*Ding Ding Ding* Welcome to the eastern Mediterranean Sea for today’s heavyweight match up! Facing off in the Blue Corner, the newcomer – with a total payload of 270,000lbs and packing 170,000lbs of thrust, it is the largest aircraft in the world, Lockheed’s C-5 Galaxyyyyyyyy!
And in the Red Corner, the previous reigning champ. With a payload of 176,000lbs and 60,000shp behind its contra-rotating props, the big Ukrainian – Antonov design 22, the Antheus!
History’s major airlift operations are traditionally one-sided affairs – from the airborne sustainment of a sieged population (such as the Berlin Airlift or German Sixth Army encirclement at Stalingrad), or paratroop airdrops over the enemy’s forward lines (like Operation Market Garden). Rarely are there examples where both sides are engaged in a major airborne resupply effort simultaneously. The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 witnessed the first time that high-tempo ‘modern’ strategic airlift asset was employed against by both sides of a war – or at least, their suppliers.
As a prelude to the war, the Arab states, smarting from their losses against Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War, launched a ‘surprise’ attack on Israel. With the element of surprise and backed by far better SAM defences than they had previously been equipped, the Arab states (led by Egypt and Syria) took expensive chunks out of the Israeli military.
Attrition mounted on both sides, requiring a restock of equipment and ammunition. The United States and Soviet Union responded to their respective clients with a strategic airlift, led by brand new strategic airlift aircraft in their service – the American C-5A, which had been in service for a bare three years, and the Soviet An-22, flying for seven years but in service for four.
Both aircraft laid claim to largest and second largest aircraft in the world. Both aircraft also laid respective claim to defining modern goalposts of strategic airlift – long range, high speed, capable of airlifting loads not normally carried by transport aircraft in one piece. In the C-5A’s case, its air-to-air refuelling capability would become a standard for Western Air Forces in the 21st century. Both aircraft were designed with an eye towards delivering cargo to frontline, semi-prepared airstrips. Both came equipped with a system of inflating/deflating tyres in flight, essential for landing and taxiing on airfields which do not normally support such aircraft (both of these systems were of dubious value however). For sake of the Yom Kippur resupply however, both were flying in to established airfields.
Much can be said about the troubled development of the C-5A Galaxy (indeed, if anyone knows of a good book or article, shoot it my way). In 1961, the US Army presented its need for an aircraft to transport large items of heavy equipment which could not be accommodated by aircraft like the turboprop-powered C-133. Lockheed had previously delivered the C-141 Starlifter, which saw extensive use in Vietnam but proved to have limited strategic effect considering the size of many loads which the US military needed transported by air. The first C-5A prototype took flight in 1968, and the USAF brought them in to service just in time to support the tail end of the Vietnam War. The aircraft’s development troubles were many – and during the Yom Kippur War, were still years from being resolved – but despite this, the C-5A retained an advantage of being able to carry nearly everything in the US Military’s inventory, thanks to a mammoth cargo department that is 38.7 long, 4.11m high and 5.78m wide. This 27-minute video is a nice (if half-truthed) video on the aircraft’s development.
The An-22 meanwhile was the next logical step from the smaller An-12 ‘Cub’ transport which flew in 1957 – albeit a massive increase in size, weight and power (provided by the same 10,000shp Kuznetsov turboprops which powered the Tu-95 ‘Bear’). As the case was with the Americans, the Soviets needed an aircraft which could carry ‘outsized’ cargo loads like armoured personnel carriers, large equipment like generators, and helicopters. Maximum payload stood at more than 80 tonnes, or 176,370lbs, and the cargo bay measures 33m long, 3.8m wide, and 4.3m high – the cross-section dimensions make it broadly comparable to the C-17A Globemaster, but over a greater length. Both the C-5A and An-22 provided an essential roll-on, roll-off capability – that is, equipment such as helicopters and vehicles could be loaded largely intact, with a minimum of reconstruction work at their destination to get them in the fight.
