Lockheed C-141 Starlifter


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 aircraft’s fuselage.

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 percent.

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 States.

Special Modifications

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 observing time.

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).

Special Operations

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.


Official DesignationC-141B Starlifter
Primary RoleStrategic airlift
Secondary RoleSpecial operations, aeromedical evac
National OriginUSA
Original ContractorLockheed-Georgia Co.
OperatorUnited States Air Force
Wingspan160 feet (48.77m)
Length168 feet, 4 inches (51.3m)
Height at Tail39 feet, 7 inches (12.07m)
Cargo HoldLength: 104 feet, 3 inches (31.76m);
Width: 10 feet, 3 inches (3.11m);
Height: 9 feet (2.74m)
EnginesFour Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-7 turbofans
Thrust21,000 pounds (94kN) per engine
Cruise Speed520 mph (837km/h; Mach 0.70)
Max Speed550 mph (885km/h; Mach 0.74)
Range5,550 nm (10,279km) without cargo; Unlimited with inflight refueling
Service Ceiling36,000 feet (10,973m)
Operating Weight144,492 pounds (65,540kg)
Fuel Capacity154,550 pounds (approx. 24,000 gallons)
Max Payload90,880 pounds (41,222kg)
Number of 463L Pallets13
Max Takeoff Weight343,000 pounds (155,582kg)
Basic CrewSix (pilot, co-pilot, two flight engineers, two loadmasters)
Date DeployedOctober 1964 (C-141A);
December 1979 (C-141B)
Total Produced285 aircraft