A Revolution in Air Transport

Published Airpower Journal - Fall 1991
Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.

A Revolution in Air Transport
Acquiring the C-141 Starlifter

Roger D. Launius

Betty R. Kennedy

THE NATION'S leaders are increasingly challenged by the difficult task of managing shrinking defense dollars more efficiently than at any time since the end of the Korean conflict. Deft handling of political, economic, technological, and managerial issues is required to provide future generations with an Air Force sufficiently capable to meet threats that are only vaguely discernible at the present time. In testimony before Congress in April 1990, Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney acknowledged this problem when he remarked that the weapon systems currently being developed will probably be flown by pilots not yet born and ordered into action by a president not yet old enough to vote.1 The necessity for quality weapon systems, therefore, becomes increasingly important with every passing moment.

Military air transports, like other USAF weapon systems, have always been closely related to evolving aviation technologies. Consequently, the history of military airlift includes the eternal search for larger, more advanced, and increasingly more capable aircraft systems. The Military Airlift Command (MAC), previously designated the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) from 1948 to 1966, has long been involved in aircraft development and acquisition as the Department of Defense's (DOD) single manager for airlift services. A study of the command's efforts to acquire the C-141 Starlifter, the strategic airlift workhorse currently operated by MAC,2 illustrates the difficult road presented by even the most successful acquisition programs. Changing requirements and approaches political priorities and apparatus, defense strategies and perceived threats, and the social and economic climates all play key roles in this process Analyzing a past airlift acquisition program recenters the present debate over how much and what kind of airlift most rationally meets the needs of the United States' national security interests. Comparison also highlights the evolutionary development of military airlift and offers insights into future airlift acquisitions.

Political Context

The acquisition of the C-141 transport followed directly the course of strategic and economic priorities of the cold war era. As airlift activities wound down following the Korean conflict, MATS found itself embroiled in a life-threatening debate with segments of the commercial aviation industry and members of Congress over the role of military airlift in peace and war. To many, the command's strategic airlift system of fixed routes appeared more appropriately to belong to the private sector, especially when MATS pilots flew essentially the same routes as the commercial carriers. Intense competition among the scheduled and supplemental carriers3 in the uncertain airline market had created a situation by the mid-1950s that appeared threatening to even the most financially sound airline. The heads of the commercial carriers saw a lucrative market with DOD and therefore wanted a much larger slice of its airlift business. Moreover, there was great public interest in reducing the expenditures and size of the federal government, and a move from an organic to a contract airlift system for DOD could yield potentially extraordinary savings.

In this environment, Congress showed sustained interest in the relationships between military and civilian air transport operations, and the C-141 eventually sprang from this interest. The first formal congressional discussions were the 1956 hearings conducted by a subcommittee of the House Defense Committee on Appropriations. Disturbed by the Army's inability to deploy its stateside strategic forces to foreign theaters, as well as by questions raised by the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (Hoover Commission) on military air transport activities and their possible infringement on civil carriers, Congressman Daniel Flood (D-Pa.) chaired a series of airlift hearings. During the presentations, Congressman Flood criticized MATS's use of C-118 Liftmaster and C-121 Super Constellation aircraft. As militarized versions of civilian aircraft, they simply had not been designed to accommodate the Army's air transport requirements. What was needed, in his view, was a large, modern aircraft designed solely for military use. It would be capable of transporting the Army's troops and heavy equipment together, thereby ensuring the timely arrival of cohesive fighting forces.4

Although MATS leaders objected to Congressman Flood's criticism, they found his statements on modernizing air transport most acceptable. It gave added weight to a command proposal dating from the early 1950s to replace its aging World War II fleet with two types of turboprop aircraft. These leaders sought a purely cargo aircraft capable of carrying 50 tons a distance of 3,500 miles and a passenger/cargo aircraft capable of transporting 15 tons or 100 passengers over the same distance. The long-range capability for the two aircraft was based on the realization that many en route air bases would in all probability not be available in wartime. Influencing the MATS plan was a Rand Corporation report which concluded, after reviewing some 1,000 aircraft designs, that transport aircraft with turboprop engines would have lower operating costs than those with standard reciprocating engines. Moreover, most military air transport officials were not overly concerned about higher altitudes and speeds that came as a result of the turbojet revolution; hence they did not seriously consider jet transports as possibilities at that time. Their views oriented the command toward an evolutionary upgrade in airlift capabilities Not until the Boeing 707 appeared in the latter part of the 1950s, demonstrating so well the potential of jet transports, did MATS leaders become excited by the prospect and redirect acquisition efforts.5

