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FreightWaves Flashback: C-5 cargo plane proves mini-bridge by air is possible

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The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

The following is an excerpt from the November 1975 edition of American Shipper (pages 23-24).

Six 40-foot marine containers were rolled onto a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane at Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 8 and flown to Oakland, California — to prove it could be done.

One of the containers, furnished by Sea-Land, was trucked down to the docks and loaded aboard the SL-7 class containership Sea-Land Exchange for the ocean voyage to Yokohama. The others were routed to domestic consignees in California.

The operation known as Project INTACT (Intermodal Air Cargo Test) proved it could be done, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to become a daily occurrence. Charter hire for the Air Force’s C-5 Galaxy was $5,600 per hour and it took five hours to fly it from Nashville to Oakland. That rounds out to $28,000, or about $4,666 per container.

Neither Sea-Land nor U.S. Lines had to pay that much to have their containers moved. They supplied the boxes and were participants along with a group of other private firms and the Department of Transportation, who held their first meeting two and one-half years ago to plan the demonstration.

John T. Norris Jr., chief of DOT’s transport systems division, coordinated the effort and performed the vital task of getting the Air Force to charter one of the big planes for the demonstration. The Air Force insisted on being paid and jacked up its charter rate from $4,300 per hour to $5,600 per hour in the midst of project planning.

(At one point, INTACT considered a 45-flying-hour effort that would cost over $250,000 for aircraft time alone and an 80-hour program costing nearly $500,000. These were dropped in favor of the five-hour flight from Nashville to Oakland and a three and one-half hour return trip along with a strong tailwind.)

Marine container best

Project INTACT had its real genesis in May 1968, when Lockheed-Georgia Company at Marietta (builder of the C-5 Galaxy), received a consulting report from Frye Consultants on the technical aspects of a completely intermodal container light enough to be flown by air and strong enough to withstand the rigors of marine, rail and truck handling. The report suggested intermodal movements would be possible by the year 1975 for special situations such as military need and high-priority commercial movements that needed to be flown to a seaport in order to catch a specific vessel. At one point, Lockheed thought in terms of a new type of container built in the manner of conventional airborne containers. This concept was eventually abandoned.

James Norman, in charge of the INTACT program for Lockheed, said, “The basic marine container seems to be the pattern of the future. I am convinced that the flat-bottom container moving on rollers is not the answer. The air industry has to adapt to the others.”

Norman said all participants in the Oct. 8 demonstration contributed equipment, time and/or money. He declined to spell out the sharing formula. In addition to the Department of Transportation, participants were the Port of Oakland and its airport, the Nashville Airport Authority, Sea-Land Service, Ignited States Lines, United Parcel Service, Lockheed and each of the shippers involved. “Each shipper paid his costs, plus an additional surface tariff,” Norman said.

DOT had asked participants not to get involved into specific tariff questions. A real objective in Project INTACT was to “search for the need for the future” and to demonstrate the compatibility of the various container and truck equipment moved on the two flights between Nashville and Oakland. The C-5 gives a point of departure in planning for the future, according to Norman.

Westbound load

On its westbound flight, the Galaxy bore six marine containers, loaded two abreast in the plane.

The Sea-Land container going to Yokohama was loaded with 18,000 pounds of Aladdin Industries’ glass vacuum bottles, consigned to Dai Nippon Industries of Tokyo. (The container completed the 7,100-mile air sea trip in 11 days. Had it moved by surface means to Oakland, it would have caught another ship and been delivered in 18 days.)

Other westbound cargo included wearing apparel, shoes, chemical products, truck equipment and automotive parts.

Eastbound load

On the return to Nashville, the Galaxy carried two 40-foot marine containers packed with West Coast products, a United Parcel Service trailer and a reefer-load of fresh-picked Salinas Valley lettuce shipped by Bud of California to Kroger Stores at Nashville. But officials estimated aerial delivery would cut surface transport shrinkage of lettuce by about 25%.

Another demonstration flight between Oakland and Baltimore is being planned for the early part of December.

Dive into FreightWaves’ archives:

FreightWaves Flashback: What NAFTA means for cross-border trade

FreightWaves Flashback: Colts corraled; round-up of import autos nears finish at Jacksonville

FreightWaves Flashback: England gets its orange juice by sea, land and air services