The Lockheed C-141B Starlifter fulfills the vast spectrum of airlift
requirements through its ability to transport combat forces over long distances, inject
those forces and their equipment either by airland or airdrop, resupply employed forces,
and extract the sick and wounded from the hostile area to advanced medical facilities.
President John F. Kennedy's first official act after his inauguration
was to order the development of an all-jet transport to extend the reach of the nation's
military forces. The Air Force required that the new aircraft be capable of performing
both strategic and tactical airlift missions. This meant that it must have the capability
to perform at low altitudes, airdrop troops and supplies anywhere in the world, and travel
at least 3,500 nautical miles (6,482km) with a 60,000 pound (27,216kg) load. Designed by
the Lockheed-Georgia Company, the C-141A Starlifter was the result. The first prototype
(#61-2775) flew on 17
December 1963, the 60th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.
The first C-141A, delivered to Tinker AFB, Oklahoma in October 1964,
began squadron operations with the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) in April 1965.
Starlifters made flights almost daily to Southeast Asia, carrying troops, equipment and
supplies, and returning patients to U.S. hospitals. The last C-141A (#67-0166) was
delivered in February 1968.
When it entered service with MATS, the Starlifter has provided the U.S.
Air Force with a fast and capacious long-range jet transport with which it could replace
the slow C-124 Globemaster II and narrow-cabin C-135 Stratolifter. Drawing heavily on
experience with the smaller C-130 Hercules, the Starlifter featured a fuselage of similar
cross-section, a rear ramp and loading assembly with two large clamshell
doors that could be opened in flight for airdrops, rear paratroop doors on both sides, and
landing gear housed in external fairings.
A high-set wing, swept 25 degrees, was adopted for high-speed cruise,
with powerful flaps provided for good low-speed field performance. The aircraft
also featured a T-tail, four underwing TF33 turbofan engines, and integral wing fuel tanks.
The C-141A was originally delivered to MATS in a natural silver finish,
before adopting the Military Airlift Command's (MAC) white and grey scheme. In the mid-1980s,
after all but four A-models were converted to Bs, this scheme gave way to the "European One"
camouflage. During the 1990s, much of the Air Mobility Command transport fleet, which also
included the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III, adopted the current "Proud Grey" scheme.
Throughout its career the C-141 Starlifter has been the workhorse of the
air mobility fleet, flying regular supply missions around the world in addition to special
requirements. The latter have included disaster relief, evacuations, aid delivery and missions
in support of combat operations. Perhaps the Starlifter's finest hour came in the second half
of 1990, when the entire fleet was instrumental in transporting much of the equipment for
Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Not long after the C-141A entered service, it became obvious that its
maximum payload of 70,847 pounds (32,136kg) or 92,000 pounds (41,731kg) on aircraft
configured to carry LGM-30 Minuteman ICBMs was rarely achieved, the aircraft frequently
ran out of cabin volume long before its maximum payload weight had been reached. This problem
was resolved by "stretching" the
During the 1970s, the entire fleet of 270 aircraft (minus the four
NC-141A aircraft used as aerial testbeds) were returned to Lockheed for modification. This
process consisted of lengthening the aircraft by 23 feet, 4 inches (7.16m), which increased
cargo capacity by about one-third 2,171 extra cubic feet (61.48 cubic meters) and
increased the maximum payload weight from 70,847 pounds (32,136kg) to 90,880 pounds (41,222kg).
Lengthening of the aircraft had the same effect as increasing the number of aircraft by 30
At the same time, a universal air refueling receptacle, with the ability
to transfer 23,592 gallons in about 26 minutes, means longer nonstop flights and fewer fuel
stops at overseas bases during worldwide airlift missions. This inflight refueling system
is housed within a characteristic "humped" fairing above the flight deck. This new capability
provided the Starlifter with true global airlift capacity.
The prototype C-141B made its first flight on 24 March 1977 and Lockheed
completed the final B-model on 29 June 1982. Of the 285 C-141A Starlifters built, 270 were
converted to B-models.
The Air Force has recently approved an upgrade for some "low-time" Starlifters
that serve with Air Force Reserve and Air Guard units. C-141C modifications aim to preserve the
remaining force by making reliability, maintainability and capability improvements necessary for
effective use through 2006. Sixty-three aircraft in the current C-141B fleet will undergo major
modification. Each will receive a "glass cockpit" which features an all-weather flight control
system, a Global Positioning System (GPS), chaff/flare dispensers, and a new fuel quantity
indicating system. These upgrades should be complete before 2001.
The C-141 Starlifter provide low-altitude delivery of paratroops and
equipment, and high-altitude delivery of paratroops. It can also airdrop equipment and
supplies using the Container Delivery System (CDS). The C-141 was the first aircraft
designed to be compatible with the 463L Material Handling System, which permits
off-loading 68,000 pounds (30,844kg) of cargo, refueling and reloading a full load,
all in less than an hour.