Plans for modernizing the MATS fleet did not come to fruition until after the continued attention of Congress forced senior Defense Department officials to consider the problem anew. In January and February 1958, Rep Chet Holifield (D-Calif.), chairman of the Military Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations, led an investigation into all air cargo and passenger transportation. Not initially concerned with MATS's force modernization, the subcommittee addressed the issue as it proceeded. During the hearings, the president of the Air Transport Association, Stuart Tipton, outlined a plan for a national airlift program that utilized to a much greater extent the civil carriers to meet wartime airlift requirements.6 Through an elaborate formula, Tipton essentially proposed that DOD look to the civil carriers first to meet its wartime airlift requirements and then allocate any remaining requirements to MATS. Tipton clearly envisioned commercial carriers taking the lion's share of DOD's airlift business with MATS limited specifically to "hard-core" military airlift missions that required specialized aircraft for outsized or exceptionally heavy cargo, unusual security measures, or direct support of tactical combat units.7 This concept drew a pointed response from Dudley Sharp, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for materiel, who argued that the Air Force needed to maintain a strong transport force that could provide an instant response capability. Moreover, Sharp maintained that commercial airlift was complementary, not equivalent, to military airlift. Sharp further refuted those who claimed that the airlift capability of MATS was more than a by-product of peacetime training.8

Recognizing that the arguments of each side had merit, the Holifield subcommittee concluded that MATS had turned the flying hours allocated to the command for wartime training into a peacetime transportation system that could be regarded as competing with the commercial carriers. Thus, the subcommittee's report recommended that MATS concentrate on airlifting outsized and special cargo, leaving the passenger and conventional cargo business to the commercial carriers. Consistent with this division of airlift, the subcommittee also directed that the Air Force take action to modernize the MATS fleet-which primarily consisted of aircraft designed for commercial use-by procuring a large, long-range cargo aircraft. Such an aircraft, built specifically to carry the military's hard-core cargo and without a genuine passenger capability, would ensure that military transports did not compete with the commercial airlines for DOD dollars. Thus, by directing the procurement of a completely different type of aircraft for MATS, Congress would in effect remove the command from the passenger arena--which was the bread and butter of commercial operations.9

This directive to modernize the MATS fleet received additional support during the months that followed. For example, Sen A. S. ("Mike") Monroney (d-okla.), chairman of the Commercial Aviation Subcommittee, held hearings that reinforced the recommendations of the Holifield subcommittee.10 More important, Cong L. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) of the House Armed Services Committee presided over an investigation by a subcommittee whose findings mandated a radical modernization program for MATS aircraft. Rivers advocated the procurement of jet aircraft as the ideal for MATS so that it could keep up with the turbojet strike forces it supported. This modernization program was necessary, he believed, because the United States was entering a new age that demanded a conventional intercontinental assault capability. The slow shift in the late 1950s from a nuclear deterrence strategy to one requiring flexible response in a variety of contingency environments increasingly necessitated the intercontinental airmobility of conventional military forces. At a minimum, the Rivers subcommittee advocated procuring Douglas DC-8, Boeing 707, Douglas C-133, and Lockheed C-130B aircraft for this purpose.11 These hearings also designated that specific funds be made available for modernizing military airlift along the course set by the Holifield subcommittee report.12

The USAF Response

Responding to the congressional recommendations, DOD officials stated their concurrence on modernizing the MATS airlift fleet provided it was not placed ahead of other military procurement programs. In 1958, as at present, air transport modernization was not at the top of the Air Force's procurement list. Defense officials, however, did show a moderate commitment to the congressional recommendations. They made ongoing plans to retire the MATS piston-engined C-54 Skymaster and C-97 Stratofreighter aircraft and to introduce the C-133 Cargomaster, at that time the largest turboprop transport in the Air Force. Headquarters MATS and USAF planners also studied future airlift requirements and recommended acquiring both Lockheed's C-130B Hercules and a swing-tail cargo jet aircraft, the C-135 Stratolifter, to complement the C-133. The most important action to come out of the Air Force's 1958 modernization plan was the decision to begin developing from scratch a cargo jet to be fielded in the 1966-70 time frame. This aircraft became the C-141 Starlifter, perhaps the most significant transport aircraft brought into the USAF inventory to date.13

The C-141 program gained impetus toward realization as a result of congressional activities during the 1959 budget cycle. Once again, the issue of modernizing MATS aircraft arose in a roundabout manner. In 1959 the Holifield subcommittee, holding follow-up hearings, listened to a far-reaching airlift plan presented by the head of the new Federal Aviation Agency, Elwood R. Quesada, a retired USAF general and former Lockheed executive. Quesada envisioned building an "air merchant marine" by developing a fleet of all-cargo transports that would form the commercially opened National Air Cargo Fleet. This action would effectively disestablish the Civil Reserve Air Fleet of private carriers under contract to DOD for wartime airlift. It would also significantly reduce MATS since Quesada's new commercial fleet would be able to satisfy the Army's request for airlift sufficient to move an entire division.14 According to Quesada's plan, a minuscule MATS would move only the purely military or hard-core items required by the Army.. The National Air Cargo Fleet would airlift everything else.15 Quesada found strong support for his plan from a wide range of respected people and organizations, even among senior officials in DOD.

