The Lockheed C-141 # 66-0177
By Mike Novack
During the brief history of aviation a large number of aircraft types have been particularly 'famous'. The B-25, B-29, P-51, X-15, C-47, Japanese Zero, MIGs (in several flavors), U2, the Piper Cub, and many others come readily to mind.
However, there have been relatively few specific airframes of any particular type that have been famous in and of themselves. Most of the production run of any aircraft type goes into service in near certain anonymity. They do what they are built to do, whether that means being used to train new pilots, fly passengers or cargo, or fight wars.
Even if an
aircraft has been part (or the center) of a major event it is highly unlikely
you know the tail numbers. Think of the
9-11 crashes. How about TWA Flight
800? The collision of two 747's on
specific aircraft of any type you can remember.
The list will likely be fairly short:
The Wright-Flyer. The Spirit of
On May 6th,
2006 another famous airframe made its last flight. At the same time it was the last flight for
the type. The Lockheed C-141, tail
number 66-0177. After 38 years, and
almost 40,000 flying hours carrying military and humanitarian relief cargo, and
troops and passengers to and from the four-corners of the globe, the last C-141
was retired to the
What was it that made 66-0177 famous, and saved it from the boneyard grinding machines?
conclusion of the Vietnam war 66-0177 was the first aircraft to make the trip
to Gia Lam airport near
succession over the next few weeks, additional flights were made by 66-0177 and
15 other C-141's (see note #1) (and a few C-9 "Nightingales" as well)
to return all the remaining POW's to Clark and from there back to the
A total of 591
POW's, including non-US military, and a few civilians, were flown to
Because it was
Unlike most airlift missions, what became known as Operation Homecoming had the benefit of a great deal of time available for planning. Many years of detailed planning for repatriation of the US POW’s had been completed and reviewed and reviewed again. It was one of the most comprehensive airlift operations plans ever devised. A series of plans involving return of the POW’s had been created beginning in 1968 with SENTINEL ECHO which was renamed EGRESS RECAP in September 1972.
SENTINAEL ECHO/EGRESS RECAP was polished and refined over many years and finally renamed Operation Homecoming by the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird on January 19th, 1973. Though extremely long the thorough planning process paid off handsomely. Operation Homecoming went off without a hitch.
Given the fact
that the POW repatriation flights were probably second only to the moon
landings in terms of public visibility there was nothing that could be
anticipated in terms of things that could go wrong that didn’t have a “plan
b”. A spare aircraft was positioned at
The long and
frustrating final negotiations related to a cease fire had been underway in
planning process for Operation Homecoming, some internal MAC politics resulted
in 66-0177 being selected as the lead aircraft.
General Kearney, the commander of the 63rd MAW at Norton AFB
requested that one of his airplanes be the first to land in
the wheels broke ground and the aircraft was airborne, Marrott reported that
even over the roar of the engines he could hear a very loud cheer from the back
of the aircraft. When the aircraft
crossed out of
Marrott said later "It's got to be the biggest thrill of all! It's certainly the most gratifying and it's far and above anything else I've done."
James C. Warren, the navigator on the flight, said in April, 2006, "I enjoyed flying the C-141 and as the Navigator on 'Homecoming One' this was the greatest and most heartwarming mission that I flew in my air force career. I can still hear the roar that came up from the back of the aircraft from the returnees when we rotated off the runway at Gia Lam. The fact that one of my friends Col. Fred Cherry, a prisoner for seven years and five months was on board made it all the more exciting for me."
The reaction of the C-141 fight crew and medical team members was emotional; there were many smiles and lots of tears. But for the POW’s it was far beyond that. After years of captivity, some as long as 9 years, they had been through countless ups and downs over the years. Despite the despair they suffered in captivity, hope of return to freedom was always on their minds. As new POW’s joined them in captivity (some as result of the December 1972 bombing campaign, and one on January 27th, the very day the peace accords were signed.) news of the progress of the war and peace negotiations offered tantalizing clues about their pending freedom. When the accords were signed they stipulated the details of the release and repatriation of the POW’s. The Vietnamese delivered copies of the release terms to each of the POW’s during the last few days of January, giving them their first confirmation that their release was at hand. The countdown had begun, but in the back of their minds, many feared that something would happen to further delay their release.
A number of the ex-POW’s wrote books in the year following their release from captivity. There is a very common thread that runs through all of their descriptions of what happened when they were released.
glance of the C-141 sitting on the ramp at Gia Lam airport represented the
first leg of the long flight to freedom.
