Issue Date: September 20, 2004
After 40 years, sun sets on Starlifter fleet
Last two active-duty C-141s set to retire
By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writer
On Sept. 16, a few thousand feet over southern Arizona, the truth will arrive for Master Sgt. Kirk Sweger: 23 years as a C-141 loadmaster is coming to an end.
Sweger and a handpicked crew will be aboard one of the last two C-141B airlifters in the active-duty Air Force, shepherding the jets from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., to retirement at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
“It’s an honor to be able to say I’ll be on that crew, but I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until we’re on final at Davis-Monthan,” said Sweger. “Then it will become real.”
The flights will mark one of the final milestones in what aviation historians call a remarkable aviation career. The Starlifter, the world’s first all-jet military transport, has flown for 40 years, carrying everything from paratroopers in Vietnam to injured soldiers out of Baghdad.
“Some airplanes are designed to have a short lifespan. … There are also sorts of also-rans and not-quites,” said Michael Leister, director of the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base, Del. “But if Consumer Reports rated airplanes, [the C-141] would get a check-plus in every column. It did everything we ever asked it to do.”
A handful of C-141s will remain flying with National Guard and Air Force Reserve units in Ohio, Tennessee and California. But McGuire’s are the last Starlifters on an active-duty base — down from a force of 270 just six years ago — and the Sept. 16 event probably is the most significant aircraft retirement the active-duty force has seen since the departures of the last F-4 and F-111 jets in the mid-1990s.
“Without the C-141, it’s doubtful McGuire would even exist,” said Master Sgt. Gary Boyd, historian for McGuire’s 305th Air Mobility Wing. The base’s history is tied to that of the C-141 — of about 9 million flight hours logged by Starlifters, nearly 2.5 million have been flown by McGuire units, Boyd said.
Age, work take their toll
The first C-141A joined the Air Force fleet in 1964, just four years after Congress approved development of a long-range jet transport. In an age of continent-hopping, it’s easy to underestimate the significance of such a plane.
“Prior to that, flying cargo on airplanes took 14 to 16 hours to cross the Atlantic,” Leister said. “The C-141 allowed us to accomplish that in a single workshift.”
That was a capability military planners and presidential administrations were eager to use. Just as another jet of that era, the Boeing 707, changed the way the world thought about air travel, Lockheed’s C-141 transformed how the U.S. used its military might. The Starlifter became the backbone of the U.S. military’s ability to project conventional military might over long distances, altering the strategy for fighting the Cold War or intervening in hot spots and catastrophe areas around the globe.
In 1979, the Air Force decided it needed even more capacity, and began modifications on hundreds of C-141s, slicing them open, adding a 23-foot section to the fuselage and adding air-refueling capability.
Age and all those hours in the skies have taken a toll.
“We’ve flown this airplane until it has worn out,” Leister said. “Lots of fighters head to the boneyard with thousands of hours left on the airframes, but the C-141s, we’re wearing out.”
In some ways, the C-141s departure isn’t as significant for folks at McGuire as what comes next: Arrival of the base’s first C-17s later this month.
“The feeling here is that the 141 is kind of like an old car we’ve had for a long time, and now a better car is on the way,” said Maj. Tom Faaborg, a C-141 pilot who will transition to the C-17. “For a while, you don’t want to get rid of that old car, but at some point the focus becomes all this new stuff. … I’m not going to shed a tear, but you do pause and reflect on all the places that old car has taken you.”
Sweger — whose C-141 experience dates back to flying on the A-model — will move on to another history-drenched airplane.
“I’m going from an old car to another old car, the C-130,” he said. “I honestly thought I’d end my career in the 141, and it’s a little disheartening to know now that I won’t.”
Another fine aircraft. Im glad that they are being replaced with something superior in all regards.
C-141. The second plane in which I stood up, hooked up, and shuffled to the door.
I remember seeing the blast deflector rotating out through the troop door. That increased my pucker factor, realizing that I was about to fling myself bodily from a jet aircraft that NEEDED a blast deflector.
It's amazing they held up as long as they did. BTW, how does the C-141 and C-17 compare? I know the C-17 can land on pretty rough airfields. But can it haul an equal or greater amount of cargo as compared to the C-141?
For a cargo plane, I always thought the C-141 was rather sleek. Kinda like a C-5 on a diet if you will. Hehe.
C-17 can haul M1 Abrams tanks...
C-141 could not.
Here's their spec's;
Primary Function: Cargo and troop transport
Contractor: Lockheed-Georgia Co.