Quesada's plan resulted in Congress rejecting the Air Force's budget request to purchase 10 jet transports during fiscal year 1960, not because Congress as a whole opposed the modernization of the MATS fleet but because the Air Force wanted to buy essentially commercial DC-8 or Boeing 707 aircraft. Congressman Flood, for example, argued that the Air Force airlift modernization initiative at that time was an expensive vehicle designed to give MATS nothing more than the same type of jet aircraft capabilities as those maintained by commercial airlines. Senator Monroney expressed fears that the modernization package as presented by DOD would stifle the development of a genuine reserve cargo fleet by placing MATS in even more competition with commercial carriers than in the past.16

In addition, Headquarters USAF did not help its bid for this acquisition money by several almost laughable miscalculations that raised the ire of key congressmen. First, required to report annually on initiatives concerning MATS, the Air Staff sent a lieutenant colonel instead of the expected general officer to accompany the assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management. This created a negative impression in Congress about the USAF's support for modernizing its airlift fleet. Second, the Air Force had failed to spend the $140 million appropriated for fiscal year 1959 airlift modernization. That omission caused House committee members to conclude that the Air Force could simply do without. Also, influenced by the contention of certain airlines that the Air Force would use any new jets to compete with passenger airlines, Congress remained unconvinced that the service should have its own way in a MATS modernization program. These reasons, as well as others of a less tangible nature, made it possible for Senator Monroney to get the Air Force's modernization proposal voted down despite a concession by Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas that the Air Force would limit its acquisition to 50 jet transports and that there would be no additional transport purchases until after their arrival.17

These adverse actions prompted Headquarters USAF to make some last minute efforts to rescue the air transport procurement dollars. With the assistance of Sen Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), the Air Force began seeking $50 million for a supplemental appropriation for fiscal year 1960. In a letter to Cannon, Secretary Douglas indicated that $30 million of the USAF request was to continue research and development (R&D) work an new jet engines that would benefit both the military and commercial airlines. This feature was very attractive to many members of Congress, but when Cannon presented the supplemental request before the appropriations committee, he failed to make that point. Instead, the committee got the impression that the money was for an Air Force plan to fund three different transports: the all-cargo military jet or its equivalent, 50 C-133s to carry outsized cargo and missiles, and several hundred civil-military cargo transports. Using his influence, Monroney got the matter voted down only to learn later about the jet-engine R&D effort. During the conference session on the budget, Cong Albert Thomas (D-Tex.) refused to reinstate the $30 million and got the item passed over pending a new study on the airlift issue during the next congressional sessions The net result of the budget deliberations for 1960 was that neither the Air Force (which now lacked funds to modernize strategic airlift) nor the airline carriers (which now with congressional meddling had intensified the competition among the various segments) were happy.

Pivotal Actions, 1960-61

The quest for what became the C-141 took a new turn in 1960-61 with three critical actions. The first involved a study conducted at the direction of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He asked Defense Secretary Neil McElroy to examine the role of MATS in all environments. Completed in February 1960, The Role of Military Air Transport Service in Peace and War contained the first national policy statement on airlift. Essentially the report's nine provisions directed that commercial carriers through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program would augment the military's need for airlift; MATS, in turn, would provide the hard-core airlift. The provisions further stipulated that MATS would undergo modernization to fulfill its military requirements and proposed joint civil-military development of a long-range, turbine-powered cargo aircraft.19

The second action arose when Cong Carl Vinson (D-Ga.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked Congressman Rivers to head a special subcommittee to look into the Army's requirements for airlift in support of the increasingly important flexible response strategy.20 As early as 1951, the Army's leadership had been harping on the need for a strategic airlift deployment capability and had asked the Air Force to be capable of airlifting a tactical airborne assault force of two and two-thirds divisions and one other division to potential combat theaters worldwide. Tonnage requirements per division were placed at 5,000 for movement to established facilities and at 11,000 for austere locations. Just to deploy 5,000 tons of equipment earmarked for one of these divisions was estimated as requiring 272 C-133-type aircraft.21 During the Rivers hearings, Gen Lyman L. Lemnitzer, the Army chief of staff, restated the Army's request for this capability and asked for sufficient airlift to move the combat element of a division within 14 days and two divisions within four weeks.22 It quickly became apparent to Rivers that the Air Force could neither support these requirements nor did it have any realistic plans under way to reach that goal. The result was a stinging rebuke to both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of the Air Force for failing to create enough capability in MATS to meet potential contingencies.

In discussing what kind of airlift it needed during the Rivers hearings, Army officials advocated the development of an aircraft that could perform many battlefield tasks: strategic and tactical airlift, airdrop, and low-level flights were only a few of the desired capabilities. Because it was already in production and had many of the desired characteristics, Army leaders were willing to accept a modified C-130 for this role. Viewing the airlift problem somewhat differently, Lt Gen William H. Tunner, the MATS commander, proposed the procurement of 45 swing-tail jets to support deployments by the Strategic Air Command; 49 other swing-tail aircraft as an interim solution to the Army's needs; 50 C-133s for outsized cargo requirements; and 188 additional jet aircraft especially designed to support Army requirements, which would become the C-141. Tunner estimated the cost of this modernization package at approximately $2 billion. Unfortunately, DOD and USAF officials clearly opposed acquiring so many new transport aircraft. But MATS maintained that its future rested on those jets, basing its rationale on the need for improved performance and reliability features to meet the rapidly advancing flexible-response strategy.23

