Col. Wyn Elder, the Air Force’s senior officer at Lewis-McChord, emphasized that relationship in June by flying to Kabul, Afghanistan, to retrieve the last group of Lewis-McChord I Corps soldiers returning from their yearlong deployment in Afghanistan.
A C-17 first arrived at McChord in 1999. Last year, a McChord crew was in the air in a C-17 when the program recorded its 2 millionth hour in flight.
Anderson said each plane is intended to last 30 years based on about 1,000 hours a year in the air. Most C-17s have been flying more than that because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Only one C-17 has been retired. That’s T-1, or the first test model. It’s on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio.
In recent years, Boeing has stepped up sales of C-17s to international customers as Pentagon leaders campaigned to close out the program.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates two years ago argued the Air Force had an overcapacity in its airlift wings that was “driving increasing operating costs at the expense of other priorities.”
Lawmakers continued to buy the plane, citing the increased pace of flight during the wars, the C-17’s success on worldwide humanitarian missions and a desire to keep the production line running in Long Beach.
Boeing now has a backlog of 19 orders for C-17s, with 13 going to other nations. That’s enough work to keep the line running at 10 planes a year through the third quarter of 2014.
Boeing C-17 program manager Bob Ciesla said the company “continues to see a long-term future building and delivering” the aircraft, despite the signal sent by the recent postproduction contract.
“Boeing’s Long Beach facility is the last production line in the U.S. where a large military aircraft such as the C-17 is produced,” Ciesla said in a written statement, “and maintaining this capability provides a future option for America and its allies and global partners.”
C-17 Globemaster III
High-wing, four-engine transport
Manufacturer: Boeing; assembled in Long Beach, Calif.
Wingspan: 169 feet.
Length: 174 feet.
Height at tail: 55 feet.
Engines: Pratt & Whitney; 40,400 pounds of thrust each.
Flight crew: Two pilots.
Permanent sidewall seating: 54.
Additional seating: Up to 80.adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8646 blog.thenewstribune.com/military Source: Boeing Photo: U.S. Air Force