Power Plant: Four Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-7 turbofan engines
Thrust: 20,250 pounds, each engine
Wingspan: 160 feet (48.7 meters)
Length: 168 feet, 4 inches (51 meters
Height: 39 feet, 3 inches (11.9 meters)
Cargo Compartment: Height, 9 feet 1 inch (2.77 meters); length, 93 feet 4 inches (28.45 meters); width, 10 feet 3 inches (3.12 meters)
Cargo Door: width, 10.25 feet (3.12 meters); height, 9.08 feet (2.76 meters)
Speed: 500 mph (Mach 0.74) at 25,000 feet
Ceiling: 41,000 feet (12,496 meters) at cruising speed
Range: Unlimited with in-flight refueling
Maximum Takeoff Weight: 323,100 lbs (146,863 kilograms)
Load: Either 200 troops, 155 paratroops, 103 litters and 14 seats, or 68,725 lbs (31,239 kilograms) of cargo
Unit Cost: $47.4 million (fiscal 2002 constant dollars)
Crew: Five or six: two pilots, two flight engineers and one loadmaster and one navigator (added for airdrops). Aeromedical teams are two flight nurses and three medical technicians each are added for aeromedical evacuation missions.
Primary Function: Cargo and troop transport
Prime Contractor: Boeing Company
Power Plant: Four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofan engines
Thrust: 40,440 pounds, each engine
Wingspan: 169 feet 10 inches (to winglet tips) (51.75 meters)
Length: 174 feet (53 meters)
Height: 55 feet 1 inch (16.79 meters)
Cargo Compartment: length, 88 feet (26.82 meters); width, 18 feet (5.48 meters); height, 12 feet 4 inches (3.76 meters)
Speed: 450 knots at 28,000 feet (8,534 meters) (Mach .74)
Service Ceiling: 45,000 feet at cruising speed (13,716 meters)
Range: Global with in-flight refueling
Crew: Three (two pilots and one loadmaster)
Maximum Peacetime Takeoff Weight: 585,000 pounds (265,352 kilograms)
[b]Load: 102 troops/paratroops; 36 litter and 54 ambulatory patients and attendants; 170,900 pounds (77,519 kilograms) of cargo (18 pallet positions)
Unit Cost: $236.7 million (FY98 constant dollars)
Everytime I read about the retirement of aircraft that were once a common sight to me, such as the A4, A7, A6, F4, F14, and now the C141, I feel a little older. My youth seems a little further behind me. My days in the service become a little more precious to me.
My Grandfather commanded a Reserve unit that loaded/unloaded these. He fought hard to keep them in the mid 1990s. Ironically, he lives just a few miles south of the mothball at Davis-Monathan. I guess he and his planes are retiring together.
I'll never forget the last time I jumped ou t of a -141. I was so used to Hercs...When it was my turn I grabbed the door edges and almost jumped up. I remembered just in time and pushed myself DOWN. It was almost a dive.
Damn, that picture hurts really bad. I hate to see that jet chopped up like that. I was a crew cheif on 141's for about 6 years then I went to the C-17. You know what else kills me? Those flight specs that were listed on the Lifter. They are all toned down a bit. I for one have been at 41,500 feet with the red flag in the mach airspeed indicator settin dead on mach .85. The mach flag deploys at mach .85. For those who really want to know the Globemaster 3 will easily leave the ground with a minimal fuel load and 2 abrams tanks in it. Lifter couldn't do that. Anyway I could say a lot about both of these aircraft but I probably shouldn't. I love the 141. When I was in basic and I found out my orders were to be a 141 crew cheif I almost cried. I thought it was an ugly peice of shit. I wanted fighters. After I got to McChord AFB I had a lot of learning to do. That damned old war horse was one hell of a plane and dont let anyone think it wasn't. I really like the C-17, don't get me wrong. It is a beautiful machine, almost magical compared to a lifter. But it has a lot of walking on some hard roads before it can be compared to a lifter.
Anyway, I hate to see the old bird put down to roost but I know she was rode hard and put away wet. She liked it that way. If you let her set on the ramp too long she would fall apart. But if you flew her and flew her hard she would be there with you every stitch of the way. One of my most favorite ones to work on was BALLS 3, LOL, that's what we used to call it. 67000003 was its serial number if I remember the right amount of 'balls'. My bird was 66-192. Good jet. Yup, they did do their time...hard time...long time. We literally flew the wings off the things. I'll miss them. Nothing like the lockhead smile late at bight on long final, smell of burnin fuel and watering eyes from it, and the hard growling whine the engines made...damn. The C-17 never really had any effect on me like that. Damn, damn, damn. I never thought I would see the day....
Any pics of a C-17?