Lockheed C-141 Starlifter Strategic Airlifter Transport Aircraft
The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter strategic transport proved itself a Cold War-era workhorse for the US military.
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The Lockheed C-141 "Starlifter" became the United States military's first jet-powered, strategic transport when it was adopted in 1965. The aircraft was designed from the outset as a heavy hauler, capable of moving hundreds of men or thousands of lbs of equipment from stateside locations to forward regions around the world. While only produced in several hundred examples and seeing just three major variants throughout its service life, the C-141 series managed an existence until being formally retired in 2006 after 43 years of faithful service. The aircraft served only the US military and was never exported.
The large aircraft grew out of "Specific Operational Requirement 182" calling for a tactical-/strategic-level, jet-powered transport. Lockheed managed to secure the requirement after heading off proposed designs from competitors Boeing, Douglas and General Dynamics by revealing a cigar-shaped aircraft with high-mounted, swept-back wings and a T-tail empennage. Lockheed gained a certain amount of valuable experience in developing their high-wing C-130 Hercules transport and this, no doubt, assisted in the design of the C-141. Massive internal volume would allow the aircraft to fulfill the intended cargo/passenger hauling role for the USAF and the hold would be accessed through a rear door and ramp configuration. Power was served through 4 x Pratt & Whitney TF33 series turbofan engines. The type was set to replace the limited-reach/scope propeller-driven aircraft still in use by US military forces of the post-World War 2 period. Interestingly, the program lacked a true prototype as the initial aircraft already carried the production-style designation of C-141A when it recorded its first flight on December 17th, 1963. Formal introduction followed in 1965 and production spanned from 1963 into 1968 and resulted in 285 total units.
The C-141 directly superseded the outgoing lines of Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, C-124 Globemaster II and Boeing C-135 Stratolifter transports.
Due to the period in which the C-141 was adopted, it was pressed into service immediately for the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The American commitment in Southeast Asia had grown to huge levels and logistical support was as important as ever. Starlifter units began flying from stateside locations to the region over Pacific waters as soon as possible. In January of 1966, all C-141 aircraft fell under the new operating banner of Military Airlift Command (MAC). One of the more famous C-141s became the "Hanoi Taxi" which ferried hundreds of American prisoners of war (to include future Republican presidential nominee John McCain) during Operation Homecoming. She served some 40 years before retirement including support of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath of 2005.
The C-141A marked initial production forms which totaled 284 in all. The variant was active as of April 1965 and, while cleared to carry up to 62,700lbs of internal cargo, it was soon found that the airframe's true internal volume was capped before the stated weight limit was ever reached. Volume allowed for 150 infantry or 120 airborne personnel or 80 patient litters and medical crew to be ferried. The limitation led to the revised lengthened C-141B standard.
The C-141B began life through the YC-141B converted prototype airframe. The model reached flight for the first time on Mach 24th, 1977. After passing its requisite evaluation and acceptance phase, it resulted in 270 A-models being converted to the C-141B standard. The B-model incorporated a new 23 foot section of fuselage as well as an in-flight refueling boom above and aft of the cockpit (to extend its base range). Conversions took place between 1977 and 1982 and initial groups were handed the type in late-1979. The airframe could now carry 200 infantry, 170 airborne personnel or 100 patient litters though, by this time, the Vietnam War was over. Thirteen C-141B models were further converted for Special Forces service in 1994 by including advanced countermeasures systems, retractable FLIR pod and mission support equipment intended to allow for low-altitude, low-light level flying consistent with Special Forces missions.
The C-141B featured an operating crew of five to seven specialists made up of two pilots, a pair of flight engineers, a navigation and a loadmaster (with optional assistant/secondary loadmaster). Additional support staff could be carried based on mission type - for example those ferrying wounded, a medical support staff numbering at least five would be used. The airframe exhibited a running length of 168 feet with a wingspan of 160 feet and a height of 39 feet. Empty weight was 144,500lbs with a maximum take-off weight of 342,100lbs. Power was served through 4 x Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-7 series turbofan engines outputting at 20,250lbs each. Maximum listed speed was 567 miles per hour with a ferry range out to 6,140 miles. Combat range was approximately 3,000 miles. The aircraft could reach ceilings of 41,000 feet with a 2,600 feet per minute rate-of-climb. As a transport, the C-141B was not armed in any way.
The final Starlifter variant was embodied through the C-141C mark which were modernizations of existing airframes. These numbered 63 examples in all and included modern avionics and increased use of electric-based systems. The old "steam" style gauges of decades before gave way to digital screens and a more organized, compact instrument panel. Conversions occurred in the 1990s and headed by Raytheon.
Starlifters further served in Operation Desert Shield (1990) and into Operation Desert Storm of the first Persian Gulf War (1991). In 1992, Starlifters were placed under Air Mobility Command (AMC) direction. By 2001, the average age of the Starlifter fleet was 34 years, prompting a move to an all-new design. The line was followed by the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III detailed elsewhere on this site. Active numbers began considerable reduction from 2004 inwards until final missions in 2005 and 2006 ended their support. These aircraft served the American commitment to Operation Enduring Freedom (2001) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq (2003) - and amazing testament to design considering the aircraft's 1960's Cold War-era roots.
Hanoi Taxi was preserved as a museum showpiece at the National Museum of the United States Air Force of Dayton, Ohio. The airframe is joined by several others around the country - many representing B-model variants. A sole C-141 transport of MAC was used to ferry the bodies of the seven astronauts killed in the failed 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger launch.
During its service life, the C-141 also completed a "first" by becoming the first jet-powered transport to land in Antarctica. It also served as the first jet-powered transport for US Army paratroopers.