It’s not the most glamorous Air Force mission, but arguably it’s the most important because, without transport planes, troops and gear don’t make it to the war. (And it’s hard to win a war without troops and gear.) Here are the top seven transport planes that have served the U.S. Air Force over the years:
1. C-47 Skytrain
The C-47 has gone by many nicknames — “Gooney Bird,” “Dakota” (a riff on Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft), and “Spooky” among others. The military version of the popular airliner was first manufactured in 1940, and ultimately 9,348 were built by the end of World War II. The C-47 saw a lot of action over Europe, most notably during the D-Day invasion where they were used to drop paratroopers behind the German lines. The C-47 continued service through the Vietnam War, including an attack variant nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon” because of the firing rate of the guns out of the sides of the aircraft.
2. C-119 Flying Boxcar
Fairchild built 1,150 Boxcars for the USAF. The aircraft could carry 62 combat-equipped troops or 30,000 pounds of cargo. The Flying Boxcar saw extensive service during the Korean War. Like the C-47, the airplane also had an attack variant — known as “The Stinger — that was armed with guns that could fire 6,000 rounds per minute. The Flying Boxcar was used until the early 1960s.
3. C-124 Globemaster II
“Old Shaky” (so-called because of its handling characteristics in flight) was the first USAF transport built specifically to carry bulky cargo like tanks, field guns, bulldozers, and trucks. The airplane had “clamshell” doors and hydraulic ramps in the front and an elevator in the back — revolutionary technology at the time. The Globemaster II could carry 200 fully-equipped troops, and as a result it was used heavily in the early part of the Vietnam War. The airplane was also used extensively in resupply missions to the military missions in Antartica and during relief efforts to far-flung parts of the world like the Congo and Chile.
4. C-130 Hercules
The USAF originally ordered 219 C-130s in the mid-1950, and fifty-some years later more than 900 “Herks” have been delivered, logging over 20 million flight hours in the process. The C-130 has defined “workhorse” primarily by virtue of its versatility. The Hercules was originally designed as an assault transport but was adapted for a variety of missions, including special operations, close air support and air interdiction, mid-air space capsule recovery, search and rescue, aerial refueling of helicopters, weather mapping, and reconnaissance, electronic surveillance, fire fighting, aerial spraying, Arctic/Antarctic ice resupply, and natural disaster relief missions.
5. C-141 Starlifter
The C-141 was the first jet transport to deliver paratroopers and the first to land in the Antarctic. Lockheed manufactured 284 Starlifters for the USAF, and the transport flew from 1963 until 2006, participating in every contingency and major conflict during that period including the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. Several years into the C-141’s service life the aircraft underwent a major modification: the fuselage was lengthened by nearly 24 feet to give it aerial refueling capability. The mod also increased cargo capacity by over 30 percent, which had the net effect of increasing the fleet by 90 aircraft.
6. C-5 Galaxy
The C-5 defines “massive.” This huge transport can carry six Apache helicopters or five Bradley Fighting Vehicles at one time, a capability no other American military transport possesses. But the Galaxy’s size has come with a number of engineering challenges, most notably wing cracks that kept cargo capacity to a fraction of what it was designed to haul. However, the USAF remains bullish on the airframe and intends to use the upgraded C-5M model for decades to come.
7. C-17 Globemaster III
Boeing built a total of 279 C-17s since production started in 1990, 223 of which went to the U.S. Air Force. (On Nov. 29, 2015 the last C-17 Globemaster III manufactured at Boeing’s Long Beach facility took off headed for Qatar to join that nation’s air force.) The C-17 was designed with digital age technology like fly-by-wire flight controls, high-bypass engines, and composite wings that gave it ideal flight characteristics for operating off of short and unprepared runways. Operationally the Globemaster III has been heavily utilized since 9-11 including a record-breaking mission on March 26, 2003 where 15 USAF C-17s did a night-time airdrop of 1,000 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade over Bashur, Iraq.