Faced with these service differences, the Rivers subcommittee forged a compromise that also took into consideration prior congressional directives on modernizing airlift. Rivers asked the House Appropriations Committee to approve $337 million for 50 C-13OEs and 50 modified jets. While the House Appropriations Committee reduced Rivers's request by $100 million as it revived the Quesada plan and gave priority to the procurement of the C-130s, the Senate Appropriations Committee disagreed and sought to redress the military's overall neglect of airlift. Congress subsequently passed Public Law 86-601 on 7 July 1960, allocating $310.7 million for airlift, specifically $140 million for C-130Es, $60 million for modified jets, and the remainder for C-130Bs and the C-141 development program. The congressional conference report further stipulated that MATS use its jets for both Army and Air Force requirements.24 The lasting value of the Rivers subcommittee hearings was to convince Congress of the great need for modern airlift resources to support the growing air mobility of conventional forces.25

The third critical action occurred during the presidential election campaign of 1960 when Sen John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) made the airlift issue part of his presidential campaign. Indeed, his embrace of the doctrine of flexible response for the nation's defense strategy required the ability to project military power throughout the world. He even spoke of the need of developing "additional air transport mobility--and obtaining it now" in his State of the Union address in January 1961. Accordingly, rapid mobility became a key element of the Kennedy administration's posture of deterring the full spectrum of warfare.26 Support for a MATS airlift modernization program had never been more certain.

It should be added, however, that the support for airlift had come largely from outside the Department of Defense. While certain Army leaders were advocating airlift, they perceived it largely as a means of deploying paratroopers, and special assault troops still regarded surface transportation as the primary mobility system. Likewise, the Air Force as an entity was not committed to airlift, with the general exception of officers in the Military Air Transport Service or airlifters who had moved to other positions throughout the Air Force. The reasons for this lack of concern were complex. Although airlift was officially considered one of the primary missions of the service, most Air Force officers still did not accept it as coequal with missions performed by fighter and bomber aircraft.

Airlift, in essence, did not really fit into the scheme for the optimal use of air power. It remained a stepchild--an auxiliary force--not contributing directly to the quest for air superiority or strategic bombardment. Although airlift was important, perhaps the impression that it was closely tied to an essentially unglamorous logistical effort reinforced its stepchild position. In addition, the perception that airlift was tied to the Army probably determined the importance it was assigned in Headquarters USAF circles. The divorce from the Army in 1947 had been a difficult one, and the Air Force had sought to show how it had a mission and a significance beyond that of supporting ground operations.27 For air transport acquisitions to be successful, therefore, sufficient congressional and key executive branch interest had to be developed to counteract the pervading apathy of most USAF leaders.

The Flexible-Response Strategy
and the C-141

The difficult task of mobilizing interest for an aircraft program received a major boost during the Kennedy administration when the rapidly rising defense strategy of flexible response in both nuclear and conventional arenas gained preeminence among the nation's leaders. An able advocate of flexible response, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara pressed forcefully for the C-141's acquisition, sometimes facing opposition and always experiencing a subtle sense of apathy from Headquarters USAF. Even with the development of the C-141 in the offing, the rapid change in the national security posture had made an interim modernization program for MATS of utmost importance. As a result, McNamara worked first for an increase in the procurement of the longer-range C-130Es from 50 to 99, the modification of 17 KC-135 tankers under production into transport configurations, and the purchase of 13 additional C-135s. The command would use the now C-130 and C-135 aircraft to fill the void until the arrival of the proposed C-141.28

The interim solutions in McNamara's plan were acceptable to most Air Force officials. Only airlift planners at Headquarters MATS raised questions about the viability of the turboprop C-130 Hercules for the command's strategic airlift operations.29 The C-130 was originally designed for the Tactical Air Command as a short-range transport to support the Army's air assault operations, and it was a superb aircraft for this purpose. It was quite rugged and dependable, especially for intratheater operations where its airborne, short-field landing, and truck-bed loading height capabilities were especially valuable features.30 Although the E model to be procured for MATS had a longer range, had more payload capability, and was serviceable as a strategic airlifter, MATS officials did not regard it as very suitable for long-range missions. While the E model's performance was an improvement upon that of both the C-119 and C-123, the aircraft it was designed to replace, its 18- to 23-ton payload could not compete with the cargo-carrying capability of aging C-97, C-121, and C-124 aircraft. Moreover, from the perspective of MATS airlifters, the C-130 was still a propeller-driven aircraft (although it was a turboprop), and its cruising speed of approximately 300 miles per hour did not significantly improve upon what was currently in the MATS inventory. Command officials plainly regarded the C-130 as a stopgap measure to meet airlift requirements until the C-141 was developed.31

The other interim aircraft, the C-135 Stratolifter, was simply a military version of the Boeing 707. First configured for the military as the KC-135 tanker aircraft for the Strategic Air Command, it was then adapted to transport requirements. MATS received its first Stratolifter in June 1961. Capable of flying at 600 miles per hour and carrying 87,000 pounds, or 43.5 tons, it represented a great advancement in military airlift. For example, in 1962 during Exercise Long Thrust, C-135s completed the fastest transatlantic troop rotation in history, transporting one Army unit from Kansas to Germany and returning another unit to Fort Lewis, Washington, in 45.5 hours. Clearly, what piston aircraft had taken days to airlift, the C-135 moved in hours . Yet, because of flexible response at a time when there was great emphasis on airdrop capability, the C-135 had none. Nor were its cargo-carrying capabilities, especially its side-loading features, well suited to the transportation of military equipment; and the civil carriers, which flew essentially the same aircraft, argued that this created an environment ripe for direct competition with them. Additionally, fatigue analysis had determined that these aircraft had an effective service life of a mere 10,000 flying hours. Virtually everyone recognized these problems. In considering the purchase of additional C-135s during discussions on the budget for fiscal year 1963, Defense Secretary McNamara recognized the C-135's limitations and decided to wait for the C-141.31

