C-141 StarLifter

C-141 StarLifter
October 01, 2020

Promoting world peace and security one flight at a time

On August 23, 1963, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed it was a “great moment for our nation” when he unveiled by remote control from the White House the initial Lockheed C-141 StarLifter military transport plane. By ceremoniously pressing a gold key in the nation’s capital and allowing for the virtual rollout of the carrier some 650 miles away in Marietta, Georgia, President Kennedy ushered in the first jet-powered airlifter and set in motion a versatile aircraft which helped write history throughout its 43 years of service.

Extending the military’s reach

Responding to President Kennedy’s order to develop an all-jet military transport troop and cargo carrier, Lockheed produced the StarLifter on time and under budget using the exclusive designs of its Marietta-based engineers. From 1965 to 2006, it served as the mainstay of the U.S. military airlift, participating in every operation from Vietnam to Iraqi Freedom. The aircraft’s speed proved invaluable during Vietnam by cutting roundtrip flight time between California and Saigon from 95 hours to 34, while its 93-foot cargo bay made it easy to offload almost 70,000 pounds of freight per hour.

Equally impressive when transporting passengers, the StarLifter came to be known as the “Hanoi Taxi” in 1973 after repatriating nearly 600 American Prisoners of War held in North Vietnam. The planes also played important roles in rescuing American personnel and Vietnamese refugees during the 1975 exodus of Saigon, evacuating 78 wounded in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, and carrying 39 hostages to freedom after the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in Egypt.

The StarLifter aided smaller military engagements such as Granada and Panama by airdropping troops and moving heavy Army equipment to and from the battlefields. And a convoy of modified C-141Bs successfully supported larger missions in the Middle East like Operation Desert Shield, operating around the clock and landing in Saudi Arabia at an astounding rate of one every seven minutes.

A C-141B Starlifter aircraft leaves four plumes of exhaust behind it as it prepares for an airdrop.

Saving Lives and Advancing Science

Beyond its stalwart military transport, the StarLifter performed humanitarian relief flights to nearly 70 countries across the globe, including fuel deliveries to Antarctica, medical shipments to Bosnia and safe passage to victims of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Its reach even extended into outer space with NASA’s conversion of a C-141 into a flying astronomical research laboratory, allowing scientists to peer deeper into the universe to study heat radiating from stars, planets and other celestial bodies; observe rare events like solar eclipses, comet paths and supernova explosions; and make amazing discoveries like the existence of rings around the planet Uranus. It’s a fine legacy for the “workhorse” of the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command for over four decades.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Boyne, Walter. Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
  • “C-141B StarLifter,” http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/man/uswpns/air/cargo/c141b.html, accessed 11 May 2012.
  • Fredriksen, John C. The United States Air Force: A Chronology. Santa Barbara, Calf.: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
  • “USAF Retires Last Lockheed Martin C-141 StarLifter; World's First Jet-Powered Airlifter Completes 43-Year Career,” http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/usaf-retires-last-lockheed-martin-c-141-starlifter-worlds-first-jet-powered-airlifter-completes-43-year-career-56156262.html, accessed 11 May 2012.