MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Col. Roger Nye says the cargo hold of a C-5 Galaxy can either hold six UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, or the fuselage of a C-130 Hercules military plane, or up to 36 large pallets — a common load for the Air Force's largest transport aircraft.
Nye, commander of the West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, knows the effort it takes to launch one of the hulking jets.
It takes 25 members of the Air Guard just to fly the plane off the runway in Martinsburg, he said. The 167th Airlift Wing houses 11 of the Air Force's C-5s.
Every day, at least two of the planes from the 167th are on a mission somewhere in the world, Nye said.
The much smaller C-130 turboprop planes, based at the Guard's 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston, W.Va., are used for tactical purposes, while the C-5 is used for strategic airlift missions.
For instance, the C-130 can land in relatively remote outposts on dirt, gravel and short runways, according to Lt. Col. David Lester, a public affairs officer with the West Virginia National Guard. Guard members aboard C-130s can remove cargo from the plane more quickly, and the plane can take off faster from a dangerous area.
Earlier in his career, Senior Master Sgt. Mark Snyder jumped at the chance to fly with an Air Force unit from Schenectady, N.Y., when they traveled to the South Pole. In addition to tires, the C-130 also has skis to help it land, Snyder said.
The C-5 moves much more cargo, typically from one major air base to another.
"It's kind of funny," Nye said of the massive C-5. "These planes get smaller every time you see them."
That is, until a C-130 makes its way up from Charleston to give him some perspective.
At about 40 years old, the C-5A model at Martinsburg is often criticized for being too unreliable. The Air Force typically considers a 50 percent "mission-capable rate" for a traditional C-5A as the norm, Nye said.
The mission-capable rate means that it can take off reasonably close to its scheduled departure time and complete its mission without being grounded for maintenance issues.
Two of the Air Lift wing's C-5As already have been retired.
"We took 'em out the bone yard," Nye said, meaning Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz.
The 167th Airlift Wing's mission-capable rate is between 70 percent and 80 percent, Nye said.
"There are some days that are really good," he said, "and there are some days that are really bad."
That's a big reason why Nye wants to land the upgraded C-5M at Martinsburg, and hopefully get 16 of them. Those aren't brand-new planes, but involve major modifications to the existing C-5, according to the website of Lockheed Martin, the creator of the C-5.
The first phase of the modifications is ongoing, and is called the Avionics Modernization Program. AMP upgrades include a new, modern cockpit with a digital, all-weather flight control system and autopilot, as well as enhanced navigation and safety equipment, according to Lockheed Martin.
Nye showed the changes on one AMP plane in Martinsburg.
The second phase includes 70 replacements or "enhancements" to the plane, the biggest of which are new engines that produce more than 50,000 pounds of thrust. In effect, the modifications are meant to make the C-5 much more reliable, allow pilots to fly it higher and make it more fuel-efficient.
"We could go to Germany and back in a three-day weekend (or even farther)," Nye said. "It's a good thing for the employers."
Both Nye and Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, made it clear that officers and soldiers in the Guard rely largely on the support of the state's civilian employers.
Employers who support their workers when they must leave to serve the military "really are some of the true patriots in this nation," Nye said.