Video: A C-5 Galaxy Air Launches an ICBM. What!?

In the 1970s, the Air Force launched a Minuteman ICBM launched from a C-5 Galaxy. Hold on, what!?!?

That was my reaction upon learning that the above sentence is true.

In 1974, the Air Force decided that it could turn C-5 Galaxy airlifters into flying SSBNs. Yup, Air Force planners thought the missile would be tougher for the Soviets to take out with a preemptive strike if it was already aboard a moving target like a C-5 versus sitting in a stationary missile silo.

So, they loaded a Minuteman into a C-5 that parachute-dropped the 60-foot tall missile out of its aft cargo ramp over the Pacific Ocean.  After the ICBM fell for a few thousand feet, its rocket motor ignited and the missile flew for ten seconds under its own power. Just to prove it could be done. Wild.

Needless to say, the crazy concept of turning C-5s into flying boomers never made it to the operational stage.

Click through the jump to watch a video of the event. Don’t forget to giggle immaturely at the 24 second mark.

  • blight_

    This forms the cornerstone of a certain someone’s KE-related posts.

  • Cthel

    Heck, the skybolt air-launched IRBM was in the running with Polaris to form the US’s first-strike proof nuclear deterent – the technology isn’t much different.

    The tricky bit is getting an accurate enough positional fix for the launch, but GPS simplifies that problem greatly

  • M167A1

    Aside from the positional fix as pointed out by Cthel its not that big a deal… off the shelf missile and aircraft. The payload extraction and various aerodynamic issues are well undersood.

    T/Space proposed this for a manned launcher for the CEV.

  • Russ

    I guess I’m showing my age, but this was the Air Force’s answer when Carter (aka Turd) cancelled the B-1 a little later on. The B52 was considered non-survivable on a trip to Russia and they really wanted to maintain the “Triad”, or at least the money that was attached to it. Reagan later restarted the B-1 program and this gem was tossed in the circular file.

    • Old Ranger

      Except, of course, this test was done BEFORE Carter took office in January 1975.

      Bet you also blame Carter for the ‘Hollow Army” – when it was Rumsfeld as Ford’s SecDef who created it.

      • Old Ranger

        Correction, Carter took office in January 1977… need to proof my posts.

        • Robert Pattinson

          I think that was his point. They did this testing of the air launch ICBM just to see if it could be done, then when Carter came along and canceled the B-1, the AF said okay fine, then we’ll just replace it with this ICBM technique we’ve had in the bag for a while now. Then the B-1As came back and gave them a better option. Then the AF got rid of nuclear B-1As… and left the non-nuke B1-Bs. Something like that.

          • ex flight test

            They got rid of the nuclear B-1Bs and cut the size of the B-1 bomber fleet under strategic treaty limitations. The nuclear force is a lot slimmer and more accurate than it was in the 50s and 60s.

      • Russ “old Marine”

        Yes, yes I do. Since when does a cabinet secretary run the executive? Or were you implying that Carter was a weak executive? Or just what were you saying? Exactly?

    • blight_

      I would blame Obama. He might’ve born a few years before…

      Carter killed the B-1 because stealth bombers were coming, in conjunction with B-52’s firing ALCMs.However, Reagan believed in trying to out-Soviet the Soviets, who needed no help bankrupting themselves, despite Gorbachev’s attempts to stop ridiculous Soviet military spending.

    • Except the primary reasons for cancelling the B1 were that it too was not survivable and cost a lot of money. The DOD and the president were also aware that stealth technology was coming along and would make more sense for investment in expensive airplanes. It was the Air Force that wanted to cancel the B1 to apply the money towards other projects that it felt would provide more bang for the buck. As you can see, even after Reagan and the Republicans pushed through a revival of the B1, it has seen little use because the B-52 had more lift capacity and is easier to repair. Most of the B1s have found their way to the airplane cemetarty in the desert. Reagan has received a lot of credit for programs started by Carter who had to deal with the consequences of egotism and hubris brought by Rumsfeld’s “vision”.

      • ex flight test

        Then the B-2 ended costing a lot more money. Never did get the 100 or so they wanted, ended up with barely 20. All the SRAMs are gone, SRAM II never was operational. So we’re back with ALCMs and gravity bombs. ACMs are headed for retirement.

  • Marcase

    Prompt Global Strike, or NGB killer ? :)

  • Taggert

    In essence this is what Paul Allen is going to do with StratoLaunch.

