Introduced to replace slower piston-engined cargo planes such as the C-124 Globemaster II, the C-141 was designed to requirements set in 1960 and first flew in 1963. Production deliveries of an eventual 285 planes began in 1965: 284 for the Air Force, and one for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for use as an airborne observatory. The aircraft remained in service for over 40 years until the USAF withdrew the last C-141s from service in 2006, after replacing the airlifter with the C-17 Globemaster III.
In the early 1960s, the United States Air Force's Military Air Transport Service (MATS) relied on a substantial number of propeller-driven aircraft for strategic airlift. As these aircraft were mostly obsolescent designs and the Air Force needed the benefits of jet power, the USAF ordered 48 Boeing C-135 Stratolifters as an interim step. The C-135 was a useful stop-gap, but only had side-loading doors and most bulky and oversize equipment would not fit, especially that employed by the U.S. Army.
In the spring of 1960 the Air Force released Specific Operational Requirement 182, calling for a new aircraft that would be capable of performing both strategic and tactical airlift missions. The strategic role demanded that the aircraft be capable of missions with a radius of at least 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km) with a 60,000 pounds (27,000 kg) load. The tactical role required it to be able to perform low-altitude air drops of supplies, and carry and drop paratroops in combat. Several companies responded to SOR 182, including Boeing, Lockheed and General Dynamics.
Lockheed responded to the requirement with a unique design: the Lockheed Model 300, the first large jet designed from the start to carry freight. The Model 300 had a swept high-mounted wing with four 21,000 pounds-force (93 kN) thrust TF33 turbofan engines pod-mounted below the wings. An important aspect was the cabin floor's height of only 50 inches (130 cm) above the ground, allowing easy access to the cabin through the rear doors. The two rear side doors were designed to allow the aircraft to drop paratroopers (in August 1965 the type performed the first paratroop drop from a jet-powered aircraft). The rear cargo doors could be opened in flight to allow airborne freight drops. The shoulder-mounted wings gave internal clearance in the cargo hold of 10 feet (3.0 m) wide, 9 ft (2.7 m) high and 70 ft (21 m) long. The size enabled the Starlifter to carry, for example, a complete LGM-30 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile in its container. The aircraft was capable of carrying a maximum of 70,847 pounds (32,136 kg) over short distances, and up to 92,000 pounds (42,000 kg) in the version configured to carry the Minuteman, which stripped other equipment. The aircraft could also carry up to 154 troops, 123 paratroopers or 80 litter patients.
President John F. Kennedy's first official act after his inauguration was to order the development of the Lockheed 300 on 13 March 1961, with a contract for five aircraft for test and evaluation to be designated the C-141. One unusual aspect of the aircraft was that it was designed to meet both military and civil airworthiness standards. The prototype C-141A serial number 61-2775 was manufactured and assembled in record time, being rolled out of the Lockheed factory at Marietta, Georgia on 22 August 1963 and first flying on 17 December, the 60th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. The company and the Air Force then started an operational testing program and the delivery of 284 aircraft, initially to units of the MATS, later renamed the Military Airlift Command (MAC) in 1966.
An effort to sell the aircraft on the civilian market resulted in provisional orders from Flying Tiger Line and Slick Airways for four aircraft each. These were to be a stretched version, 37 feet (11 m) longer than the C-141A, and marketed as the L-300 SuperstarLifter. Other changes were also incorporated to make more commercial including a different yoke. The development was not sustained and only one civilian demonstration aircraft was built. When no commercial sales were made Lockheed donated the aircraft to NASA.
The prototype and development aircraft then began an intensive operational testing program including the first delivery to MATS (63-8078) on 19 October 1964 to the 1707th Air Transport Wing, Heavy (Training), Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Testing continued and a Federal Aviation Authority type certificate was awarded on 29 January 1965. The first delivery to an operational unit (63-8088) was made on 23 April 1965 to the 44th Air Transport Squadron, 1501st Air Transport Wing, Travis Air Force Base, California. Although operational testing continued, due to the United States' military involvement in South Vietnam, the C-141 was soon employed in operational sorties to the combat zone.
In October 1973, C-141s and C-5s airlifted supplies from the United States to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War as part of Operation Nickel Grass. Over the course of the operation, C-141s flew 422 missions and carried a total of 10,754 tons of cargo.
On 1 June 1992, following the disestablishment of Military Airlift Command, all C-141s and the airlift wings to which they were assigned were transferred to the newly established Air Mobility Command (AMC). Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and Air National Guard (ANG) C-141s and units were also transferred to AMC.