Believing the near-term need called for a medium-sized transport "workhorse," DOD under McNamara emphasized the consummation of a program that had been first started in a very small way in 1959. With planners working closely with the Army, the C-141 Starlifter was designed to carry all but 2 percent of an airborne division's equipment a distance of 5,500 nautical miles at speeds up to 500 miles per hour. The C-141 revolutionized the MATS airlift system in terms of both speed and capability. It was, in part, such a successful aircraft because it represented a middle ground of technology. While it was not simply a military version of a commercial airliner--past acquisition efforts in that direction had always possessed serious drawbacks--it also did not represent the most advanced technology. The aviation systems that comprised the C-141 were mature and proven. Although there have always been trade-offs in designing military equipment, the C-141 achieved a success uncommon in most aircraft systems. It balanced a worthwhile mixture of advantages and disadvantages in terms of capabilities, price, durability, supportability, and quality. The C-141 had a shorter fuselage than either the C-133 or the DC-8F. With a maximum payload of 34 tons, it fell below the Boeing 707-300's 44.9 tons and the DC-8F's 38.7 tons. Moreover, its maximum range fully loaded was 500 miles less than the B-707 or the DC-8, and the C-141 had no outsized cargo capability like the C-133 or C-124. At a time when other MATS military transports had speeds of approximately 300 miles per hour, however, McNamara was willing to trade this cargo-carrying capability for greater responsiveness.

In comparing the C-141 against the B-707 and DC-8, McNamara willingly accepted less than ideal range and tonnage-carrying capability for the ability to transport more oversized cargo. What the military got was a fast jet transport with good troop-carrying capabilities, excellent cargo capacity, and superb air-drop capabilities; all using available technology of the late 1990s and early 1960s-no more, no less. 33

Development and Acquisition

Events moved rapidly following the recommendation of the Rivers subcommittee to procure a new medium transport. By May 1960, the airplane's specific operational requirement document-SOR 182-was published, and by July initial funding for the program was available. In December 1960, Boeing, Douglas, Convair, and Lockheed receive the government's request for proposal. Indicating the national importance ascribe to the new military transport, President Kennedy assumed the honors of announcing Lockheed as the winner of the design competition for its "Super Hercules" in March 1961. More than two years later, in August 1963, the first C-141 rolled out of the Lookheed factory, and on 17 December 1963 the C-141 Starlifter made its maiden flight. In its design and construction phase, the C-141 program was well executed. The aircraft exceeded virtually all of the requirements established by MATS and fulfilled the needs of the Army except it could not handle outsized cargo.34

Of significance, the Starlifter was procured under the novel "concurrent acquisition and test" concept versus following a standard practice of developing a prototype aircraft for test and evaluation. Under this philosophy, the C-141 entered the operational force prior to the completion of the Category II Test Program.35 The rationale behind the concurrent concept was to have a weapon system become productive sooner; many believed that testing a new aircraft in the operational environment would also enhance the evaluation process of the various systems. The pressing needs of the Vietnam conflict also made this new philosophy attractive. Although MAC received the C-141 at least two to three years earlier under this method, it also strained the aircraft's planned logistics support and led to a series of modification projects to correct deficiencies. These included structural, avionics, landing gear, flight control, aerial delivery system, and air-conditioning problems. By the time MAC acquired the last of the 284 Starlifters in February 1968, the C-141's deficiencies had been corrected and consequently had faded as a concern. The main lesson with respect to future programs was that while the concurrent acquisition and test concept would field a weapon system faster, it would not eliminate seemingly inevitable system problems. On the other hand, if the weapon system's design and construction is sound, there is no reason to believe that a concurrent acquisition and test program creates greater numbers of deficiencies than any other procurement strategy.36

Two military operations in particular silenced what little criticism there was of the C-141. In Operation Blue Light (December 1965-January 1966), MAC aircraft transported 2,952 infantry troops and 4,749 tons of equipment from Hickam AFB, Hawaii, directly to Pleiku, Vietnam. The new C-141s flew 88 of the 231 missions, and while the command's other transports flew more missions, the C-141 flights represented a nearly fourfold increase in airlift capability. Moreover, the C-141s completed their missions in one-third the time of the C-124s and C-133s.37 Again demonstrating their combat worth in November and December 1967, C-141s flew 369 of the 391 missions in Operation Eagle Thrust, moving 10,024 troops, the 101st Airborne Division (minus one brigade), and 5,357 tons of cargo directly to Vietnam, a distance of approximately 10,000 miles. While the C-133 mission elapsed time ran over 100 hours because of the need for more en route stops, C-141s made the trip, averaging between 27 and 30 hours.38


There are at least four major conclusions that can be drawn from the development of the C-141 Starlifter. First, the political process surrounding the acquisition of the C-141 was exceptionally convoluted. Had it not been for congressional and executive branch interest in the airlift modernization program--some of it because of the ulterior motive of seeking to remove MATS from competition with the commercial carriers--the C-141 would never have been built. Throughout most of the 1950s, few people in either the USAF or larger DOD communities, exclusive of people past or present having served in MATS, cared sufficiently about air transport to advocate spending significant funds on its modernization. This was especially true when precious research, development, and acquisition dollars went into airlift modernization to the detriment of other acquisition programs. Most USAF leaders at the time of the C 141's development were much more concerned with the acquisition of the fighter that eventually became the F-4 and preferred to see funds expended on that program rather than on a transport, suggesting again that the former was more central to the overall needs of the Air Force.