Of inestimable value to the U.S. Air Force is the Starlifter's sheer
versatility. Like that of the C-130 Hercules, the C-141's main hold is fitted with
tie-down points and floor cleats that allow it to be rapidly reconfigured for different
missions.. Some passenger configurations include: 200 troops seated in canvas side-facing
seats, or 166 troops in rear-facing airline-type seats, or 103 litter patients plus
attendants, or a combination of passengers and cargo. Rollers in the aircraft floor allow
for quick and easy cargo pallet loading. A palletized lavatory and galley can be installed
quickly to accommodate passengers, and when palletized cargo is not being carried, the
rollers can be turned over to leave a smooth, flat surface for loading vehicles.
Although most heavy equipment is moved by the C-5 Galaxy, the Starlifter
can carry a Sheridan tank, an AH-1 Cobra helicopter, or five HMMWV vehicles. Thirteen
standard cargo pallets (88" x 108" @ 10,000 pound (4,536kg) capacity) can be admitted, and
other loads can include aircraft engines, food supplies, fuel drums or weapons. The C-141
has pressurized cabin and crew station.
In its aeromedical evacuation (medevac) role, the Starlifter can carry
about 103 litter patients, 113 ambulatory patients or a combination of the two. It provides
rapid transfer of the sick and wounded from remote areas overseas to hospitals in the United
Several C-141s have been modified to perform special missions for the U.S.
Air Force and NASA. A number of these aircraft were designed to transport the Minuteman
intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in its special container, up to a total weight of
92,000 pounds (41,731kg) while others were used as aerial testbeds
for advanced radar systems or as flying observatories.
Kuiper Airborne Observatory
A modified C-141A, NASA's Kuiper Airborne Observatory
(KAO) is an airborne astronomical research facility. This unique observatory allows
astronomical observations from anywhere on Earth with freedom from cloud cover. It is
fitted with a 36-inch (91.44cm) reflecting telescope
located in the upper fuselage behind the cockpit. Flying at 41,000 feet (12,497m), the
KAO is above 85 percent of the earth's atmosphere and more than 99% of the earth's water
vapor. In this clear, dry environment, astronomers, using infrared detectors, can study
heat radiating from stars, planets and other celestial bodies. The airborne observatory
can also react quickly to study rare events like solar eclipses, comet passages and
supernova explosions. With little advance notice, it can be deployed worldwide to the
best viewing location. The KAO can routinely provide up to 6 and a half hours of
The aircraft began as a Lockheed Model L300 Starlifter jet transport,
originally configured as a prototype commercial version of the U.S. Air Force C-141A. The
telescope system was designed and built by the Fecker Systems Division of the Owens-Illinois
Corporation. The telescope cavity was designed and installed by Lockheed Aircraft Services
in May 1973. Research operations began in February 1974. In May 1975, the facility was
dedicated as the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, named for University of Arizona astronomer,
Gerard P. Kuiper.
For over twenty years, the KAO was operated as the world's only
airborne telescope devoted exclusively to astronomical research. The unique aircraft
ended its service in October 1995 so that work could begin on its successor, the
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
Thirteen C-141Bs of the 437th AW are equipped for the Special Operations
Low Level (SOLL) role with increased survivability measures, the most obvious being the
addition of a FLIR turret beneath the nose. Special features on these aircraft include:
Forward-Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR), an Infrared Countermeasures System (IRCS), a Radar
Warning Receiver (RWR), chaff/flare dispensers, and head-up (HUD) displays.
The C-141A Starlifter was the first jet-powered transport from which U.S.
Army paratroopers jumped, and the first to land in the Antarctic. A C-141A also established
a world record for heavy cargo drops of 70,195 pounds (31,840kg).
During Desert Shield, a C-141B from the 437th Military Airlift Wing (MAW)
at Charleston AFB, South Carolina, was the first American aircraft into Saudi Arabia,
transporting an Airlift Control Element (ALCE) from the 438th MAW at McGuire AFB, New Jersey.
In the following year, Starlifters completed the most airlift missions (7,047 out of 15,800)
in support of the Gulf War. They also carried more than 41,400 passengers and 139,600 tons
of cargo. Eighty percent of Air Force C-141Bs were used in Operations Desert Shield and Desert
Storm, the rest were flying high-priority missions elsewhere around the world.
Overall, the strategic airlift to the Persian Gulf was the largest since
World War II. By the cease-fire, Air Force airlifters had moved 482,000 passengers and 513,000
tons of cargo. Viewed in ton miles, the Gulf War airlift was equivalent to repeating the
Berlin Airlift, a 56-week operation, every six weeks.
With the service life of the C-141 Starlifter fleet closing to an end, a
gradual retirement phaseout has begun and is expected to be complete by 2006. While most of
the "high-time" Starlifters are being sent to the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona
while others are being transferred to Air Force Reserve and Air Guard units.
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