The C-141 had entered regular service in 1965, and some of the POW’s had
never even seen one. When the first
group of POW’s arrived at Gia Lam via bus, they noticed the field was very
quiet and that tower and hangers had been damaged from the recent heavy bombing
campaign conducted by the
“Shortly after noon we heard a low deep droning and in moments a beautiful sight appeared in the clear sky; the high tail and swept wings of an American C141.”
Of the POW’s assembled at Gia Lam for the initial release, it was Everett Alvarez who had been in captivity longer than any other, wrote, “As it touched down and threw up a cloud of dust we cheered at the top of our lungs. It was the first C-141 I had ever seen and it was love at first sight.”
The senior ranking officer of the POW’s, Air Force Colonel Robinson Risner said, “It was so beautiful. We couldn’t believe a bird that big could be so graceful.”
For the busloads of POW’s waiting for their turn to board the C-141’s that would take them to freedom, there were some tense moments during their wait to board the aircraft. Because the AF planners were not sure of the medical condition of the of POW’s, they planned to fill the C-141’s only to partial capacity on each flight, carrying a maximum of only 40 POW’s on each flight. Space was reserved for those that might need to be carried on litters, and this reduced the number of available airline type seats that could be installed on the C-141.
released on the first day, but scheduled to be on the third and last flight out
for that day, wrote about his arrival at Gia Lam: “There we saw a beautiful
sight – a US C-141 aircraft sitting out there on the runway with a big American
Flag on its tail. The first two buses
when over to the aircraft and we watched with eager anticipation as they
unloaded and friends and comrades disappeared into the airplane. When the third bus made no move, we began to
express some sense of urgency at their delay.
We had an English-speaking guard on our bus, and responded by telling us
the plane was loaded. ‘Baloney!’, I
said. ‘That plane will hold all 112 of us. Let’s go and get on it!’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘that one is loaded. Here
comes another one now.’ If a stationary
C-141 was a beautiful sight to us on the runway, how shall I describe the
elegant bird the second one flew beneath a deck of white close, circled around,
and landed? In the emotion of the
moment, I could readily accept that it was the loveliest site I had ever seen.”
After watching the 2nd C-141 (65-0234) load and depart,
Chesley and those in the remaining group anxiously waited for the 3rd
aircraft to arrive. As soon as the 2nd
aircraft left, the third (65-0236) landed, they all loaded as quickly as
possible. He added, “We were met at the
door by three pretty young ladies, the first American girls we had seen in
years. They were attractively dressed,
well groomed and smelled delightfully of perfume. We sat down in the seats and looked
around. Everything seemed like
heaven. Just like heaven. When the back doors of that C-141 closed,
there were tears in the eyes of every man on board.” The aircraft taxied out and left Gia Lam and
Chalie Plumb, a navy pilot, captured May 19th, 1967, was released on February 18th. He noted in his book, “I’m No Hero”, that “Above us circled a beautiful C-141. It dropped landing gear and made the approach to Gia Lam.” After all the passengers were loaded, he noted that “The pilot taxied down the runway, pushed the throttles, and at the moment of liftoff, suddenly it hit us. We were off North Vietnamese soil!” We screamed above the noise of the jets.”
released on March 16th, and flown to
Lonnie Johnson, also on the same flight added “The men were out of their seats, throwing things, jerking cushions off their seats, just letting it out. I thought a few would break their knuckles beating on the fuselage. Lots of emotions, lots of tears. Such a moving experience.” 
Ernest Brace, released on March 28th, recalled, “At Gia Lam Airport, we saw the tall tail of a US C-141 jet transport rising behind the control tower. It was the most beautiful sight I had seen in years.” He added “The C-141 was enormous. I had never seen such a large aircraft.”
On the first
day of OPERATION HOMECOMING, 66-0177 departed Gia Lam at 12:30pm and arrived at
The one common thread among all their stories is that not one mentions a specific aircraft tail number. They just refer to the C-141 itself, and they all say “It was the most beautiful airplane” they’d ever seen. And it what a beautiful sight it must have been.
first Homecoming mission was most certainly the highlight of 66-0177's flying
days, it is far from the whole story.
On April 1st, 1973, 177 made its last flight related to
Operation Homecoming, returning seventeen ex-POW's to the
As a pilot, my
log book shows about 20 hours in the pilot’s seat of 177 a few years after the
POW flights out of
In all, 66-0177’s first flight of the first group of POW’s out of Vietnam represented only about three hours of flight time, out of the nearly 40,000 hours it flew over its entire lifetime. Years later, when the special story of its “15 minutes of fame” caught up with the aircraft it started to receive the recognition that it, and all other C-141’s, deserve.