Key congressional leaders involved in defense issues, however, initially, focused attention on the airlift shortfall and eventually, prescribed solutions from outside the Air Force to ensure that the MATS airlift modernization evolved.39 Their investigations were focused in part by the Army's, a demand for a greater USAF commitment to meet its expanding airdrop and air assault requirements because of the flexible-response strategy. This attention elevated the airlift discussion to the highest levels of government, prompting the president and his top advisors to make it a matter of concern and action. This was clearly seen in the efforts of President Kennedy and Secretary McNamara in the early 1960s.40 However, only after civilian leaders interested in defense management and strategy emphasized the issue, did the Air Force begin to support the modernization program.

Second, the late 1950s and early 1960s fostered an environment more conducive to building the C-141 than had any earlier period in the history of the Air Force. The flexible-response strategy greatly increased the importance of maintaining a conventional force, especially one that could be deployed quickly as was the case during the Lebanon and Taiwan crises. To accomplish this, airlift of a much greater capacity and more responsive nature was needed to support the Army. The acquisition of the C-141 fit beautifully into the new strategy and in essence became a linchpin of its success. Without capable airlift to move troops to flash points around the globe, any conventional capability was a hollow force. The civilian leaders of the nation and the Army understood this very well, and by the early 1960s, the Air Force establishment had also co-opted the philosophy. Of course, MATS leaders were delighted with this new course as it generated both the procurement of the C-141 and a heightened status for military airlift.41

Third, the technology of the C-141 was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but the result was a radical--maybe even revolutionary--change in the manner in which airlift was regarded and utilized by the American military. Gen Howell M. Estes, Jr., the MAC commander at the time that the C- 141 entered the Air Force inventory, perhaps understood better than most people the revolution in airlift that came with the acquisition of the C-141. He suggested that the revolution really encompassed two phases. The first, which he believed was nearing general acceptance, was a recognition of the importance of airlift as a tool for executing US foreign-policy objectives whether in a peacetime or contingency environment. He wrote, "Global military airlift has been shown, throughout the era of the cold war, to be a principal medium of achieving maximum military flexibility."42 By the time of the Vietnam War, he added, MATS had become "the key element in a far-ranging change in national policy: to a strategy of multiple options for flexible, measured response to any situation in the spectrum of war."43 He called this linear progress; it was relatively straightforward with the obvious advantages of airlift outweighing its limitations for all but the most myopic and obtuse individuals.

Estes perceived the second phase of revolution as more ethereal and less easy to conceptualize and understand. General Estes played off the differences between technology and airlift in this arena and postulated that only when technology had eliminated constraints on the possibilities will this phase have been completed. He identified nine overlapping limitations on airlift technology: speed, range/payload trade-offs, flexibility of employment in a wide array of scenarios, cubic capacity, loadability, aircraft self-sufficiency, fuel efficiency, direct operating costs, and terminal base requirements. No single aircraft had ever overcome all of these difficulties, and Estes asserted that probably one never would. What General Estes did conclude, however, was the C-141 had made a quantum leap forward by obviating many of the historic airlift limitations due to its high speed, range/payload options, flexible runway requirements, favorable loading characteristics, and airdrop capability.44 The realization of the ability to airlift large loads over intercontinental distances into either a combat or nonthreatening environment in a matter of hours was the revolution that the C-141 fostered. It led to an entirely new avenue for the employment of airlift and its maintenance and logistical support systems.45

Finally, the C-141 program was a superb example of the integration of defense planning and systems acquisition at the highest levels. Richard P. Hallion, the preeminent historian of aviation technology, recently divided several of the aircraft procurement programs of the 1945-65 time period into four basic categories: (1) unrealistic proposals, (2) disappointments, (3) aircraft the USAF learned to live with, and (4) genuine successes. While Hallion did not discuss the C-141, it was one of the genuine successes, comparable to the outstanding programs that resulted in the F-86, B-52, KC-135, C-130, T-38, F-4, U-2, and SR-71 aircraft.46

The C-141 truly represented a brilliant airlift concept well executed, with an acceptable purchase price. Coupled with an outstanding design, the Starlifter has been a workhorse of the airlift fleet for some 25 years and is projected, at a minimum, to be in service until the mid-1990s. While the acquisition process was grindingly slow, the technology evolutionary, and the politics at times desperate, the result was a revolution in airlift capability and responsiveness. Military airlift's course as exemplified in the acquisition of the C-141 does much to explain the difficult birthing process of the future strategic airlifter, the C-17.