  • JackBlack

    ” Strategic Air Command objected to mobile basing in 1973 because of its high expense, poor accuracy, and slow reaction time. Meanwhile, the defense community continued to explore both solutions. One approach to mobility was an air-mobile system, and during a 24 October 1974 test of the concept, SAMSO successfully launched a Minuteman I from a C-5A cargo aircraft. One month later, the Secretary of Defense, under intense political pressure to resolve basing issues and produce an economical missile system, pushed the M-X’s initial operational capability from 1983 to 1985. At the same time, he initiated studies to determine the feasibility of developing a common M-X/Trident missile. In July 1976, Congress, convinced that silo-based missiles would be vulnerable to Soviet ICBMs, refused to appropriate funds for validation of a silo-based M-X system. Congress also deleted funds for air-mobile basing and directed validation of either a buried trench or shelter basing plan.”

    Video with a better explanation:

  • Dfens

    They did this when they found out the Soviets were planning on mobile basing their new nukes. Dropping one out of a C-5 brought an end to it. Funny, it seems like only yesterday when they did this. Hardly old news.

    • blight_

      Soviets still have the TEL ICBMs?

  • Rob S

    This concept was a part of many studied MX basing strategies, including ones with the missiles based on seaplanes which could land on remote parts of the oceans for weeks before taking off to fire, replicating some of the capabilities of an SSBN, and more mundane plans for simply building giant cargo planes with four missiles in pods under each wing. Some concepts called for the aircraft to be kept on the ground equipped with large numbers of JATO rockets, or even zero length launch systems as were tested for the F-104 so they could rocket into the air on a moments notice. That would of course spare the fuel of flying constant airborne patrols.

    • blight_

      Thought MX was dense-pack, mobile-basing and racetrack (and on a tangent, Midgetman).

      • Rob S

        Those concepts got closer to deployment then air basing did, but almost everything you can think of was studied for MX basing, including stuff like ABM defended silos, hovercraft on rivers, leaving the missiles to float in unmanned canisters in the oceans and diesel subs. Nobody was ever satisfied by any of the concepts which is why MX actually ended up in converted Minuteman silos that satisfied no one but were cheap and expedient. The rail mobile system was unrealistic and ill protected in garrison.
        This covers many but not all of the MX basing options including multiple air basing concepts. In the end the missile was just too big to be easily mobile, and no fixed target could survive. That’s why the US congress forced the design of the far smaller Midgetman.

        • blight_


          As for floating canisters, aren’t TLAMs launched like that? Fire them from torpedo tubes, they float to the surface and then launch?

          • Rob S

            That is how Tomahawk and Harpoon fire from subs, but this would have been much different. The MX canisters would have floated in the ocean currents for months at a time, remote controlled by satellites, to provide random basing at no cost in fuel for planes or trucks or what have you. They would have been deployed by surface ships, and repositioned as needed if they got to close to shore or unfriendly water.

            The many problems with this idea are obvious, but they would be very hard targets for Soviet ICBMs to deal with.

  • 45thsw

    That narrator has such a great voice!

  • fromage

    Jesus, did you guys just start covering the defense industry? They also landed C-130s and U-2s on aircraft carriers, invented bombs that exploit the energy contained within nuclei, and figured out how to use radio waves to perform target detection and ranging. In case you have more slow news days, that is. HTH.

    • DiscoTex

      Dude, don’t be a bitch.

      • J. Jay

        Way too late…!

    • ex flight test

      never landed a C-130 or a U-2 on a carrier. Did take a U-2 off a carrier once to prove the concept. Never done operationally. Probably same about C-130, was a big deal to launch off carriers in late 50s, early 60s for some reason.

  • Lance

    This was already a none starter in technology since the USAF had the ALCM nuclear missile on B-52s already the whole crap media that time had on the survivability of Buffs over Russia was unfounded since the bomber could just shortly penetrate Soviet airspace and release over a dozen cruse missiles with massive atomic warheads on it. Most of this was classified so most annalist where still thinking of the old style abomb drop.

    Not really practical but a good way to make the Navy mad and worried over USAF boomers… LOL.

    • ex flight test

      ALCMs weren’t operational until the early 80s, a decade after this test. At the time, B-52 was not survivable going into Soviet airspace. B-1 was a bit better as its RCS was a tenth of the Buff. B-2 was even better but it cost a lot more money.

  • mike

    “GUYS WAIT GUYS! Can we fly the C-5… off a carrier?”

