STARLIFTER: TheAir Force's fleet of C-141s may be on its way out, but the war effort keeps it aloft.
THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE, October 15, 2001, B-Section, Page 1

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE—That growl of jet engines lifting 300,000 pounds of plane and cargo off the runway day and night is as familiar to aviation buffs as the whap-whap of a helicopter rotor.

The fleet of Vietnam War-vintage cargo planes stationed at March Air Reserve Base once again is being called to do the heavy lifting, this time in the war on terrorism.

"Just an awesome plane," said Shayne Meder, a retired Air Force master sergeant who now restores aircraft at March Field Air Museum.

The C-141 Starlifter, with its distinctive 39-foot-high T-tail and four Pratt and Whitney turbofan engines, is flying near-daily cargo missions from March to support the Defense Department wartime needs. Exactly what the cargo planes are doing and where they are going is classified. The Air Force plans to retire the last of its 102 Starlifters within five years, replacing them with the bigger C-17 Globemaster III.

March's 452nd Air Mobility Wing, which flies 18 Starlifters, is hoping to get the new Globemasters as replacements for the Starlifters. The Air Force will have 137 C-17s once the entire fleet is delivered. That total cannot keep up the daily pace delivered by the Starlifters, according to the Air Force and the airmen who fly the planes.

With 10.5 million flying hours logged over 37 years, the C-141s' retirement date could be pushed back further because of the current terrorist threats, some say. However, there are no plans to change that scheduled retirement, said Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. David Lamp. The Air Force has requested more C-17s to fill the void left by the Starlifters' eventual retirement, he said.

'Only plane I wanted to fly'

Veterans see extended life for the Starlifters.

"Personally," said Meder, "I don't think they'll retire then. With what's going on now, the Air Force would be crazy. We might need them."

THOMAS KELSEY / THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE Looking forward from the tail of the C-141 Starlifter shows the immense size of the jet. The tail is 39 feet from the ground, and the length of the plane is 169 feet.

The Starlifters' numbers dwindle as each surpasses 45,000 flying hours, the outer limits of the airframe's life. A typical trans-Pacific mission can run 12 or more hours, so the C-141's life is equal to at least 3,750 of those trips. Put another way, the average C-141's life is equal to 1,875 continuous days (5 years and 50 days) in the air.

"You hate to see them leaving the inventory," said Lt. Col. Kelly Curtis, a veteran Starlifter pilot and March reservist. "A lot of us keep hoping the 141s get a lease on life."

The Starlifters' aviation history is long and rich.

President Kennedy pushed a button symbolically to roll out the first of 284 in 1963 from Lockheed's plant in Georgia. Those early Starlifters began flying the next year. Lockheed then lengthened the fuselage on 270 Starlifters during a 1980 upgrade of the fleet, giving the plane more room to haul cargo and troops. The fleet recently was modernized with the latest digital instruments in the cockpit.

More than half the fleet is flown by Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units.

It's hard for airmen and maintenance people to say goodbye to the Starlifter that has been one of the Air Force's most reliable, safest and easiest to fly, said Air Force Lt. Col. Gary Pennington, another March reservist. Shayne Meder, aircraft restoration manager at March Field Air Museum, sits in the pilot's seat of a C-141 Starlifter.

Pilots always have their favorite aircraft, he said. "The Starlifter is the only plane I wanted to fly," said the pilot, who has 10,000 flying hours in the C-141 during more than 30 years.

Nonstop Starlifters

It was the type of missions the Starlifter performed that enthralled Pennington and thousands of other pilots and air crews. The six-member crews could expect to fly virtually anywhere in the world.

And they did: Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Antarctica and countless humanitarian missions to remote airfields were among the calls made by Star-lifter crews.

Missions ranged from flying 566 American ex-POWs from Hanoi to the United States to flying 37,000 missions during the Gulf War. And now, the Star-lifters are the critical lifeline for scientists in Antarctica as they fly in supplies under the most severe weather conditions.

Pennington remembers a period when the Air Force designated a group of Starlifters to be flown virtually non-stop to see what kinds of break-downs maintenance people could expect.

The Air Force learned the plane could fly pretty much non-stop with minimum engine failure, he said. According to the Air Force, the plane's safety record is phenomenal over 37 years: 16 destroyed by air crash or some other ground accident; 161 crew and passengers killed. The last crash was in 1997 with nine killed. One Starlifter was destroyed on the ground when hit by an F-16, leaving just 15 actually destroyed in air crashes.

The plane is a joy to fly, said Bob Dotson, a retired Air Force colonel from Redlands. "You can fly it with two fingers," said the former fighter pilot, who flew 16 different military aircraft during his 30-year career.

The engines are so powerful pilots jokingly gave it a fighter designation, the "F-141." Some Army paratroopers prefer jumping from the C-141 over other aircraft, said Meter, the aircraft museum's expert. The plane can hold 200 soldiers or 155 paratroopers. And it can carry 80,000 pounds of cargo. That's less than half the capacity of the new C-17, which can carry one M-l tank. The Air Force now flies 75 of the new Globemasters.

These days, the Starlifters' destination is classified as they climb and bank northwest out of March's runway. "The 141 is playing a significant, and much unheralded role," Dotson said. He once commanded the Air Force Reserve's 4,400-member wing at the former Norton Air Force Base.

"To get our forces into position," Dotson said, "you always have to have the 141s."

This article was submitted by Richard Reichelt, from his personal collection of C-141 material

Last Updated: 14-Sep-2004 10:10