It was due to
the care and concern of maintenance crews assigned to the 445th
reserve unit at Wright-Patterson that 66-0177 was saved the fate of most other
C-141’s. While doing routine maintenance
on the aircraft, several people noticed a small blue label attached to the
flight engineer’s control panel. It said
“Hanoi Taxi”. TSgt Dave Dillon, TSgt
Jeff Wittman, TSgt Henry Harlow, and others, all became very interested in this
aircraft and started a campaign to convert the aircraft into a “flying
museum”. After doing lots of research
they managed to start the process of preserving as much of the detailed history
of 177 as possible. Visiting the
aircraft today is like taking a step back in time, starting with the outside,
which has been repainted in the same colors it carried during the POW
repatriation flights. Inside the
aircraft, there are memorabilia from 177’s past. Some of the items on display include photos
of the original Operation Homecoming missions and rubbings of all the names of
On May 5th, 2006, the day before 177 was to make its
final flight, about 150 ex-Vietnam POW’s gathered at Wright-Patterson AFB in
Minutes after 177 made its final landing at the retirement ceremony on May 6th, the director of the National Museum of the AF, Major General Charles Metcalf detailed the reason that 60177 is the most famous and special C-141:
“You need to know that we put a
marker down on this airplane almost immediately after the operation to
repatriate our POW's. We deal in
stories...we deal in hardware, certainly.. the material history of the USAF is
well-represented in these several buildings....but more than that we deal in
stories and images. I think back to all
the humanitarian operations around the world.
When you watch that event on TV you always saw a C-141 or two or three
on the ramp unloading humanitarian supplies.
Images of operations in
By May 6th
2006, 177 had accumulated just under 40,000 flight hours, when it was flown to
the Museum. The final flight of 177 was
the end of the line for the C-141. As it
flew several low passes over the crowd assembled near the runway at the west
side of the field at the
The scene was
a sad repeat of hundreds of such flights that had taken place over the last few
years at the Boneyard in
By the end of
the day on May 6th, 60177 sat alone in silence on the tarmac waiting
to be towed to its final location at the museum. As I drove by it on the way back from dinner
EARLY C-141 HISTORY
In February 1959, the air force defined the initial operational requirements of what was to eventually become the C-141. Part of the plan was adoption of a uniform palletized cargo handling system (called 463L) which provided easy loading and unloading of cargo.
Initially, the aircraft was intended to be used for both commercial and military use, with the idea that civilian versions could be used for military purposes in a national emergency. At the beginning of the jet-age, the idea of a high speed "air freighter" was quite appealing but as agreement on exact specifications became more and more difficult, the military and civilian camps soon parted ways. Even the pallet and container standards eventually became different for the civilian and military worlds.
The need for a high-speed long range jet transport had been under discussion for many years by the time the C-141 program was initiated with the passing of Public Law 86-60 in July of 1960. Congress allocated just under $311 million dollars to develop and procure the transport aircraft envisioned by the air force planners. There were provisions in the law that the aircraft could not be used for regular passenger service which would compete with scheduled airlines.
By today's standards the pace of progress on the C-141 contracting process was truly remarkable. A set of final requirements were issued in a document called SOR 182 in August 1960. By December, the AF had solicited bids from Boeing, Douglas, Convair and Lockheed, and by mid-March 1961, it was announced that Lockheed had won the deal. The "Super Hercules" project was started.
The roll-out of the first aircraft from the Lockheed-Georgia plant was on August 22nd, 1963. Just six days later, the AF accepted delivery.
first flew on December 17th, 1963.
Though some would argue it was coincidence, it stretches the imagination
to believe the story that this date was not selected purely for symbolic and
dramatic effect. It was the 60th
anniversary of the Wright-Brothers first flight a
Following a series of successful test flights full production was ordered and the first airframes were delivered to the AF on or ahead of schedule beginning in 1964. The first four were dedicated to test flight and follow-on development and testing. One was built by Lockheed for the purpose of using it as a 'demo' model to try and sell the aircraft for commercial use. This later was sold to NASA which used it as an airborne observatory platform for space research.
1964 the first C-141 to enter active service (63-8078) was delivered to Tinker
AFB where initial crew training was commenced.
