LIFTING THE STARS
After World War II, the United States Air Force had several long-range transports in use, such as the Douglas C-54, used extensively during the Berlin Airlift, the Lockheed C-124 Globemaster and the Lockheed C-69 Constellation. While these were capable aircraft, the USAF needed a transport of both greater speed and capacity. This blog is about the plane which met these requirements, the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter.
Throughout the 1950's, the USAF relied upon a number of propeller-driven aircraft for the strategic airlift role. By the end of the decade it was clear the USAF was in need of a totally new transport design, which could accommodate the bulky equipment and vehicles in use by the U.S. Army, as well as get them to global destinations in a timely manner. In 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 miles with a 60,000 pound payload. The tactical role specified it to be able to perform low-altitude air drops of supplies and airborne troops. Several aircraft firms responded to SOR 182, to include Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed. In response to the Air Force requirement, Lockheed's entry into the competition was designated the Model 300. The 300 would be the first jet designed from the start to carry freight. The 300 would represent a radical departure from Lockheed's previous transport, the turboprop-powered C-130 Hercules. The Model 300 was both a larger and faster plane than the C-130. The Model 300 was a large airlifter, designed with a T-tail and a high-mounted swept wing, under which four pod-mounted TF 33 turbofan engines were mounted. The Model 300 was designed with a clear cargo deck, which provided space and fittings to transport up to 154 troops or 94,510 lb. of cargo.
In March 1961, Lockheed was awarded the contract for production of the Model 300, now designated C-141, the first official act by President John F. Kennedy after his inauguration. The contract specified the initial five aircraft be built for test purposes and a unique feature of the C-141 was that it was designed to meet both military and civil aviation standards. The prototype aircraft, a C-141A, serial no. 61-2775, was produced at the Lockheed Marietta Georgia plant in record time, in August 1963. The 61-2775 plane had two other distinctions, being the first aircraft of the regular production line of C-141s produced at the Marietta plant, as well as performing it's maiden flight on the December 17, 1963, the sixtieth anniversary of the Wright Brothers first successful powered flight. One important feature of the C-141 was the floor height of the cabin being only 50 inches above ground level, providing easy access to the cabin from the large rear doors incorporated into the upwards-sweeping rear fuselage. The cargo bay is furnished with a large single-piece hydraulically-actuated loading ramp for simplified loading/unloading of both vehicles and cargo. The two side-facing rear doors were designed to allow for dropping airborne troops from the plane. One such drop was successfully performed in August 1965, with the C-141 being the first jet aircraft to drop airborne troops.. The rear doors in the back could also be opened in flight to conduct airborne cargo drops.
The Starlifter was hardly in service, when it had to meet the demands of transport requirements during the Viet Nam War. The C-141 provided daily shuttle flights from the continental United States to Viet Nam, carrying 138 passengers in rearward-facing seats, an arrangement which the Air Force determined provided better safety in the event of crashes. In addition to passenger service, the C-141 could also carry up to 62,700 lbs. of cargo per trip. On return flights the plane could transport casualties from Viet Nam to the states, supporting 80 liters with 23 medical personnel. When the United States involvement in the war was over in 1973, Starlifters were used to transport 600 POWs back to the U.S. C-141s evacuated U.S. military and civilian personnel, as well as a number of Vietnamese refugees during the exodus from Saigon in 1975.
Starlifters also evacuated 78 wounded after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beiruit. C-141s flew thirty-nine hostages to freedom in 1985 after the hijacking of a TWA jetliner in Egypt. Starlifters served in smaller conflicts, such as Granada and Panama by airdropping troops, in addition to moving heavy Army equipment into and out of the battle area. An aerial convoy of C-141Bs supported Operation Desert Shield in the Middle East, operating around the clock and landing in Saudi Arabia at an amazing rate of one transport every seven minutes.
The C-141 was also instrumental in providing humanitarian missions to over 70 countries across the globe, as well as flying medical shipments to Bosnia and delivering fuel to Antarctica. The 141 also performed evacuation flights from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. The Starlifter was also used as a test aircraft in a number of programs. One project of interest occurred in the late 1990's. Project Eclipse, a joint effort among NASA, Kelly Space and Technology and the USAF, which demonstrated a reusable tow launch vehicle concept, was developed and patented by KST. Designated C-141As would tow modified F-106 (QF-106) jet fighters, with the project's primary goal to prove an aerodynamically-shaped aircraft could be tow launched into space. After a number of ground and flight tests determined the handling characteristics of the QF-106 on tow were quite stable with actual flight measured values of tow rope tension and aerodynamic performance well within simulated results, the project was declared a success in February 1998. With 285 examples produced, the Starlifter was in service for forty-one years before its retirement in 2006. Though replaced by newer transport designs, such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster, the Starlifter began the legacy of USAF jet transports, fulfilling President Kennedy's Executive Order of 1961.