Base officials, mechanics and support personnel gathered in front of the giant cargo plane that was scheduled later in the day to fly back to its home at the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Robins mechanics did heavy maintenance on the plane for about six months and finished it on time.
The 562nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron works on the planes under contract with Boeing. Geoff Wilson, Boeing's director of field operations, said that when the work started at Robins in 2001, the base completed 17 planes the first year. Over the past year, that number was 65 planes.
"This is absolutely a model program that demonstrates the partnership between industry and the government," Wilson said. "I know there is going to be a lot more aircraft coming through here."
The number of C-17s coming to Robins will go down this year, but the workload will remain the same due to a change in the kind of work done. Col. Jennifer Hammerstedt, commander of the 402nd Maintenance Group, said the C-17 squadron will do more heavy maintenance and fewer modifications. That means that although there will be fewer planes, the planes will be at the base longer and require more work.
The squadron employs about 450 people. Another 200 people work in the C-17 program office, which manages the Air Force's fleet of 222 C-17s around the world. Many more people are involved with the C-17 work in support roles.
Col. Amanda Myers, C-17 system program director, recounted for the mechanics and other personnel gathered what some of the recent C-17s they have completed have been up to. One of those, she said, recently flew equipment related to the F-22 Raptor to the Middle East to support the fight against the Islamic State.
"The C-17 is delivering phenomenal strategic airlift around the globe," she said. "It has become the U.S. Air Force's airlifter of choice."
The program office tracks every C-17 daily to determine how many are available for missions. She said C-17s have one of the Air Force's best mission-capable rates at 87 percent.
Earnest Brown, who supervises mechanics, has been involved with the C-17 work for 10 years. He said the work load has ramped up faster than he initially thought it would.
"We never knew it would be the 500th aircraft that we actually would work on," he said. "It's been a good process and seems to work. We are just proud to be part of the celebration."
Adam Ford, a mechanic, said it means a lot of him and his co-workers to know that the planes are important to missions around the world. C-17s also are well known as aerial hospitals and perform many humanitarian operations.
"It's a great responsibility, a great privilege, just knowing that what we do makes a difference in what our troops do," Ford said.