The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter joined MATS (Military Air Transport Service) in April 1965 and was the replacement for the slower propeller driven C-124 also known as “Old Shaky”. Through the years, the organization that the C-141 was in, changed from MATS to MAC (Military Airlift Command) and finally AMC (Air Mobility Command). The names of the organization may have changed, but the mission remained the same that is provide the U.S. military with strategic airlift.
There were 285 C-141s built from 1965 until 2006 when all of the Starlifters had been retired. The C-17 Globemaster replaced the aging C-141s in the early 2000s.
DEVELOPMENT AND DESIGN
In the early 60s, the only aircraft MATS had at the time for strategic airlift were various propeller driven aircraft such as C-124, C-133, C-54, C-118, C-46, C-47 and an assortment of “odd ducks”.
In 1960 USAF put out a request for a jet-powered transport capable of lifting 60,000 lbs a distance of 3,500 nautical miles. Boeing, Lockheed, and General Dynamics (formerly Convair) responded to the bid. Lockheed’s Model 300, the first jet-powered aircraft that was designed to carry cargo was the winner.
The bottom of the fuselage was only 50 inches off the ground. This allowed outsize cargo to be easily loaded through the two rear cargo doors. ( the aircraft could be configured to carry a Minuteman missile).
The C-141 could also carry 154 passengers (using airline seats) or 123 paratroops and a little over 70,000lbs of cargo (short distances). One of President Kennedy’s first acts in 1961 was to order 5 Model 300 (to be designed C-141 Starlifter) aircraft for tests and evaluation.
In 1963 on 17 December coinciding with Orville and Wilbur Wrights flight of 60 years earlier. Tail #12775 made the inaugural C-141 flight. The Starlifter passed the tests to be certified not only for military standards but civilian standards also.
This was the first of 285 C-141 Starlifters to be produced. It is interesting to note that Flight Tigers and Slick Air Freight made provisional orders 4 each of the L-300 Superstar Lifters. The L-300 civilian were to be 37 feet longer than the C-141A. Some other differences were made to appeal to the two air freight lines as well as other freight haulers.
However the provisional orders were cancelled by the two air freight companies and Lockheed found no other buyers so the donated the L-300 prototype to NASA.
On 29 January 1965 the FAA officially certified the C-141 Starlifter and #38088, the first C-141 to go operational was delivered to the 1501st Air Transport Wing at Travis AFB in CA. Soon additional C-141s that were delivered to USAF were employed in operational sorties in the Viet Nam war zone.
Then on 08 January 1966, MAC (Military Airlift Command) was established and MATS was disestablished by the USAF. All C-141s were transferred to MAC. During the years of 1966 through 1972 the C-141 was a workhorse in the Southeast Asia war theater. Many a G. I. Army, Navy, Marine and Air force will remember their ride across the Pacific in a C-141 during those years. It also played a major roll in Operation Nickel Grass, the Yom Kipper War in 1973.
MAC C-141s played a important role in Operation Desert Shield and later Desert Storm. Between the two combat situations, over 159,000 short tons of cargo and about 94,000 passengers were airlifted to the Middle East in the early 90s.
On 01 June 1992, the Air Force established the Air Mobility Command (AMC and MAC was disestablished). All aircraft and Airlift Wings were transferred to the new command. Through the next 12 years the C-141 Starlifter performed admirably. The last C-141 was retired in 2006.
A little story on the last C-141 #60177. This aircraft was part of several C-141s in 1973 to evacuate POWs interned in Hanoi during the war. It made a series of flights to Hanoi and was thus nicknamed “Hanoi Taxi”. It was active during 2005-2006 primarily for publicity and free rides for former POWs that wanted to salute the “old girl” before retirement.
- C-141A was the original and 284 were made (the L300 went to NASA). Although they could carry about 63,000 lbs the aircraft would bulk out well before the weight was maxed out. Thus the need for the C-141B.
- C-141B was a “stretched” version of the C-141A. Most of the original A models (270 aircraft) had 2 “plugs” inserted; one forward and one aft of the wing. This gave the aircraft the capability of carry the aircraft’s designed weight.
