The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter




The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, which first flew in December 1961, well in advance of the new management techniques. A high-wing transport powered by four turbofan engines, the C-141 was, in terms of technology, a logical advance from the first generation of jet transports rather than a sudden shattering of previous limits on size or performance. The Starlifter could carry 154 troops a distance of 4,000 miles or accommodate 7,000 cubic feet of cargo. Rollers in the floor of the cargo compartment raised or lowered to facilitate the loading of either flat-bottom pallets or wheeled vehicles through an opening at the rear of the cargo bay. Because the Military Air Transport Service had an immediate need for an intercontinental jet aircraft with a spacious cargo compartment easily accessible from the rear, the C-141 entered service in the spring of 1965, as soon as crews and aircraft became available, even before operational testing was completed.

Although rushed into service, the C-141 encountered only minor problems, such as the failure of components of the landing gear or the loss of cabin pressure through leaks around the cargo door at the rear of the cargo compartment. All in all, its maintenance record was average for a jet aircraft of its size and complexity. The satisfactory results may have stemmed at least in part from an Air Force decision to revive the Lead the Force procedures used with the first B- 47’s an d B-52s. As a result, a few designated C-141 s flew an unusually large number of hours and underwent frequent inspections designed to reveal any problems, like corrosion, that might result from extended usage. Launched in 1964, the Lead the Force program for the C-141 lasted into 1968.


Code name for 32-day airlift by U. S. Military Airlift Command (MAC) Lockheed C-141s and C-5s into the intense fighting of the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War. Neither as well known as the Berlin Airlift nor as large as DESERT STORM, Operation NICKEL GRASS airlifted thousands of tons of materiel and restored the balance of power, helping Israel survive the Soviet-backed assault from Egypt and Syria. It also solidified the U. S. Air Force’s theory of global mobility while transforming the C-5 Galaxy’s image from expensive lemon to potent symbol of U. S. airpower.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir asked U. S. President Richard M. Nixon for help. Paralyzed by events at home- the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew-Nixon was slow to respond. Moreover, coming to Israel’s aid would require a balancing act: protecting the new détente that had been achieved with the North Vietnamese at the Paris peace talks while avoiding an Arab oil embargo against the West.

On 9 October, Nixon responded to Meir’s request for the U. S. resupply of Israel. It took four more days to decide how that effort would take shape. It was Nixon who, on 12 October, made the decision that MAC aircraft would be used. The Air Force had been preparing for the contingency, and in nine days MAC’s 268 C-141 Starlifters and 77 C-5s were ready-but not fast enough for Nixon.

The fear of an oil embargo caused some U. S. allies to deny landing and air access to the flights. Only Portugal agreed, allowing the airlift to use Lajes Field in the Azores. The average distance from the points of departure in the United States to Lajes was 3,297 miles, with another 3,163 miles from Lajes to Lod/Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel. The aircraft flew to Gibraltar in Spain, then along a narrow corridor across the Mediterranean on the Flight Information Region Boundary line that divided the airspace of hostile African states to the south and friendly European states to the north.

The U. S. Sixth Fleet provided protection for the transports until they were within 200 miles of Israel, at which time Israeli Defense Force fighters took over. Relieved Israelis greeted the MAC airplanes and developed a system to accelerate unloading procedures.

With the 4,000-ton airlift requirement growing daily, the USAF sent four C-5s and 12 C-141s. By 21 October, six C-5s and 17 C-141s moved in and out daily, a level maintained until 30 October, when requirements began to decline.

The airlift officially ended on 14 November. The Air Force had delivered 22,395 tons of cargo during 145 C-5 and 422 C-141 sorties. The C-141s had carried more tonnage, but the C-5s had delivered outsized equipment that only they could carry-M-60 tanks, 155mm howitzers, ground radar systems, mobile tractor units, CH-53 helicopters, and A-4E components.

The airlift proved vital to Israel’s victory. Moreover, the performance of the U. S. transports substantiated that they were both reliable and economical, with the C-5 about 81 percent reliable and the C-141 about 93 percent reliable. No accidents occurred, and less than 2 percent of scheduled flights had to be aborted.

In the lessons-learned column, Air Force officials placed the importance of Lajes as a forward staging area and the need for aerial refueling as a standard practice. Indeed, Operation NICKEL GRASS directly resulted in the modification of the C-141 for aerial refueling. Moreover, the realization that commercial airlines could not be expected to meet airlift requirements with volunteer manpower and machinery brought about the consolidation of airlift aircraft under MAC and its designation as a specified command on 1 February 1977.


The C-141 Starlifter was the USA’s first purpose designed jet powered strategic freighter, giving the US military the capability to airlift large amounts of equipment to a war zone in as short a time as possible.

The Starlifter was designed against Specific Operational Requirement 182 for a turbofan powered strategic freighter for the then Military Airlift Command. Lockheed was selected to develop the new airlifter ahead of Boeing, Douglas and General Dynamics. Lockheed’s design took the basic cross section of the C-130 Hercules, combined with swept, high mounted wings with high lift devices for good field performance, four TF33 turbofans and a rear loading ramp.

The first C-141A flew for the first time on December 17 1963 (there was no C-141 prototype). Service entry was in 1965, replacing C-124s, C-97s and interim C-135s. 285 C-141As were built through to 1968.

The Starlifter was soon used for trans-Pacific transport flights to Vietnam and the type has been used in support of almost every US military deployment since. In service though it was soon found that the C-141A cargo volume would easily be filled (or bulked out) without reaching the type’s max payload limit, thus prompting development of the stretched C-141B.

The prototype YC-141B conversion flew for the first time on March 24 1977, and through to May 1982 271 Starlifters were converted to C-141B standard. Apart from the fuselage stretch the C-141B also gained an inflight refuelling receptacle above the flightdeck.

Apart from standard transport C-141Bs, the USAF also operates 13 C-141BS equipped for special missions support, with defensive countermeasures and a retractable FLIR pod, while four short fuselage NC-141As are used for various test duties.


Type: Strategic transport

Powerplants: C-141B – Four 93.4kN (21,000lb) Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-7 turbofans.

Performance: C-141B – Max cruising speed at altitude 910km/h (492kt), economical cruising speed at altitude 795km/h (430kt). Max initial rate of climb 2920ft/min. Service ceiling 41,600ft. Takeoff distance to 50ft at MTOW 1770m (5800ft). Ferry range 10,280km (5550nm), range with max payload 4725km (2550nm).

Weights: C-141B – Operating empty 67,185kg (148,120lb), max takeoff 155,580kg (343,000lb).

Dimensions: C-141B – Wing span 48.74m (159ft 11 in), length 51.29m (168ft 4in), height 11.96m (39ft 3in). Wing area 299.8m2 (3228.0sq ft).

Accommodation: Flight crew of four comprising two pilots, a flight engineer and navigator. Can be configured to seat 205 equipped troops, or 168 paratroops or 103 stretchers. Max payload 41,220kg (90,880lb). Can carry a variety of cargoes including five HMMWV 4WDs, or a single Sheridan tank, or 13 standard pallets.



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