From dropping life-saving supplies to Yazidi people in Iraq to landing half-a-million pounds of plane and cargo on a giant chunk of ice in the coldest place on earth: there are thousands of missions undertaken every year by the men and women at the 60th Air Mobility Wing flying out of Travis Air Force Base.
Colonel Chris Maddox pilots a C-17 Globemaster III. It’s 174 feet long, almost as wide and weighs more than 400,000 pounds. By comparison, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are F-16C fighters that are about 50 feet long and weigh 20,000 pounds.
Maddox says the C-17 has a stick instead of a yoke for better control. It also gives pilots the ability to cast a projection image on the windshield to help navigate and to land in tight spaces and interesting places.
"One of the unique things that I've been lucky enough to be a part of, the C-17 does resupply missions to Antarctica to support the National Science Foundation, he says. "It's called Operation Deep Freeze and we resupply the McMurdo Research Station which is on the continent of Antarctica. I've been fortunate enough to go land a C-17 on a glacier."
When asked if he had any trepidation about landing something that big on a glacier, he laughs, "I trust the proper evaluation was made. That's one of the things in our business that's critical, obviously, to what we do is trust...The hardest part was there were no runway lines. It was just white."
Maddox says the C-5 is so big, it can transport helicopters, several full semi trucks, or things NASA wants to launch into space.
“When they design and build satellites, they are designed and built to fit inside of that space containment module, which then fits inside the C5 aircraft. It's the only aircraft that can move it. We have two that have specially-modified doors to allow loading of the space containment module. So, when you hear about the Jim Webb Space Telescope, Travis airmen have had a big part in moving that about the country as it's being worked on."
They will likely be asked to move it at least one more time. The telescope is scheduled to be launched from French Guiana sometime this year.
Maddox says flying the enormous plane isn't a pilot's toughest job.
"One of the most challenging parts of being an operator is actually taxiing the C5. Pilots are more likely to lose their qualifications than they are in the air."
Once in the air, the planes can only go so far without fuel. And, the KC-10 at Travis is the plane to provide that.
"Our naval partners use what we call a drogue where we roll a hose out behind the airplane and they have a probe that plugs into the drogue in order to receive the fuel,” Maddox says. “Air Force partners use a boom, where it's a hardened pipe that hangs out the back of the airplane that's flown by our boom operator and connected to the receiver aircraft to unload the fuel. With a KC-10, we can do either boom or drogue on the same mission."
No other tanker can do that.
"The common vernacular that's used is, 'Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas" and that's the fundamental truism of how we do business, is, without tankers, we have a lot of fighters that can't fly very far."
Travis is the only air force base with three different cargo aircraft and three different missions: refueling, cargo, and airstrip construction also known as "contingency response".
Colonel John Klein is the base commander. He says Travis used to be known as the "Gateway to the Pacific." Now, he says, base operations are worldwide.
"We have the ability to employ what we call gray-tail diplomacy. Whether it's delivering relief, delivering hope, humanitarian assistance, projecting U.S. values. There's an American flag on the tail of our aircraft representing all of that goodness that America represents and wants to project in a good way."
The first KC-10 deployed to the Gulf War in 1990. Crews are always on the go.
Every two weeks, a KC-10 leaves Travis Air Force Base and replaces crews in the Middle East as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Inherent Resolve, and ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS."
Change is always on the horizon.
The KC-10 is due to be replaced by the KC-46A, also known as the Pegasus.
Planes aren't the only things replaced. Commanders routinely train the officers that will take over for them when they move on.
Lt. Colonel Robert Lankford trained his replacement and flew his final C-17 training run during our tour of the base. As he walked down the stairs following his final flight, he was greeted with a champagne shower and several buckets of water from his crew and his family. It's a tradition.
His wife was the first to hit him with spray from a bottle of bubbly.
"It means everything in the world,” Lankford says. “I've been flying for the Air Force for 19 years. To have my family come out for the last one is pretty special."
Another tradition for those in the service is a frequent use of the U.S. Post Office change of address form. Lankford’s next stop, the Air Force Air Mobility Command near St. Louis, will be his tenth. For his wife Adrienne, it’s stop number nine.
"I think the constant moving is an adventure. I mean, there are times when it's hard to say goodbye,” she says. “But, then, you look to the future and you see a new experience and new friends. You have old friends who are always there and always a phone call away and you keep up with them. You have friends who going through moves at the same time so you support each other. And then you make friends at your next location and you look to that."
The Lankfords have three children: Graycen, Makenna and Somer. They say they are hopeful the weather won’t be as hot as Fairfield. This will be move number five for them.
They have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, "Four different places and then we've seen 14 different countries.”
When asked which one they like best, they answered, “France. I like the Eiffel Tower. Well, we didn't live in France. We lived in Germany.”
Combined, there are 14,000 Air Force personnel, California National Guard members and civilians who work at the base. Another 12,000 family members live in the area.