History Articles

A look back...Lockheed C-141 STARLIFTER

  • Published

By Dr. William P. Head and Dr. James Tindle, Air Force Materiel Command History Office / Published October 19, 2021

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Developing the C-141 Starlifter was the vision of Lt. Gen. William Tunner, who had commanded American units flying the “Hump” in World War II and the “Berlin Airlift” in 1948-1949.  In the 1950s, he and other members of the Military Air Transport Service lobbied for a jet cargo-transport, capable of “flexible response to limited conflagration.”  To that end, Lockheed-Georgia (now Lockheed-Martin), Marietta, Georgia built the Starlifter.  This aircraft became the workhorse of the Military Airlift Command, later, the Air Mobility Command.  On  July 1, 1960, Congress appropriated $200 million for the Air Force to buy or modify existing airlift aircraft.  On November 15, a final version of Specific Operational Requirement (SOR) #182 emerged, calling for a long-range jet designed principally to haul cargo.  On  December 21, requests for proposal were sent to Boeing, Douglas, Convair, and Lockheed-Georgia.  Lockheed had the advantage because of its experience producing the C–130 tactical transport. 

On March 13,1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that Lockheed Aircraft Corp. had won the competition.  Determined to change the United States’ “all-or-nothing” defense policy, Kennedy ordered the development of the C-141A all-jet transport to expand the nation’s ability to conduct “limited wars.”  Lockheed designed the new aircraft for easy maintenance, efficient loading, and relatively short landing and takeoff.  Powered by four Pratt and Whitney TF33–P–7 turbofan engines, the C–141A, with an empty weight of 134,200 pounds, could carry 70,000 pounds of cargo or 154 troops traveling at 500 miles per hour.  It could haul 63,000 pounds of cargo nearly 4,000 miles without refueling.  The C-141 handled more than 30 different missions, having an adjustable cargo compartment that could transition from floor rollers for palletized cargo to a smooth floor for wheeled vehicles.  It could be arranged with aft facing or sidewall canvas seats for passengers.  It could even store a palletized lavatory and galley.  In its aeromedical evacuation role, the Starlifter carried 103 patient-litters, 113 ambulatory patients or a combination of the two.  The “T-tail empennage” offered significant aerodynamic advantages over conventional designs and the relatively high location of the horizontal tail provided undisturbed airflow at normal cruise conditions, thereby maximizing stability and control.

The first production aircraft rolled out of the Lockheed factory on  August 22, 1963 with the Air Force accepting it six days later.  Flight testing began on  December 17, 1963.  The last production models rolled out on  February 27, 1968.  By early 1970 there were a total of 276 C-141As in operations for the Air Force, four with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration and four with the National Weather Service.  The first Air Force C-141As arrived at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma in October 1964 and began operations in April 1965.  They made almost daily flights to Vietnam, carrying troops, equipment and supplies, and returning patients to U.S. hospitals.  In 1968 alone, 256 C-141As carried 82.3% of the 2,724,473,575 tons of military cargo flown.  The C-141A was the first jet transport from which U.S. Army paratroopers jumped, and the first to land in the Antarctic.  It also established the world record for a heavy cargo drop of 70,195 pounds.

In October 1973, the aircraft’s one shortcoming nearly cost America her most important Middle Eastern ally--Israel.  As the U.S. prepared to send supplies to Israeli troops fighting the Yom Kippur War, her European allies, fearing a cessation of their oil supplies from Arab nations, refused to allow C-141s to land and refuel.  While Portugal eventually did allow the Starlifters to land in the Azores, saving Israel, the incident demonstrated the need for an aerial refueling capability.  In April 1977, Air Force officials at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center (WR-ALC), Robins AFB, Georgia turned again to Lockheed to modify the fleet.  Congress provided $641 million for the project but the two parties concluded an incentive-laden contract totaling $458 million, far below projection.  The agreement called for the conversion of 270 A models into “stretch” B models.  Since the C-141A engines were more powerful than the fuselage required, adding size and weight would not affect engine performance or speed.

