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The Lockheed C-141: Bringing Airlift Into the Jet Age

Overview

In 1961 the United States Air Force (USAF) wanted a large jet transport. The resulting aircraft was the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. On August 23, 1963 President John F. Kennedy pressed a gold key in the White House that began the rollout ceremony for the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter in Marietta, Georgia. This brought military airlift into the jet age. Lockheed produced the C-141 on time and under budget.

The USAF purchased 284 C-141s. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also purchased a C-141. In the 1970s the Air Force decided to convert 270 C-141As to C-141Bs. The conversion involved stretching the fuselage and adding an air-to-air refueling receptacle. A C-141B could carry 205 troops to the C-141A’s 154 or 103 casualty litters to the C-141A’s 80.[i] The air-to-air refueling meant the C-141B greatly increased the USAF’s airlift reach. During the 1990s 63 C-141Bs were upgraded to C-141Cs. The C-141C had improved avionics and navigation systems. Some Starlifters had intraformation positioning sets that gave them the capability to maintain up to 36 aircraft in zero visibility.[ii] The Starlifter served the USAF from 1965 to 2006.[iii]


[i] Air Mobility Command Museum, https://amcmuseum.org/at-the-museum/aircraft/c-141b-starlifter/, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[ii] FAS Military Analysis Network, https://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/c-141.htm, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[iii] Lockheed Martin, C-141 Starlifter, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/c141.html, last accessed 6/25/2020.

C-141 Service History

The first C-141 was delivered to the Air Force in October 1964. The Starlifter began squadron operations in April 1965.[i] Some C-141s were modified to carry Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). These modified C-141s could carry up to 92,000 pounds (41,400 kilograms). It was the first jet to land in the Antarctic. C-141s flew Antarctic flights as part of “Operation Deep Freeze” for about 40 years. The C-141 was the first USAF transport jet U.S. Army paratroopers used for parachute jumps. A C-141 also set a world record for a paradrop of 70,195 pounds (31,587.7 kilograms).[ii]

The Starlifter demonstrated its capability during the Vietnam Conflict. Starlifters cut a round trip between California and Saigon[iii] from 95 to 34 hours. They could offload almost 70,000 pounds (31,000 kilograms) of freight per hour. [iv] Two C-141As were lost in Vietnam through mishaps. Serial Number 65-9407 was destroyed in a collision on the runway in Da Nang with a USMC A-6 on 23 March 1967.[v] Five of the six Starlifter crew members were killed in the mishap. The A-6 crew, Captains Frederick Cone and Doug Wilson, survived. On April 13, 1967 serial number 66-0127 crashed on takeoff at Cam Ranh Bay, killing 6 of the 8 crew members. C-141’s got the nickname “Hanoi Taxi” by flying almost 600 American Prisoners of War out of North Vietnam in 1973.[vi]

A C-141 crashed near Cunenca Huete, Spain on August 28, 1973. One of the 25 people on board survived.[vii] A C-141 crashed into a mountain near La Paz-El Alto Airport, Bolivia on August 18, 1974. All 7 on board died in the crash.[viii] An air traffic control call sign mix-up between a C-141 and a Navy A-6 caused the Starlifter to crash into the side of a mountain near Seattle, Washington. All 16 on board the Starlifter died in the crash.[ix]

On May 21, 1975 NASA dedicated the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). NASA used a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter for the KAO. KAO flew missions for over 30 years. The imagery it collected included Comet Haley crossing the Milky Way.[x]

There were two C-141 crashes on August 28, 1976. One Starlifter, 67-0006, had a history of weather radar problems. It crashed in Peterborough, UK killing all 18 on board.[xi] The other Starlifter, 67-0008, crashed in Greenland killing 23 of the 27 people on board.[xii] The first C-141B loss occurred on November 12, 1980 in Egypt. The crash killed all 13 on board.[xiii] A second C-141B crashed into John’s Knob, Tennessee. All 9 on board perished in the crash.[xiv]

On October 23, 1983 a suicide truck bomber struck the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The attack killed 241 Marines. A C-141 evacuated 78 wounded Marines.[xv] On the same day President Ronald Reagan gave the order to invade Grenada, “Operation Urgent Fury”. C-141Bs transported Rangers of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Infantry from McCord Air Force Base (AFB), Washington to Hunter Army Air Field (AAF), Georgia.[xvi] On D-Day, October 25, 28 C-141s transported lead elements of the 82nd Airborne Division from Pope AFB, North Carolina to Point Salines, Grenada.[xvii] Starlifters began transporting American nationals out of Grenada on October 27. [xviii] When the operation ended Starlifters transported ground troops out of Grenada.