On 16 September 2004, the C-141 left service with all active duty USAF units, being confined to Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units for the remainder of its operational service life. As of 25 September 2005, there were only eight C-141 aircraft still flying, all from the Air Force Reserve's 445th Airlift Wing (445 AW) at Wright-Patterson AFB. In 2004, 2005, and 2006, the C-141s assigned to the 445 AW participated in missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly for the medical evacuation of wounded service members. The last eight C-141s were officially retired in 2006.
In 2005, Hanoi Taxi and other aircraft were marshalled by the Air Force to provide evacuation for those seeking refuge from Hurricane Katrina. This aircraft and others evacuated thousands of people, including the medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) of hundreds of ill and injured.
With the 5 May 2005 announcement of the retirement of these last eight C-141s, the Hanoi Taxi embarked on a series of flights, giving veterans, some of whom flew out of POW captivity in Vietnam in this aircraft, the opportunity to experience one more flight before retirement. On 6 May 2006, the Hanoi Taxi landed for the last time and was received in a formal retirement ceremony at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton.
The original Starlifter model, designated C-141A, could carry 154 passengers, 123 paratroopers or 80 litters for wounded with seating for 16. A total of 284 A-models were built. The C-141A entered service in April 1965. It was soon discovered that the aircraft's volume capacity was relatively low in comparison to its lifting capacity; it generally ran out of physical space before it hit its weight limit. The C-141A could carry ten standard 463L master pallets and had a total cargo capacity of 62,700 pounds (28,400 kg). It could also carry specialized cargoes, such as the Minuteman missile.
In service, the C-141 proved to "bulk out" before it "grossed out", meaning that it often had additional lift capacity that went wasted because the cargo hold was full before the plane's weight capacity had been reached. To correct the perceived deficiencies of the original model and utilize the C-141 to the fullest of its capabilities, 270 in-service C-141As (most of the fleet) were stretched, adding needed payload volume. The conversion program took place between 1977 and 1982, with first delivery taking place in December 1979. These modified aircraft were designated C-141B. It was estimated that this stretching program was equivalent to buying 90 new aircraft, in terms of increased capacity. Also added was a boom receptacle for inflight refueling. The fuselage was stretched by adding "plug" sections before and after the wings, lengthening the fuselage a total of 23 feet 4 inches (7.11 m) and allowing the carriage of 103 litters for wounded, 13 standard pallets, 205 troops, 168 paratroopers, or an equivalent increase in other loads.
The upgraded glass cockpit of the C-141C variant
In 1994, a total of 13 C-141Bs were given SOLL II (Special Operations Low-Level II) modifications, which gave the aircraft a low-level night flying capability, enhanced navigation equipment, and improved defensive countermeasures. These aircraft were operated by AMC in conjunction with Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
A total of 63 C-141s were upgraded throughout the 1990s to C-141C configuration, with improved avionics and navigation systems, to keep them up to date. This variant introduced some of the first glass cockpit technology to the aircraft, as well as improving reliability by replacing some mechanical and electromechanical components with their electronic equivalents.
164th Military Airlift Group/Airlift Wing; Memphis, Tennessee 1992-2004
155th Military Airlift Sq/Airlift Sq
172d Military Airlift Group/Airlift Group/Airlift Wing; Jackson, Mississippi 1986-2003
183th Military Airlift Sq/Airlift Sq
NASA - 1 C-141A Construction Number 300-6110. Did not receive a USAF serial number, was flown with civil registration N4141A and later as NASA N714NA. Operated 1966-1995.
Through 2005, 19 C-141s were destroyed in accidents.
On 23 March 1967, the worst ground aviation accident of the Vietnam War occurred at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam when a traffic controller cleared USMCA-6A Intruder, BuNo 152608, of VMA(AW)-242, MAG-11, for takeoff but also cleared USAF C-141A-LM Starlifter, AF serial number 65-9407, of the 62nd Military Airlift Wing, McChord AFB, Washington, to cross the runway. The A-6's crew saw the Starlifter at the last moment and veered off of the runway to try to avoid the collision, but despite this, the A-6's port wing sliced through the C-141's nose, which immediately caught fire. The C-141's load of 72 acetylene gas cylinders ignited and caused a tremendous explosion, only the loadmaster escaping through the rear hatch. The A-6 overturned and skidded down the runway on its back, but both its crewmembers, Capt. Frederick Cone and Capt. Doug Wilson, survived, crawling out of the smashed canopy after the jet came to a halt. Some of the A-6's ordnance load of bombs and rocket packs went off in the ensuing fire. The Military Airlift Command crew killed were Capt. Harold Leland Hale, Capt. Leroy Edward Leonard, Capt. Max Paul Starkel, SSgt. Alanson Garland Bynum, and SSgt. Alfred Funck. This was the first of two C-141s lost during the conflict, and one of only three strategic airlifters written off during the Vietnam War.
