The Dover AFB-based C-5 that proved the United States could launch a nuclear missile from a cargo plane is set to join the Air Mobility Command Museum.
Call it a homecoming of sorts.
The Air Mobility Command Museum on Aug. 7 will write a new chapter in Air Force museum history with the arrival of C-5 Tail No. 69-0014. Not only will the 42-year-old aircraft be the first specifically assigned to a museum after its decommissioning, this airplane made history in October 1974 when it became the first to drop a live Minuteman missile from its cargo bay.
"When our C-5 goes on display we will be the only museum in the world to have a C-5 on public display," noted Museum Director Mike Leister. "Even the National Museum of the USAF does not intend to make room for a C-5 for years.'
Carried out during the middle of the Cold War, the Air Mobile Feasibility Demonstration was intended to show the Soviet Union that America could deploy its missiles from any location in the country.
Then – as now – many of the nation's nuclear-tipped missiles were kept underground, ready for launch anytime. But the Soviets knew where those missiles were, and Pentagon planners knew they would attempt to destroy them immediately should nuclear war break out.
The reasoning was that if the missiles could be launched from an airplane, the Russians would have no idea where they were and would have a harder time destroying them first.
The only aircraft that could carry the 44-ton missile and its launch platform was the C-5.
Two of the giant aircraft were selected for the test: 69-0014, stationed at Dover, and a backup plane out of Travis AFB, Calif. A crew from Lockheed, which built the C-5, would fly the mission, but the actual deployment would be handled by experienced Air Force loadmasters, one of whom, then-Senior Master Sgt. James Sims, was assigned to Dover.
Zero-One-Four, as the plane was known to its crews, was easily up to the task of carrying the Minuteman, but deploying it was another problem. Multi-ton packages of cargo had been safely sent out the C-5's rear cargo ramp before, but never all at once. There was justifiable concern the ramp might not hold the missile's weight, or that other, unforeseen problems could make the entire concept unworkable.
Planners planned to prove the idea by dropping gradually larger and heavier test packages over the California desert. Two of the last three tests would carry full-sized but inert missiles; the last, conducted over the Pacific Ocean, would be the real thing.
Things did not go smoothly. On the third test, a parachute recovery system failed, causing the test cargo to crash to the ground. On the sixth test, parachutes designed to pull the missile out of the cargo bay failed, causing the test platform to slowly fall from the plane instead of being quickly pulled out.
This was exactly what engineers designing the tests had feared: a slow extraction could cause the cargo ramp to collapse or cause the missile to snag on the aircraft itself. Both scenarios would have been catastrophic.
Fortunately, however, the C-5's pilot kept control of the plane, and the load dropped out safely.
With these problems behind them, Sims recalled the final test was almost anticlimactic.
On Oct. 24, 1974, Zer-One-Four took off from California's Vandenberg AFB. Sims and a second loadmaster, Technical Sgt. Elmer Hardin, wearing parachutes and a portable oxygen system, were on the cargo deck with the Minuteman. Although the missile did not carry a nuclear warhead, it was still potentially dangerous, being loaded with a highly volatile solid fuel propellant for its rocket engine.
Sims armed the missile's fuel system and made sure it would slide smoothly out of the cargo bay and, with winds whipping past them at more than 180 mph, the countdown began.
"We just did a checklist, opened the doors in flight and away she went," Sims said. "It was picture-perfect." Standing in the open cargo deck, the men felt the plane lurch upward, and watched as the missile slid out of its launch platform, dangling beneath a parachute.
A sudden ball of fire marked ignition, and the Minuteman streaked away. Hardin likened the sight to a giant flying pencil.
"It was a pretty amazing thing to see," he said.
A long career
The feasibility demonstration proved to be the only time the Air Force would launch a missile from a C-5. Although they had proved it could be done, for all intents and purposes logistical concerns rendered the idea impractical.
Zero-One-Four was transferred from Dover AFB in 1977, and served a long career with the Air Force, culminating in its last assignment to a Tennessee Air National Guard base. Originally scheduled to arrive in March, its transfer to the Museum was delayed by budgetary issues, Leister said.
As the Dover Post went to press, the time of the new arrival's touchdown had tentatively been set for 2 p.m. For up to date information, visit the Museum website, www.amcmuseum.org, or the Facebook page, www.facebook.com/amcmuseum. There also will be updates via the Museum's Twitter feed.
Visitors to the Museum are invited to view the plane's arrival, but it will be at least November until it is fully decommissioned and moved to the Museum compound, he said.