On July 12, 1984 a C-141B crashed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella, Italy. All 9 on board died. Autopsies showed the crew received potentially fatal levels of cyanide poisoning. Smoke goggles were added to crew oxygen masks after this accident.[xix]

On February 20, 1989 a C-141 a C-141B crashed near Hurlburt Field, Florida. All 8 people on board perished.[xx]

On August 2, 1990 Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush started “Operation Desert Shield”. On August 8, 0900 Zulu time, a C-141, 67-0016, landed at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia with an airlift control element. It was the first USAF aircraft in the combat zone.[xxi] Within two weeks 90% of the Starlifter fleet was flying “Desert Shield” missions. [xxii] During “Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm” C-141s flew 9,085 of the 18,466 airlift missions. [xxiii] Many of the C-141 aircrew members, like Captain Karen Morgan, were Air Force Reservists. [xxiv]

The last two fatal accidents involving Starlifters were mid-air collisions. Two C-141Bs had a midair collision during a night air refueling mission on December 1, 1992. The accident happened over Montana. All 13 on board the C-141Bs died.[xxv] A C-141B and a Luftwaffe Tu-154M had a midair collision off the Namibian coast on September 13, 1997. All 9 C-141 and 24 Tu-154 people on board died in the crash.[xxvi]

In June 2001 a C-141 flew Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier out of Haiti, ending his dictatorial rule over the country.[xxvii]

The Starlifter missions in “Operation Enduring Freedom” included transporting terrorists to Guantanamo, Cuba, wounded U.S. service members to Ramstein, Germany, and the United States, and flying dead U.S. service members to the United States.

Among the missions in “Operation Iraqi Freedom” Starlifters flew wounded from Iraq to Germany. It also flew 7 ex-POWs to Ramstein AB. In September 2003 insurgents fired two SAMs at a C-141, both missiles missed. On May 4, 2004 a Starlifter flew 43 injured service members from Iraq to Landstuhl, Germany. A C-141 flew 8-month-old Faremah Kalil Hassan from Iraq to Ohio via Germany for specialized life- saving surgery on May 18-19, 2004. On July 3-4, 2004 a Starlifter flew 48 service members who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan from Ramstein AB to Andrews AFB for Independence Day.


[i] FAS Military Analysis Network, https://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/c-141.htm, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[ii] FAS Military Analysis Network, https://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/c-141.htm, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[iii] Present day Ho Chi Minh City.

[iv] Lockheed Martin, C-141 Starlifter, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/c141.html, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[v] Captains Harold Leland Hale, Leroy Edward Leonard, Max Paul Starkel, and Staff Sergeants Alanson Garland Bynum and Alfred Funck survived.

[vi] Lockheed Martin, C-141 Starlifter, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/c141.html, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[vii] Aviation-Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19730828-0, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[viii] Aviation-Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19740818-1, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[ix] Aviation-Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19750321-0, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[x] Nasa.gov, https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/watchtheskies/kuiper.html, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[xi] Aviation-Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19760828-2, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[xii] Aviation-Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19760828-3, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[xiii] Aviation-Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19801112-0, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[xiv] Aviation-Safety.net, https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/watchtheskies/kuiper.html, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[xv] Lockheed Martin, C-141 Starlifter, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/c141.html, last accessed 6/25/2020.

[xvi] Air War Grenada by Stephen Harding © 1984.

[xvii] Air War Grenada by Stephen Harding © 1984.

[xviii] Air War Grenada by Stephen Harding © 1984.

[xix] Liquisearch.com, http://www.liquisearch.com/lockheed_c-141_starlifter/accidents, last accessed 6/26/2020.

[xx] Liquisearch.com, http://www.liquisearch.com/lockheed_c-141_starlifter/accidents, last accessed 6/26/2020.

[xxi] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992, Air Force Association, P.129.

[xxii] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992, Air Force Association, P.130.

[xxiii] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992, Air Force Association, P.30.

[xxiv] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992, Air Force Association, P.21.

[xxv] Liquisearch.com, http://www.liquisearch.com/lockheed_c-141_starlifter/accidents, last accessed 6/26/2020.

[xxvi] Liquisearch.com, http://www.liquisearch.com/lockheed_c-141_starlifter/accidents, last accessed 6/26/2020.