1. Secretary Cheney appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on 26 April 1990 to discuss major weapon system acquisition programs. See "Cheney Cuts Aircraft Buys," Airman, May 1990, 2-3.

2. Strategic or intertheater airlift is the movement of personnel or cargo over intercontinental distances, such as between the United States and Europe, usually in a nonthreatening air environment. Tactical or intratheater airlift is the movement of personnel or cargo within a theater, often-times in a combat situation.

3. At the time, scheduled carriers, as represented by the domestic trunk lines and the international carriers, flew set schedules over fixed routes and received a federal subsidy. Supplemental or nonscheduled carriers flew based on temporary needs and lacked subsidies. Another important category was the all-cargo carriers that had grown out of the supplemental group. They flew fixed routes and could obtain subsidies. In addition, there were a number of carriers that provided feeder service or served regional areas like Hawaii or Alaska.

4. Congressman Flood's colleagues were especially interested in the military's wasteful practices and relationship with the commercial carriers. Ignoring the need for aircraft specifically designed for military use, they directed in the Senate and House Appropriations Committees' reports that the Air Force fully utilize the services of the commercial airlines. For instance, in 1957 Sen Stuart Symington (D.-Mo.) sponsored a law requiring civil air carriers to handle 40 percent of the passenger and 20 percent of the cargo transportation requirements for MATS in fiscal year 1958. See House Committee on Appropriations, Department of the Air Force Appropriations for 1957: Hearings before Subcommittee, 84th Cong., 2d sess., 1956, 1464-65; House Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1957, 84th Cong., 2d sess., 1956 H. Rept. 2104, 45-47; Senate Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1958, 85th Cong., 1st sess., S. Rept. 543, 1957, 13-14.

5. History, Military Air Transport Service (MATS), July-December 1953, 54-57.

6. House Committee on Government Operations, Military Air Transportation: Hearings before a Subcommittee on Government Operations, 85th Cong., 2d sess., 1958, 3-20.

7. Initially "outsized" referred to the ability to carry bulky and heavy pieces of equipment like tanks, missiles, and fighter aircraft. Presently, "outsized" is defined as an item exceeding 828" by 117" by 105" high. "Oversized" is any item that exceeds the usual dimensions of a 463L pallet (104" by 84").

8. House, Military Air Transportation, 497-501, 506.

9. House, Military Air Transportation: Twenty-eighth Report by the Committee on Government Operations, 85th Cong., 2d sess., 1958, passim.

10. Senate Committee on Commerce, Study of Military Air Transport Service: Hearings before Subcommittee, 85th Cong., 2d sess., passim.

11. House Committee on Armed Services, Investigation of National Defense: Phase II, 85th Cong., 2d sess., Report of Special Subcommittee no. 4, 1958, 2-10.

12. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1959, 85th Cong., 2d sess., S. Rept. 1937, 1958, 17-19; Public Law 85-724, sec. 634, 22 August 1958.

13. Lt Col Charles E. Miller, Airlift Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1987), 248-49.

14. Established in 1952, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet is comprised of commercial carriers who dedicate a portion of their aircraft fleets to serve the Defense Department's airlift requirement in emergencies when the military's airlift capability is exceeded. In return for enrolling in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, the government awards its peacetime airlift business based on the numbers and kinds of aircraft committed by the carriers.

15. House Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Military Operations, Military Air Transportation, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, 201-7.

16. Ibid., House Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1960, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, pt. 1, 85-86, 88; pt. 6, 585-98, 620, 653-54; Senate Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1960, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, 1600-1601, 1241-42.

17. House, DOD Appropriations for 1960, pt. 1, 85-86, 88, 124-25; Senate Committee on Appropriations, Supplemental Appropriations Bill for 1960: Hearings before the Subcommittee, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, 803-20.

18. Congressional Record, 19 August 1959, 5504-6.

19. Department of Defense, The Role of Military Air Transport Service in Peace and War (Washington, D.C.: Assistant Secretary of Defense [Supply and Logistics], 1960).

20. See Robert C. Owen, "The National Military Airlift Hearings of 1960: Doctrinal Victory or Successful Turf Battle?" (Unpublished study, Duke University, April 1990).

21. House Committee on Armed Services, Hearings before Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift, 86th Cong., 2d sess., 1960, 4071; Frederick C. Thayer, Air Transport Policy and National Security (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 136-39, 196-99; Air Force Phamphlet (AFP) 190-2-2, Releasable Data on USAF Aerospace Vehicles, vol. 3, 1 June 1964, 26.

22. House, Hearings before Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift, 4075-78.

23. Ibid., 4183-93, 4222-84, 4307-10.

24. House Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1961, 86th Cong., 2d sess., 1960 pt. 7, 328-39; House Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1961, 86th Cong., 2d sess., H. Rept. 1561, 1960, 16-18; Senate Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1961, 86th Cong., 2d sess., 1960, pt. 3, 1502-4, 1656-57; Public Law 86-601, sec. 531, 7 July 1960; Congressional Record, 30 June 1960, 14105, 14106.