As the Yom Kippur War resupply effort mounted, the Soviets and their Arab partners enjoyed a distinct advantage – shorter distances to their client states from their home airfields, and few (if any) airspace restrictions. A smaller number of aircraft could complete a higher number of sustainment flights, with fewer en route links for aircraft to risk breakdowns or other delays. The An-22s were supplemented by smaller An-12 Cubs in a stream of airlift missions to re-stock the Syrians and Egyptians during the conflict. I’ve been able to find no account of the Soviet point-of-view of this airlift effort – so if anyone knows of a good article or book, feel free to suggest it (even a Soviet point of view of the Afghanistan airlift, I’d appreciate it immensely).
The United States held the stronger fleet of strategic airlift assets, led by an incoming fleet of C-5s and supplemented by C-141s and KC-135s (the latter used to refuel F-4 fighter-bombers on their way to re-stock Israeli squadrons). The numbers however stood against them. They were flying their aircraft from half a world away, and the threat of OPEC sanctions by the Arab states meant no European nation – aside from Portugal – would allow American aircraft to use their airspace or airfields for resupply flights. Portugal offered the use of Lajes Airfield in the Atlantic, which proved an essential link in the chain between the United States and Israel. C-5As were not refueled mid-flight due to engineering concerns about their wing (a restriction later raised), but never-the-less retained the range and cargo volume to carry essential payloads across the Atlantic and then on a roundabout-route over Gibraltar and through the Mediterranean.
As the Yom Kippur War raged, the world’s two Superpowers mounted the world’s first simultaneous strategic airlift operation. And in some respects, it was a gentlemenly affair. In one alleged instance over the east Mediterranean, the crew of an Aeroflot Antonov relayed a position report from a USAF C-5 to a ground air traffic control station. Both crew identified themselves to each other afterwards, with full knowledge of what the other was there to do. At the same time, a string of US Navy ships through the Mediterranean – including the Sixth Fleet – kept watch on the airlift bridge.
The American effort – Operation Nickel Glass, (with some outstanding analysis in this link) proved to have a deep impact on USAF strategic airlift in years to come, perhaps even moreso than the Vietnam War that immediately preceded it. Over 32 days, they moved 22,305 tonnes, with C-5As flying 145 missions and delivering 10,673 tonnes. Total flying distance from the United States to Israel was 6460 miles, with Lajes coming at approximately halfway. By comparison, the Soviets had to move their equipment over 1700 miles, flew 935 missions, and moved an estimated 15,000 tonnes.
Despite its troubles (and many more to come), the C-5A Galaxy was vindicated by the airlift. According to this Air Force Magazine story, the US provided a C-141 flight every two hours and a C-5 every four hours. Air Load teams were required at Lajes and in Israel, to handle the massive quantities of loads coming through both destinations. The war lent weight to the requirement for the USAF to convert its C-141As in to stretched C-141Bs that could carry greater volumes of cargo, and were made air-to-air refuelling compatible. And it cemented the requirement for a larger and more capable tanker fleet, the KC-10 – a tanker which could carry a strategic-level fuel load, or conduct simultaneous refuelling/transport support – essentially, the requirements driving most nation’s tanker programs today.
For the Soviets, its strategic airlift fleet was in an evolutionary phase. The Ilyushin -76 ‘Candid’ was already in development, which delivered an essential bridge in airlift capability between the An-12 and -22 – combining strategic speed and range with some tactical airlift roles. Shortly after the Yom Kippur War, development began on the An-124, a copy of the C-5A albeit slightly larger. Arguably, this increase in Soviet strategic airlift was in keeping with existing needs to project units and equipment within its borders and to client states, rather than deliver a strategic airlift reach across the globe – such as what was demonstrated by the United States.
After nearly 40 years after the war, both the C-5 and AN-22 are still standing today. Lockheed Martin is re-engining and re-skinning Galaxies in to C-5Ms, expected to remain until 2040 – nearly 80 years after their maiden flight. The C-5 has been supplemented today by a fleet of C-17As Globemasters, which themselves benefit from the experiences of the Yom Kippur War. It is air-to-air refueling capable, requires little ground infrastructure to support it outside of an Air Load Team, and has a cargo bay wide enough to accommodate many outsized loads. While the An-22 has been superseded by the larger An-124, several examples remain in service with civil operators and the Russian Air Force, and one example with Antonov Airlines. One can foresee a future in which the smaller An-70 transport (if/when it enters service) and refurbished/new An-124s will put the An-22 to pasture, but for the time being, so long as outsized cargo needs to be carried and it remains economical to run, the An-22 may continue to fly.