On 12 April 1967, C-141A, AF Ser. No. 66-0127 crashed after taking off from Cam Rahn Bay AB, Vietnam. Five crew were killed and 2 were rescued.
On 28 August 1973, C-141A, 63-8077 crashed in mountains near Torrejon AB, Spain. Twenty-four passengers and crew were killed.
On 28 August 1976 a C-141 stalled and crashed after an aborted landing at Sondestrom AB, Greenland killing 23 of the 27 crew and passengers; that same day a McGuire based C-141 broke up in a severe thunderstorm while on descent into RAF Mildenhall, UK killing 18 passengers and crew.
On 12 November 1980, C-141, 67-0030 crashed while landing at Cairo, Egypt. It hit short of the runway while attempting to land at night in the desert with no ground lights as a visual reference, all 13 aboard were killed.
On 31 August 1982, C-141B 64-0652 was lost in the mountains of Tennessee (Cherokee National Forest) during a SOLL-I training mission. The local SOLL I training mission departed Charleston shortly before 1300 hours. The crew was extremely experienced. Weather along the route was reported, by other aircraft as 4500 feet Overcast, tops to 8000 feet, with zero visibility below 4500 feet due to rain showers, ragged ceiling, multi-layered stratus and fog. Route weather was below MAC minimums. Radar plots by Atlanta Center tracked the aircraft on the route. At 1427, the plots showed the aircraft in a progressive climb from 2500 feet. The aircraft impacted 4908 foot John's Knob in the Tellico Wildlife Area, 118 feet short of the peak. At the time of impact the aircraft was in a slight climb of 4-5 degrees (approximately 2000 feet per minute). There were no survivors among the crew of nine. Speculation was that the crew was attempting to use the recently installed Bendix color radar in the MAP mode, for terrain avoidance. The flight recorder and cockpit voice recorder were unrecoverable.
On 12 July 1984, a C-141B experienced an uncontained failure of its number 3 engine immediately after takeoff from NAS Sigonella, on the Italian island of Sicily. Ejected debris caused number 4 engine to also fail. Debris also entered the cargo compartment and started a fire in a pallet containing paint. The cargo fire produced thick poisonous smoke which made visual control of aircraft extremely difficult. The aircraft entered a steep bank and crashed within 198 seconds of takeoff. All 8 crew men and a passenger on board were killed. Post crash toxicology indicated the crew had received potentially fatal levels of cyanide poisoning from the smoke, prior to impact. Subsequent to this accident, smoke goggles were added to crew oxygen masks.
On 20 February 1989, C-141B, AF Ser. No. 66-0150, crashed while attempting to land at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The aircraft was executing a non-precision approach to the air base's Runway 18 during heavy thunderstorm activity with low visibility. The aircraft descended below minimum descent altitude and crashed in a wooded area north of Hurlburt Field. All 7 crew members and 1 passenger were killed.
On 1 December 1992 two McChord-based C-141Bs flying a nighttime air refueling mission collided over Montana and crashed. All 13 crew members died.
On 13 September 1997, a German Air ForceTu-154M (ex-East German Air Force) collided with a USAF C-141 at cruise altitude off the African coast near Namibia. All 24 crew on the Tu-154 plus the 9 crew on the C-141 were killed. The reason for the crash was the Tupolev flying on the wrong semicircular cruising altitude.
Aircraft on display
A C-141 Starlifter leaves a vapor trail over Antarctica
C-141A (AF Serial No. 61-2779) nicknamed "Against the Wind" was used as an Advanced Radar and Electronic Counter Countermeasures Test Bed. It is static on the South Base facility in the Air Force Flight Test Museum collection at Edwards Air Force Base, California
Crew: 5–7: 2 pilots, 2 flight engineers, 1 navigator, 1 loadmaster (a second loadmaster routinely used, in later years navigators were only carried on airdrop missions); 5 medical crew (2 nurse, 3 medical technician) on medevac flights