Watch 24 C-17s roll out from an Air Force base in a matter of minutes

It was the largest single flight of C-17s to date.
Max Hauptman Avatar
Air Force C-17 flight
437th Airlift Wing C-17 Globemaster IIIs fly over the Ravenal Bridge during a mass force generation exercise at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 5, 2023. (Tech. Sgt. James Cason/U.S. Air Force)

The C-17 Globemaster III transport jet is an incredibly versatile aircraft. It can serve as an airborne hospital for aeromedical evacuation, it can drop bombs and it can, of course, haul a lot of cargo. Whether it’s a M1 Abrams tank, a helicopter, or more than 100 troops. And last week the Air Force launched 24 of them at once. That’s enough to carry 4.1 million pounds of cargo or 2,448 paratroopers. And it’s around 3,300 tons of aircraft taking off in just a matter of minutes.

The operation — the largest flight of C-17s to date — took place on Jan. 5 at Joint Base Charleston, with aircraft from the 437th Airlift Wing and the Air Force Reserve 315th Airlift Wing. The C-17s took off at 30-second intervals, with one minute in between each series of four aircraft, and formed up for a flyover of Charleston harbor. 

“When the last aircraft was off the deck, there was probably five minutes of high-fiving,” said Major Zachary Barry, a C-17 pilot and the lead planner for the exercise.

After the flyover, the formation broke into four elements of six aircraft each. The first flew to Pope Army Airfield in North Carolina to set up a tactical operations center. The aircraft also conducted a static line jump with special tactics airmen. A second element landed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, loaded HIMARS rocket launchers from 2nd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, then flew to Pope to perform a HIMARS rapid infiltration (HIRAIN) and live-fire exercise. A third flight flew to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, to practice fueling operations. 

“We took fuel from the tanks, transferred it to bladders, and then used that to refuel the AH-64s,” said Barry. 

A fourth flight of C-17s flew to Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia where the crews conducted multi-capable airmen training.

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The exercise, with 24 C-17s taking off all at once, was the largest C-17 launch from a single air base ever conducted. With 222 C-17s in the Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, that’s roughly 10% of the entire C-17 fleet flying together in one formation. 

“When we were forming up, you’d be able to turn left and see a 14-mile-long train of C-17s behind you,” said Barry. “That was probably the most excited I’d been since the first time I flew an airplane.”

Twenty-four C-17s in the air all at once is also a lot of cargo capacity. Just one aircraft has a maximum cargo capacity of 170,900 pounds. Multiply that 24 times, and that’s 4.1 million pounds of cargo-hauling muscle. To get an idea of just how much that is using a few essential field items, a 24-can case of Rip It energy drinks weighs in at 384 ounces, or 24 pounds. That’s 7,121 cases per C-17; 170,904 cases in 24 aircraft; and 4,101,696 cans overall. Five tins of dip weigh 6 ounces, or just 0.375 pounds. The 4.1 million pounds that 24 C-17s can carry is equivalent to 54,688,000 tins of dipping tobacco. And with each C-17 capable of carrying 8 palletized Humvees, you could drop 192 Dodge Chargers or Ford Mustangs, although their condition, once they reach the ground, may leave a little to be desired. 

Needless to say, whatever it is you need, 24 C-17s can get you a lot of it. 

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