When you want to move tons of heavy cargo to long distances, you use trucks and trailers, they are economical but it takes a lot of time. To counter this, freight trains are used which can reduce the transportation times to just a few days, but what if you want the cargo or personnel to be transported in just a few hours, in places which are in the remotest corners of the country, sometimes unreachable even by road or rail and in any weather conditions round the clock?
You use a Strategic Airlifter.
These are the giants amongst the aircraft families. The biggest and the heaviest which can lift extremely heavy cargo like a main battle tank and can still travel up to long ranges to deliver it up to the Last mile. The mere size of these makes them an attractive proposition for people to just see them & appreciate how these heavy machines can fly in the air.
Indian Air Force, a traditional user of Russian equipment uses the Russian IL-76, fondly known as Gajraj due to its gigantic dimensions, as its Strategic Airlifter. In recent times, as these old school Russian aircraft are getting old, India has just started using the made in USA C-17 Globemaster III which is an even bigger aircraft. Through this article we’ll try to know a bit more about these monstrous machines.
The IL-76, called “Candid” in the NATO fraternity is a 4-engine multipurpose heavy strategic airlifter. The IL-76 in service with the Indian Air Force has seen extensive service as a military freighter for ramp-delivered cargo, especially for outsized or heavy items unable to be carried otherwise like the T-72 main battle tank. It has also been used as an emergency response transport for civilian evacuations, humanitarian aid, and commando transport. The IL-76 has the ability to operate from unpaved runways & semi prepared airstrips & hence this aircraft is historically known to deliver outsized cargos to inaccessible regions like military bases in far corners of Jammu & Kashmir.
14 of these aircrafts are in service with the Indian Air Force, operating from AFS Chandigarh as a part of the No. 44 “Mighty Jets” Squadron. The Squadron regularly participates in operations involving airdrop of troops, equipment, supplies, and supports special operations forces such as Para SF, MARCOS & NSG especially in the Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir region. Thus, it was also designated as the emblem of “Himalayan geese”. During the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, NSG commandos (Black Cats) were ferried from Delhi on extremely short notice in an IL-76. Two other versions of this aircraft are also in service with the IAF, as an Aerial Refuelling Tanker aircraft & as an AWACS platform.
Apart from the military operations, the IL-76 aircraft from this squadron have flown relief missions to Sri Lanka and Indonesia during the tsunami disaster in 2004 and assisted Iran during the 2017 earthquake.
It is a 47 meter long aircraft with a 50 meter wingspan. While empty, the aircraft alone weighs 92 tons, with the maximum take-off weight being 190 tons. The economical cruising speed is 850 kmph & a unique feature of the IL-76 is that the navigator sits in a “bubble” below the cockpit. In one “hop” or sortie, the IL-76 can carry up to 225 paratroopers or 48 tons of cargo. Even with maximum cargo capacity the aircraft has an unrefuelled range of 4,400 km. That means when fully loaded, the aircraft can take off from Chandigarh, fly to Leh airfield, drop the supplies & return to Chandigarh in a matter of few hours, without even being refuelled. It is this because of this capability that the aircraft is highly respected in the Indian Armed forces.
Though generally considered a reliable aircraft, like any other typical soviet era machinery, the IL-76 too is subjected to heavy maintenance & support.
C-17 Globemaster III
As the IL-76 is ageing, the C-17 has been inducted with the intention to replace it in the heavy strategic airlifter role. Just like other aircraft inducted in the recent past like the Apache & Chinook, the C-17 is also a US originated aircraft. This shows the strategic shift of Indian Armed Forces from Russian weaponry to Western systems, thus trying to create a balance to avoid single vendor dependency situation.
The C-17 is an even bigger aircraft than the IL-76. At 53 meters length, it is longer by 6 meters & has a 17% greater wing area than the IL-76. It weighs 128 tons empty (against 92 tons of the IL-76) & the maximum take off weight is 265 tons (190 tons for IL-76). The cruise range is the same as the IL-76 at 4,400 km, but where the C-17 really shines is the payload. It can carry 77 tons of payload which is a significant improvement over the 48 ton payload of the IL-76. In service with US, the C-17 regularly carries the 70 ton M1 Abrams Tank for quick deployment. That means it can even carry the 68 ton Arjun tank of the Indian Army, however this capability is not demonstrated yet. Though the C-17 has delivered the lighter T-90 tanks during the Eastern Ladakh conflict.
Another significant improvement over the IL-76 is that the C-17 can take off & land at shorter distances even though it is a large aircraft. The take-off run at 179 MTOW (less fuel & payload) is just under 1000 meter. Thanks to the thrust reversal system which changes the direction of thrust from rear to forward to act as brakes, the C-17 can land in extreme short distances when flying empty or with lighter payload. Though with a maximum payload, this behemoth aircraft still needs 2.5 km of take off run before taking off.
These are fairly new aircraft. Unlike the IL-76 which requires a crew of 5, the C-17 needs only 3, one being the loadmaster. The cockpit is a glass cockpit, meaning there are more MFDs (multifunctional displays). The design mission availability is upto 74% which makes it a more reliable aircraft than it’s predecessors. The plane is designed for 20 man-hours of maintenance per flight hour, a significant improvement from older Russian designs.
Eleven of these aircraft are in service with the Indian Air Force, the first one being commissioned in 2013 & the last one in 2019. They are stationed at Hindon AFS with the No. 81 “Sky Lords” Squadron. The Sky Lords regularly fly missions to high-altitude bases at Leh and Thoise carrying crucial supplies for the deployed troops in the region. The aircraft’s powerful engines along with short take off & landing capability makes it a perfect choice for providing resupplies in significant amounts in these remote areas. Foreign deployments include Tajikistan and Rwanda in August 2013 to support Indian peacekeepers. Over 1,200 Indian citizens were rescued from war-torn Yemen in 2015 under Operation Raahat. Recently C-17s airlifted stranded Indians from Iran in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic.
These two aircraft form the backbone of the Indian Air Force airlift fleet, augmenting smaller aircraft like the C-130s, AN-32s, Avro HS-748s & the Dorniers. Soldiers serving in the far isolated borders depend on these aircraft on a daily basis to provide them with ration, ammunition, medical supplies & other equipment. It is impossible to imagine a sustained deployment of troops in regions like Ladakh without having them resupplied tirelessly by these airlifters. These aircraft & the crew serving them, form a strong link in the logistics & supply chain for all three of the Indian Armed Forces, and without these the forces would come to complete standstill.
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