After building and testing the YC-141B prototype for two years, production began in early 1979.  The B models rolled off the assembly lines from  December 4,1979 to June 29, 1982, coming in $20 million under the $458 million budget.  Lockheed housed the production line in their Marietta, Georgia factory where employees separated the aircraft fore and aft of the wing and added a 160-inch plug forward and 120-inch plug aft, lengthening the plane by 23 feet, 4 inches.  This increased its cargo capacity from 7,019 cubic feet to 9,190 cubic feet which was the equivalent of building 90 new “A” models at a fraction of the price.  Lockheed also added a universal air refueling receptacle which facilitated long non-stop airlift missions.  The C-141 fleet flew seven million reliable flying hours from 1982 to 2006.  From the day the first Starlifter rolled out until the last one (Tail No. 65-0248) completed Programmed Depot Maintenance (PDM) on October 16, 2003, the WR-ALC sustained the C-141s.  

In its new configuration, the Starlifter continued to perform low-altitude delivery of personnel and equipment, and high-altitude delivery of paratroops, retaining the ability to airdrop equipment and supplies using the container delivery system.  It was the first aircraft designed to be compatible with the 463L Material Handling System, which permitted off-loading 68,000 pounds of cargo, as well as refueling and fully reloading in less than an hour. 

In the fall of 1990, at the outset of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, a C-141B from the 437th Military Airlift Wing, Charleston AFB, South Carolina, was the first American aircraft to arrive in Saudi Arabia.  During the war, C-141s flew the most airlift missions - 7,047 out of 15,800.  They carried more than 41,400 passengers and 139,600 tons of cargo.  After the war, Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve (AFRC) units received C-141s.  The Air Force Reserve, through its associate units, provided 50% of the Starlifter’s crews, 40% of its maintenance capability, and more than 30% of AMC’s peacetime missions. 

In the 1990s, Aircraft Structural Integrity Program specialists at Robins AFB realized that cracks in the lower wing surface panels caused by the stretching process might cause catastrophic failure.  In 1979, engineers had decided not to replace the Center Wing Box that held the wings to the fuselage since the C-141 was scheduled to be replaced by the C-17 in the mid-1990s.  Delays in the C-17 program caused increasing safety concerns among Lockheed and Air Force leaders.  They used Nondestructive Inspections to detected smaller cracks while repair   personnel performed Home Station Checks at the using Commands, inspecting wing panels every 120 days at AMC, ANG, and AFRC units, and every 30 days at Air Education and Training Command units.  This extended aircraft down time since they were repaired using a kit consisting of 74 structural parts and fasteners. 

In January 1995, WR-ALC officials began refurbishing the fleet during PDM at Robins AFB and at the contract facility.  Since wear was greater than expected, sustainment personnel replaced all potentially defective parts including the Center Wing Box which pushed scheduled program completion to the end of 1999.  This meant the task could not be done during PDM and, thus, they created a speed line which returned all the C-141 to service ahead of schedule.

In May 2006, the Air Force retired the last C-141s.  In 43 years of service, they performed a myriad of airlift missions from deploying combat forces and their equipment over long distances to extracting Prisoners of War on the “Hanoi Taxi.” 

References:

  • Head, William P.  Reworking the Workhorse: C-141B Stretch Modification Program.  Robins AFB, Georgia: WR-ALC History Office, September 1984.
  • Kraus, Walter L., Jose M. Matheson, Joy Gustin, & Isobel M. Bryant.  C-141 Starlifter (January 1959-June 1971): Narrative.  Scott AFB, Illinois: MAC History Office, 15 January 1973.
  • WR-ALC Office of History.  Warner Robins Air Logistics Center Annual Histories, FY 1982-2003.  Specifically chapters entitled “Aircraft Management” and “High Technology.”