[xxvii] Time, Haiti End of the Duvalier Era by John Moody, June 24, 2001, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,143126,00.html, last accessed 6/27/2020.

C-141 & C-124 Stats

Source: Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi & BobAdelman, (c) 1977
Source: AMC Museum Org.

 C-124C-141AC-141B

Speed

304mph

564mph (491 cruise)

567mph (495 cruise)

Range

2,487 miles4,040

3,600 miles

2,953 miles (unrefueled)

Cargo

68,500 pounds

70,847 pounds

70,697 pounds

Combat Troops

200

154

205

Casualty litters

127

80

103

© 2020 Robert Sacchi

Comments

Robert Sacchi (author) on July 02, 2020:

Only 20 Concodes were built. The aircraft was retired in 2003. The U.S. killed the ST program because of cost. The Concorde program cost was 1.3 billion pounds, the U.S. SST program would have certainly cost more. The sonic boom was the reason the Concorde wasn't permitted to fly supersonic over the United States. There were those who didn't want it in the U.S. at all, because it was relatively loud even at subsonic speeds.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 01, 2020:

But one more thing. Robert. Both France and the Great Britain own a fleet of the Concord. Each build her version. Is the USA afraid of its air space security-wise? You're always welcomed, and thanks.

Robert Sacchi (author) on July 01, 2020:

It is a question of operating costs vs how many passengers it could carry and range. There are also route limitations. The Concorde wasn't permitted to fly supersonic over the U.S., This limits the usefulness and potential customers.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 30, 2020:

Thank you, Robert. But if the Concord flying at Mach 3 were produce in this 21st century, can it be profitable seeing that there were too many billioners around?

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 30, 2020:

Even civilian aviation for much of the Starlifter's history had a high rate by today's standards. Keep in mind the USAF got a lot of use out of C-141s. Supersonic transports were technical marvels but not profitable. The Concorde was operating at a loss and the tickets were expensive. In theory the American SST project, which would have been a jumbo jet in theory could have been profitable. Theory doesn't necessarily make fact though. Anyway the U.S. killed their program. The conventional jumbo jets made more sense for that era. Today the B-777 type aircraft seem the best size and speed for profitability.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 30, 2020:

This is a massive plane and has a niche of its own. I remember during the last days of the Soviet union I visited the RAF as a junior officer and flew in the TU144 supersonic transport from Moscow to Vladivostok as a passenger. It was being used as a cargo plane. Its a pity the Soviet Union collapsed and along with it the development of the TU144. As far as accidents mentioned in the article I will say they are the hazards of military aviation.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 29, 2020:

Thank you for reading and commenting. The Starlifter had a long history. The C-141 mass parachute jumps were something to see.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 29, 2020:

Thanks for another informative article about an airplane that some will have flown, and others jumped out of when serving as a paratrooper.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 29, 2020:

Thank you for reading and commenting. Coming in late and/or overbudget happens with many military, and other government, projects. With the military they are, or should be, dealing with state-of-the-art technology. This almost guarantees teething problems for the project. Governments have a knack for adding requirements which means more time and money. It's just the nature of the beast.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 29, 2020:

It's good to find out that this came in under budget. In the UK we are more used to projects going over budget. You have put together a detailed fact file.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 29, 2020:

Thank you all for reading and commenting.

Pamela Oglesby - As best I can tell the accidents mentioned in this Hub is comprehensive. Often for earlier aircraft the accident list it too long to mention them all in an article.

FlourishAnyway - Yes, it takes nerves of steel. Naturally it requires instrumentation.

Miebakagh Fiberesima - NASA does a lot of interesting research without leaving the atmosphere. The images they capture are wonderous.

Manuel - Glad you liked the article.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 29, 2020:

This plane sure has a long history but too many accidents. I do think it is unique that the plane was the first to land in the Antartic. This is a very interesting article and you covered the topic very thorougly.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 28, 2020:

I can’t imagine the nerves of steel it takes to fly this in zero visibility? After the flight how in the world does one come down off something like that? Maybe I read that wrong.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 28, 2020:

Robert, this is another of your best. I was thrill when I note the Lockhead had to capture Harley's comet crossing the Milky Way Galaxy. I think the safety of the Lockhead by now is more pronounced than ever. Thanks, Roberts.

Manuela from Portugal on June 28, 2020:

Nice article, very detailed!

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