The California heat is stifling as we climb the 14-foot ladder into the passenger compartment of the C-5 Galaxy, the largest plane flown by the U.S. Air Force. I had been told to expect a cold flight, and wore four layers of clothing. Now, sweat drips down my face. Everyone wears ear protection to drown out the engulfing noise of the four van-size jet engines hanging from the wings. A passing airman’s backpack bears a patch with the slogan “Embrace the Suck.” Good advice.
This flight is not built to suit passengers. Below, in the belly of the aircraft, sits 35 tons (32 metric tons) of equipment—an ultra-secure military communications satellite, and all the gear to transport such a spacecraft on earth. The satellite is encased in a white container custom-built to fit this aircraft. The entire cargo is valued at $1.3 billion.
“I think that may have been the most expensive cargo I’ve ever flown,” the pilot, captain Mike Zeleski, told me later.
In October, this satellite is to be placed on top of a rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and launched into space, designed to become a vital cog in U.S. national security. First, it has to get there. And that’s where the big plane comes in.
We boarded on a ladder from the tarmac at Moffett Field, California, and scampered to the rear of the aircraft along a narrow gantry between the interior wall and the satellite container, before stepping down onto the metal deck of the aircraft. There, we can appreciate the scale of the cargo bay, which stretches 19 feet (6 meters) wide and extends 121 feet (57 meters)—longer than the distance covered by Orville Wright’s first flight. You can fit six Apache helicopters in there, or, I’m told, more than 25 million ping pong balls. (Only the former has been attempted.)
A second ladder just in front of the enormous rear doors of the cargo bay takes us to elevated passenger compartment. The 12 rows of airline seats with rough blue upholstery looked 15 years old—which is excellent, since they are far roomier than the modern United Airlines seat I’ll endure on my return flight.
The other travelers are the team of Lockheed Martin employees responsible for building the satellite and transporting it to its destination, from the engineer in charge of the satellite, Kevin Au, to specially trained truck drivers, and the Air Force officers responsible for the government contract to build the satellite, led by lieutenant colonel Paul Muller. There is just one woman, Rachel Morford, an engineer who works for the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, an independent technical adviser to the government on the contract.
Thick, knotted ropes hang in front of the hatches, helpfully labeled “Emergency Escape Rope.” In a brief safety presentation, the loadmaster says that rather than drop-down oxygen masks, the plane carries an EPOS—Emergency Passenger Oxygen System. By all appearances, these are hoods you put over your head. Per the airman, the air they supply will last about five to six minutes and, ruminatively, he observes: “Make sure, if you need to use it, to regulate your breathing.” I imagine situations where the plane depressurizes and I must don the hood. I practice regulating my breathing.
As we take off, the engine noise grows—they did not spend much time worrying about sound-proofing. The rows of seats are rear facing, and there is a sense of sliding out of your seat as the plane arcs upward. In flight, the tiny cabin, once over-heated, became chill, and I soon re-donned the layers I had stripped off. The real care is lavished on the cargo.
The size and power of the C-5 makes it finicky. The night before, as the satellite was brought aboard, airmen discovered a malfunction in the aircraft’s pressure system. With a normal payload, the plane would have flown anyway, with the cargo bay much hotter than usual. That wouldn’t do for the delicate satellite. Mechanics from Travis Air Force Base in California, where the plane is stationed, drove several hours in the middle of the night with spare parts to fix the problem.