Six months later, tail number 63-8088 was delivered to Travis AFB and
was the first aircraft to enter squadron service. It made a non-stop flight from Travis to
Over the next months Lockheed's production line swung into full gear. By the end of 1965, sixty five Starlifters had been delivered, and by the end of June 1966 the final block of aircraft to be order was finalized and a follow-on order for 134 C-141's was placed. The total AF acquisitions stood at 284, plus the one aircraft that Lockheed built as a demonstrator and eventually sold to NASA, bringing the total C-141 production run to 285 aircraft.
By the end of
1966, a total of 164 Starlifters were in service on both the east and west
coasts of the
were initially based at Tinker AFB, (OK), Travis AFB (CA), and Dover AFB
(DE). As time progressed, additional
C-141 bases were established at McChord AFB (WA), Norton AFB (CA), Charleston
AFB (SC). C-141 operations were moved
As the new C-17 aircraft deliveries started in the 90's, C-141's were transferred to reserve units around the country. The last operating unit for C-141's was the 445th MAW at Wright-Patterson, where 66-0177 was based until its last flight on May 6th, 2006.
Flight hours on C-141’s accumulated rapidly. A few of the earliest line aircraft were chosen to participate in a high utilization rate test called “Lead the Fleet”. These aircraft flew many more than a normal day’s flight hours for about a year to determine what operational and maintenance problems might be expected over an extended period.
Tail number 66-0177 rolled off the assembly line in March of 1967 and was turned over to the air force on April 4th with 8 hours on the clock. It was initially assigned to the 63rd MAW at Norton AFB (CA), and unlike most other C-141’s which saw service at numerous active duty and reserve bases over their lifespans, 177 remained assigned to Norton until it was finally transferred to the 445th AW at Wright-Patterson in May, 1997.
The aircraft was converted from its original C-141A configuration to a ‘stretched’ C-141B in October 1981. The stretch conversion consisted of adding about 23 feet to the fuselage to increase the cargo volume capacity by 30% and adding an in-flight refueling capability to the aircraft. All but four C-141’s were converted to “B” models The “C” model conversion for 66-0177 occurred in January 1999. The “C” model included updated fuel management systems, modern “glass cockpit” instrumentation, and other improved communications and avionics equipment.
Coats of many colors
During the lifespan of most C-141’s they went through several paint schemes, starting with no paint at all. This was the original fresh-from-the-factory, bare-aluminum finish. After a few years, it was determined that in order to protect the airframe from the effects of exposure to the elements and associated corrosion problems the aircraft should be painted. A gray/white paint scheme was adopted. This was the color scheme that 66-0177 had when it participated in the Operation Homecoming missions, and which the entire fleet used during most of the Vietnam conflict and into the late 70’s.
In the early
80’s, which witnessed increased activity in the European theater, most of the
aircraft were given a camouflage pattern of dark brown and green. Yet another shade called “Proud Gray” was
eventually adopted. 66-0177 was never
given the “European One” paint scheme, and after sporting the Proud Gray scheme
for a few years it was reverted to the Gray/White scheme in February 2001. This was in anticipation of a return to
The Last Few Years
final years in service, 177 participated on a regular basis in the normal
missions of the 445th AW, making nearly weekly flights to and from
Europe and the Southwest Asia (
In September of 2005, 66-0177 flew several Hurricane Katrina relief missions, and like it had all its life, made the national newscasts and front pages of many newspapers. It seems that no photographer, no matter how many times they have seen it, can resist the beautiful C-141 T-Tail shot.
The C-141 MISSIONS
A large number
of the early missions for C-141 aircraft revolved around supply of cargo in
support of the conflict in
In addition to
routine cargo and medivac operations, the C-141 was put to great use in many special
missions. For example, a C-141 picked up
the Apollo 11 crew after their return from the moon. There were sealed inside a special Airstream
trailer to guard against possible contamination. The entire trailer, space pioneers and all,
was loaded on a C-141 and returned to the
A few C-141s
were modified with extra heavy duty floors to support the weight of a Minuteman
missile. The 141's were used to fly them
to the missile bases and to and from repair/test facilities at
Wherever there was a natural disaster in the late 60's, through the '90's and even as recently as the Katrina mess in the south eastern US in the fall of 2005, C-141's participated in all manner of humanitarian relief missions. They were frequently some of the first aircraft to arrive with relief supplies and ferried thousands of people from disaster areas to safer locations.
