Meet the Air Force’s most adorable aircraft: the mini C-17
"A lot of people stopped to ask about what looked to them like a new aircraft."
The U.S. Air Force has some of the fastest, sneakiest, oldest, biggest and most expensive aircraft in the world. But did you know it also has the cutest?
That’s right, and while the so-called “mini C-17” cannot fly, it certainly makes our hearts soar with its tiny wittle fuselage, stubby nose, four jet engines and a tiny T-tail. The mini nails the appearance of an itty bitty baby version of the C-17, a large cargo jet that can carry about 82 tons of troops, supplies, vehicles or whatever else the military needs hauling.
At 32 feet long, 13.4 feet tall, and with a 28.5 foot wingspan, the mini C-17 is build around a John Deere Gator (which is basically a utility golf cart) and is complete with flight station panels, engine sounds, an operational cargo ramp and a cargo door and markings, according to the website for the 315th Airlift Wing, which built the mini alongside volunteers from the 437th Airlift Wing.
But like it’s comrade-in-cuteness, Baby Yoda, the mini C-17 is older than it looks. The tiny plane was built in 2004 as a communications and recruiting tool, but maintainers jumped at it as a personal challenge, explained Lt. Col. Wayne Capps, chief of public affairs for the 315th Airlift Wing.
“They found a donated John Deere gator, then they took it apart and turned it into a C-17 with scrap material,” Capps told Task & Purpose. “It was a true monster garage.”
It was also a good opportunity for younger maintainers to practice working sheet metal, and they clearly did a great job. When the “Spirit of Hope, Liberty & Freedom,” as the plane is formally called, first rolled out on the flightline in November 2004, it looked like the real thing to many people in the audience. “I remember we turned a lot of heads, and a lot of people stopped to ask about what looked to them like a new aircraft,” Capps said.
Though the 315th Airlift Wing is based at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, the mini has traveled all over the southeastern U.S., been displayed in the courtyard of the Pentagon, and flown in an actual C-17 as far as Yeovilton, England, where it won the prize for “Best Static Display” at the airshow there in 2016. Though it’s stayed put the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mini is usually a regular feature at local ballparks, airshows and parades, Capps said.
Still, Capps said he wants to avoid making the flightless bird a mascot of the base. The plane is transported in sections, and it can take crews up to an hour to put it together and another hour and a half to take it apart, he explained. That can be a time suck, especially when maintenance and transport of the mini is all done on a volunteer basis.
“We operate the program just like the Honor Guard would operate, with volunteers from different career fields who make up the team and take it to events,” Capps explained.
The team has a NASCAR-style trailer to transport the 3,500-pound mini. When the wings are off, the “Spirit” itself can scoot around at up to 15 miles per hour, though at the cost of looking silly. “It looks like a grey Oscar Mayer wiener without the wings,” Capps said.
The mini C-17 isn’t the only bite-sized aircraft to grace an Air Force Base. The Keesler-based 403rd Wing had a mini C-130 named Lil’ Bill as late as 2013, where it appeared in the Biloxi, Mississippi Veterans Day parade.
Whether a mini B-52 exists somewhere is unclear, but we can only guess it’s built on a Model T and brass fixtures. The hypothetical mini F-35, meanwhile, is likely made of dollar bills and deficiency report metrics.
Featured Image – Staff Sgt. James Bradley, 317th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, leads a group of girls to the mini C-17 Globemaster there where Staff Sgt. Austin Dove, 317th AS loadmaster, waits during the 11th Annual Joint Base Charleston Women in Aviation Career Day here, March 20.(Air Force photo / Michael Dukes)
Related: Meet the Navy’s most adorable boat: the Boomin’ Beaver