McChord Field has been home to several military cargo aircraft -- the C-47 Skytrain, the C-82 Packet, the C-124 Globemaster II and the C-141 Starlifter -- going back to World War II.
But none has been called to war for as long as the four-engine C-17 Globemaster III. McChord received its first two C-17s on July 30, 1999, and had barely organized a squadron of the $200 million aircraft when it was called up to transport service members and equipment into Afghanistan, then Iraq.
The jet is designed to fly longer, carry more and land on shorter runways than its predecessors.
For more than a decade, the C-17 Globemaster III has delivered supplies to remote combat outposts, returned wounded and dead service members home, and transported goods and equipment in response to natural disasters in Haiti and Japan.
With combat operations in Iraq over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, McChord ended another era Wednesday with the delivery of the 49th and final C-17 that will be permanently based there.
"We're marking a milestone in McChord's history with our final C-17 delivery," said Col. R. Wyn Elder, commander of McChord's active-duty forces, "but our airlift history is much longer than that, and it will go on for much longer."
The airmen parked the newly delivered aircraft facing one of the first two C-17s to arrive at McChord almost 14 years earlier.
VIP on board
The 2.5-hour flight from Boeing's plant in Long Beach, Calif., where the cargo jet was built, included a VIP: Lt. Gen. Darren McDew, who, as commander of the 18th Air Force, leads more than a dozen major Air Force units responsible for air transport, refueling and other support roles.
McDew thanked the assembled airmen for their work and the American people for footing the bill for a "highly capable and extremely versatile aircraft."
"It allows us to keep promises," he said. "Those are the promises we make at home and everywhere around the world."
He fondly recalled delivering an earlier C-17 when he commanded the active-duty operations group at McChord in 2000-01.
"This is a big day for this kid who still has a 9-year-old inside of him who loves aviation," he said.
McDew later acknowledged that the jet has been put under heavy strain supporting the wars. He expressed confidence it would remain reliable in meeting the nation's needs.
"We just have to keep an eye on an airplane that we are using this hard to see what will pop up in the future," he said. "But I have no reason to believe it can't survive for another couple of decades."
Built in California
The future of the two-decade-old C-17 program remains murky.
With Wednesday's delivery, Boeing has three more C-17s to deliver to fulfill its Air Force contract for 224 of the jets. (One jet was destroyed in a 2010 crash during training in Alaska and replaced).
The U.S. military hasn't requested any new C-17s since the 2007 fiscal year, but Congress continued to approve additional jets for three more years to keep people employed in districts that manufacture them.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally put his foot down in 2010.
"We have enough C-17s," Mike McCord, a top adviser to the defense secretary on budget matters, told a congressional panel in July 2010, according to the Department of Defense's news service. "Money spent on things we don't need takes away from those we do need."
Boeing has been marketing the military cargo jet to global buyers to continue production. The Long Beach plant is the last production line in the U.S. for a large military aircraft, the company said.
Boeing has delivered 32 of the jets to seven international customers, including Canada, Great Britain, India and Qatar, said Cindy Anderson, a spokeswoman for the C-17 program.
In addition to the three jets remaining on the Air Force contract, Boeing also is building 10 C-17s for delivery to India.
Boeing has shed employees and slowed production at its Long Beach plant, but Anderson said there are no plans to close the plant as it continues it push for more international orders.
A commercial version of the jet also is being explored.
"We have a number of countries that are interested in the aircraft," Anderson said. "We see that it has a bright future to continue production."