- C-141C was a “B” model that had upgraded avionics and navigation systems. 63 C-141B were converted to the “C” model during the 90’s.
On 23 March 1967 at Da Nang, Viet Nam #59407 had landed and was clearance to parking ramp. Meanwhile the tower cleared a USMC A-6 for take-off, and also cleared #59407 to taxi across the runway.
The Intruder tried to veer off the runway and out of the way but hit the C-141’s left wing and an ensuing fire started and since the Starlifter was carrying 72 acetylene cylinders an tremendous explosion occurred. Only the Loadmaster escaped through the rear hatch.
The A-6 flipped over on it’s back and skidded down the runway. Both of the Marines crawled out of the A-6 but the war ordnance of the A-6 was caught in the C-141 fire and this added to the enormous explosion and fire.
On 12 April 1967 at Cam Rahn Bay , Viet Nam C-141 #60127 went down shortly after take-off, weather may have played a role in this disaster. Five crew were lost, but 2 were rescued.
28 August 1976 (a “black day” for USAF). A C-141 crashed after attempting a “go-around” at Sondestrom AB, Greenland. Insufficient air speed (stall out) was the cause. Twenty-three of the 27 crew and passengers were killed.
On this same day at RAF Mildenhall, UK, a C-141 got tangled into a severe thunderstorm and broke up, killing 18 crew and passengers
12 July 1984 A C-141B took off from NAS Sigonella, Sicily. When airborne #3 engine exploded causing debris to drift over into the in-take of #4 engine which required a shutdown. To make matters worse, hot debris entered the cargo compartment and igniting a cargo pallet of paint.
The resulting poisonous fumes and smoke made it very difficult for the crew to control the aircraft as it made a very steep banking turn to the starboard and because of the loss of two engines on the starboard wing and also because of the low altitude, recovery was not possible. The crew of 8 including passengers were lost.
01 December 1992 Two C-141Bs were on a night refueling mission, when they collided over Montana all 13 crew members perished.
13 September 1997 A German Air Force TU-154M (former East German AF) and a C-141B collided off the African coast near Namibia. 24 crew on the TU-154M and 9 crew on the C-141 died. The reason for the collision was the TU154M was at the wrong altitude.
The sad count of fatal mishaps was 14 for the C-141 era of 41 years. While this makes it sound like the C-141 was unsafe, one has to consider the fact that often the Starlifter was flying into combat zones, operating in and out unfamiliar airports, working with other branches of U.S military and foreign allies.
All in all for the years the C-141 flew and high number of hours in the air, the safety record was excellent.
WHERE TO SEE A STARLIFTER
C-141A #12775 The first C-141 delivered to USAF in 1965 if on display at AMC Museum Dover AFB Delaware.
C-141B #50236 This C-141 was part of Operation Homecoming which transported POWs from Hanoi North Viet Nam after the war. It can be seen at Scott Heritage Air Park, Scott AFB, Belleville Illinois.
C-141B #60177 “Hanoi Taxi” is now at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton Ohio.
C-14B #59400 is on display at Altus AFB Oklahoma.
C-141B #70013 can be seen at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, AZ
C-141B #38088 “The Golden Bear” is at Travis Heritage Center, Travis AFB CA. This was the first C-141 to be delivered to Travis AFB.
C-141B #50277 “Tacoma Starlifter is being viewed at the McChord Air Museum, McChord AFB, Lakewood, WA
The above is only a partial list of Lockheed C-141 Starlifters that are on display through out the United States.
Check at your local air museum for information on any displayed aircraft.
TECH SPECS for the C-141 Starlifter
Wing Span: 160 ft 0 in
Length: 168 ft 4 in
Height: 39 ft 3 in
Weight: 144,492 lbs (empty; 342,100 lbs MTOW)
Maximum: Speed: 567 MPH
Service Ceiling: 41,000 ft.
Range: 2,935 mi; 6,140 mi (ferry)
Engines: 4/Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-7 turbofans
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