25. The Big Slam/Puerto Pine exercise in March 1960 especially convinced Rivers and other congressman of the need for airlift modernization. Designed to test the ability of MATS to surge and to sustain its wartime aircraft utilization rate as well as to determine if MATS could transport a large Army force from the continental United States to respond to an overseas contingency, the exercise was a fiasco. While MATS did move 29,095 troops and 10,949 tons of cargo, it did do only by flying 1, 263 sorties for a total of 50, 496 flying hours, by using half of the MATS transport fleet and 32,000 personnel, and by requiring over a year of detailed planning to include massive prepositioning of spares, equipment, and personnel. The exercise plainly disclosed the obsolescence of most of the MATS transport fleet. Newspaper reporters did not fail to note that commercial jets could have flown to Puerto Rico faster than the aging MATS force of C-124s. See presentation by Lt Gen William H. Tunner, MATS commander, before the House of Committee on Armed Services, Special Subcommittee on National Military Airlift, Military Air Transport Service Report on Exercise BIG SLAM and BIG SLAM/PUERTO PINE, 20 April 1960. Copy in the Office of MAC History, Scott AFB, Illinois.

26. Quoted in Miller, 276.

27. The problems of creating a separate Air Force have been detailed in Herman S. Wolk, Planning and Organizing the Postwar Air Force, 1943-1947 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1984).

28. Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1961-1984 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1989), 2:30.

29. These aircraft became the backbone of the Military Airlift Command's tactical airlift force when mission and resources that had been a part of the Tactical Air Command, Pacific Air Forces, United States Air Forces in Europe, and the Alaskan Air Command were merged into MAC. See Jeffrey S. Underwood, Military Airlift Comes of Age: Consolidation of Strategic and Tactical Airlift Forces under the Military Airlift Command, 1974-1977 (Scott AFB, Ill.: Office of MAC History, 1989).

30. Martin Caiden, The Long Arm of America: The Story of the Amazing Hercules Air Assualt Transport and Our Revolutionary Global Strike Forces (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1963).

31. History, Military Air Transport Service (MATS), January-June 1962, 50-57; AFP 190-2-2, 27; Headquarters MAC Management Information Summary, "Aircraft Performance and Characteristics, Tactical Airlift Turboprop," February 1990.

32. AFP 190-2-2, 30; Futrell, 2:47.

33. Walter L. Kraus and Jose M. Matheson, C-141 Starlifter (Scott AFB, Ill.: Office of MAC History, 1973), 1-2.

34. Futrell, 2:627.

35. Acquisition testing involves three phases or categories. Category I consists of the development, testing, and evaluation of individual components. Although under the oversight of the Air Force Systems Command, the contractor is mainly responsible for these tests. Category II tests and evaluates the integration of the subsystems as well as tests the complete system under near operational conditions. This category is primarily an Air Force effort with participation from the contractor. Category III determines the capability of the systems/equipment in terms of operational tactics, techniques, doctrines, or standards. It also determines deficiencies or limitations and evaluates the logistics system capability. The using command conducts this test phase.

36. Kraus and Matheson, 69, 73, 110, 111, 153-67, 384, 410.

37. History, Military Airlift Command (MAC), July 1965-June 1966, 429-38.

38. Mary L. Whittington, EAGLE THRUST (Scott AFB, Ill.: Historical Services and Research Division, Office of MAC History, 1969), 1, 6-8, 43.

39. For insightful discussions of how Congress has changed the manner in which it deals with defense issues, see James M. Lindsey, "Congress and Defense Policy: 1961-1986," Armed Forces and Society 13 (Spring 1987): 371-401; Edward A. Kolodziej, The Uncommon Defense and Congress, 1945-1963 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966); Craig Liske and Barry Rundquist, The Politics of Weapons Procurement: The Role of Congress (Denver: University of Denver Press, 1974); Raymond H. Dawson, "Congressional Innovation and Intervention in Defense Policy: Legislative Authorization of Weapons Systems," American Political Science Review 55 (March 1962): 42-57.

40. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965); Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program, 1961-69 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971); Robert S. McNamara, The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (New York Harper and Row, 1968); William W. Kaufman, The McNamara Strategy (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

41. Bernard Brodie and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb, rev. ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 281-85; Gerald H. Clarfield and William M. Wiecke, Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1940-1980 (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 232-37; David Schwartzman, Games of Chicken: Four Decades of U.S. Nuclear Policy (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1988), 67-99.

42. Gen Howell M. Estes, Jr., "The Revolution in Airlift," Air University Review 17 (March-April 1966): 4.

43. Ibid., 6.

44. Ibid., 6-9.

45. Gen Howell M. Estes, Jr., "Modern Combat Airlift," Air University Review 20 (September-October 1969): 12-25.

46. Richard P. Hallion, "Girding for War: Perspectives on Research, Development, Acquisition, and the Decisionmaking Environment of the 1980s," Air University Review 27 (September-October 1986): 46-62.


Roger D. Launius (BA, Graceland College; MA and PhD, Louisiana State University) is chief historian of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C. He previously served as command historian of the Military Airlift Command (MAC). Dr Launis has had entries in encyclopedias and collected works; and his articles have appeared in a variety of publications such as the Aerospace Historian and Air Power History. He is coauthor with Coy F. Cross II of MAC and the Legacy of the Berlin Airlift, published in 1989 by the Office of MAC History.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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