  • Zeyn

    what the hell is so funny about the 24 second mark?

    • mopper

      i guess calling transport by C-5 “cost effective”. I heard it is insanely expensive to operate and maintain.

    • steveXXXXX

      It looked like the end of a dog’s weenie.

  • Brian

    Was it questioning the survivability of a C-5 near the front lines?

    I don’t see why you need to get near the front lines. Did they forget what the IC in ICBM stands for?

    As for the ALCM being around to replace this concept, the years are off. From Wiki:
    In February 1974, the U.S. Air Force entered into contract to develop and flight-test the prototype or proof-of-concept vehicle AGM-86A air-launched cruise missile, which was slightly smaller than the later B and C models. The 86A model did not go into production. Instead, in January 1977, the Air Force began full-scale development of the AGM-86B, which greatly enhanced the B-52’s capabilities and helped the USA maintain a strategic deterrent.

    • blight_

      Hound Dog and SRAM predate this, but weren’t particularly great.

      The other problem is you assume that an ICBM fired from an aircraft will have the same range as an ICBM fired in a ballistic trajectory. It will have a half-ballistic trajectory, and will probably only have the range of an IRBM: but have the advantage of the mobility of an aircraft.

      The other advantage of a massive ICBM is MIRVs. MIRVing one of these might be tricky, and if the range is low then the separation of the RVs requires that the targets be close…and then you need a unitary warhead.

      • Maxtrue

        That makes sense when also applied to decoys. One could build a whole different system. In one kinetic design, the mass breaks up over the target into hundreds of “rods” pretty much destroying an air field or port.

        This is where altitude plays a big role. An ultra high flier masked with stealth could circle for hours where as a B-52 is a different story. Wasn’t there a concept of using a high altitude balloon to loft missiles high over a target? So a B-52 could “seed” the sky with several floating missiles. Not sure what would happen if the mission was scrubbed….

  • Andrew

    Why couldn’t one kick a jdam or two out the back of a c-130? Don’t these aircraft have the capacity to remain airborne for a fairly long time, and thus be available when a jet might not?

    • ex flight test

      Kicking a JDAM out of the back of a C-130 is not as accurate as conventional delivery.

  • Musson1

    I prefer a blimp loaded with cruise missiles myself.

  • Morty


  • elmondohummus

    “Don’t forget to giggle immaturely at the 24 second mark.”

    Why “immaturely”? Nothing screams “adult” humor as much as long, slender objects achieving rear entry. ;)


  • Les Brown

    I think some crazy decided during a high altitude test somewhere over the pacific that he would eat the five fingers of death and the beans with it (from the first GEN MRE’s)and then FART into the air ventilation system almost causing a nuclear mishap.. The Hot dogs and beans were banned from flights…I wish I could take credit for this story…

    • blight_

      Keeping bombers aloft was probably more expensive for the capability than a submarine carrying 24 Tridents.

      24 C-5 galaxies flying around with missiles that probably could not equal the Trident in range if fired versus a single SSBN? Hmm.

      Though if they ever get that PGS working, maybe they could work out a launch sled that could be kicked out of a C-17 or a C-5. However, we have arms control treaties that caused us to de-nuke our TLAMs and gradually draw down our nuclear ALCM inventories.

  • I just read about American made (AND deployed) air-to-air missile with nuke warhead which was to be used to shoot down russian bombers with nuke bombs. Crazy indeed.

  • Ryan

    For a long time this is what I thought they should do with UCAV drones. Take the Navy varient with the folding wings and load a bunch of them in a C-5, air drop them using a drag parachute and let them automatically fold out their wings and fly to their targets. You get less airial refueling issues, and instant swarm and quite a suprise too!

  • Dantes

    This is a great idea.

  • Phil

    The air force also launched the minuteman from a c141 in a nearly identical test. The c141 is much cheaper and can use almost any standard commercial runway.

  • Rooster

    We are doing a variation of this today to prove out the Patriot, THAAD and Ageis missile defense systems. A modified Minute Man II booster stack is fitted with non-lethal warheads and dropped out of a C-17. The ground based interceptors then shoot it down to prove that their sensor systems can detect and identify the target. The curent configurations only use the 2nd and 3rd stages of Minute Man II stack but still reach the length limits for the C-17 Cargo Hold.

  • Excellent, what a webpage it iѕ! This weblog рresents սseful factѕ to us, keeρ
    it up.