66-0177 participated in several Katrina relief missions as it was one of the few C-141's still flying at the time. By the fall of 2005 all but six had been flown to the boneyard in Arizona and all but 177 were quickly retired in the last few months of 2005 and early 2006.
There was virtually no place that the C-141 didn’t go over its many years of service to the country. If any aircraft can rightly claim “I’ve been everywhere!”, it is the C-141.
The story of 66-0177, both prior to and after Operation Homecoming is the story of all C-141's. The C-141 was a great airlifter, and in this writer's judgment, possibly the best ever.
As of May 6th, 2006, you can't seem them in the air, where they really belong. There are several C-141's on display air museums around the country, including March AFB in southern California, Travis in northern California , McChord in Tacoma, Washington, Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Edwards AFB, Scott AFB in Illinois, Dover in Delaware, and the NMUSAF in Dayton, Ohio.
If you are lucky enough to see one, give it a hug, and say "Thanks for all you did for this country and the world".
About the Author:
Mike Novack is a former C-141 pilot who flew the C-141A from 1973
to 1978 while assigned to the 8th Military Airlift Squadron at
McChord AFB in
Saddened by the sight of the quick and heartless destruction of
so many C-141’s, he started a web site devoted exclusively to the C-141 and all
things related. WWW.C141Heaven.com has since grown in size and has had tens of
thousands of visitors. At the present
time it is the largest single repository of information about the C-141
available thanks to all those who have contributed photos and stories about
their time with the C-141. Its long and
glorious service with the USAF will be continued at www.C141heaven.com and at the
Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
C-141 Facts and Figures
Number of C-141’s Built: 285
First Flight: December 17th, 1963
Last Flight: May 6th, 2006
There were 3 variations of the C-141, starting with the C-141A.
The aircraft was stretched to provide added cargo capacity, and given an in-flight refueling capability to provide additional range, and was re-designated the B model. These modifications were started in 1977 and completed by 1982.
In later years additional refinements were made to add state of the art avionics (“Glass cockpit”) and improved fuel management and navigation systems. This was the C model. The initial C model was delivered in the fall of 1997.
A limited number of aircraft were given special low level navigation and night vision capabilities for special operations missions.
* Affected by cargo and fuel weight and other factors such as altitude and temperature. Ranges for B and C models are obviously extendable by in flight refueling.
NOTE 1: These are the tail numbers that participated in the
flights, either from
64-0641 crashed in 1975 near McChord
65-0236 possibly at Scott?
66-0161 used at Kelly ABDR trainer, subsequently scrapped
66-0177 at NMUSAF as of 6 May 2006
This chart shows the repatriation flights from
Date Tail# #
12 Feb 60177 40 Gia
18 Feb 40641 20
4 Mar 60177 40
5 Mar 60161 34
14 Mar 70007 40
16 Mar 50280 32
27 Mar 70001 32
28 Mar 70007 10
29 Mar 50280 40
Total (17 missions) 567 POW’s
Date Tail # #
12 Feb 10878 26 Tan
Son Nhut to
12 Mar unk 1 Hong
15 Mar unk 2 Hong
1 Apr unk 1 Tan Son Nhut to
Total Missions : 21 597 passengers
Source: Air Force Journal of Logistics, Spring 1991, Page 21
 Source: “From Huffman Prairie To The Moon-The History of Wright-Patterson Air force Base”
 Cross II, Coy F, “MAC’s Finest Hour”, Air Force Journal of Logistics, Sprint 1991, Page 18
 Source: email from Don G (last name unknown), March 1st, 2006.
 Warren, James, email to author, April 15th, 2006.
 Navy Lt. Commander Phillip Kientzler. His copilot, Harley Hall was killed in the shoot down. Hall was a former commader of the Blue Angels. Because Kientzler was shot down the same day as the peace accord was signed, his name was not on the list of POW’s turned over to the Americans.
 In reality, another POW had been in
captivity longer than Alvarez. This was
Jim Thompson, an Army officer shot down in
 Source: “Chained Eagle” , Alvarez Jr.,
 Source: Risner, Robinson. “The Passing of the Night”, p. 245.
 There were actually 116 POW’s assembled at GIA LAM on Feb 12th, 1973. Chesley’s head-count was off by four.
 Source: “Seven Years in
 Source: “Honor Bound”
 Source: “I’m No Hero”, Plumb, Charlie, Page 262.
 Source: “Glory Denied”, interview on page 234.
 Source: “Glory Denied”, interview, page 234-235
 Source: “A Code to Keep”, Brace, Ernets C. Page 228-229.