The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
Warplane at Work
As THE SUN sets beyond the distant pines there comes a tingling in the air, more felt than heard, a steady thrumming like the plucked string of a violin, not dying away but getting louder and deeper until it is a gentle rumbling. The umpires, standing tensely with their stop watches in their hands, can see them now, coming on like black bats, swooping low above the ground. And the rumble becomes a thunder and a scream and a dying whistle fading into the distance as the planes sweep past, leaving the sky behind them alive with parachutes, floating down with men dangling beneath them, or square pallets loaded with cargo that hit with a thump and a bounce and a puff of dust in the middle of the great open field that is the target zone.
In this low-level combat drop, the StarLifter takes on a different character. Here it is doing the job it was designed to do. For it is above all else a combat cargo plane, built to go in low, under enemy radar, and drop men or supplies, and pull up fast and be gone before enemy guns can be brought to bear. This is its first and foremost function, and its superb performance as a long-range, highflying cargo plane, a special freight-hauler carrying atomic weapons and missiles, and a gentle hospital ship is merely a happy by-product of its original purpose and design.
Its basic combat mission is simply this-to provide airlift to the Army divisions with which each MAC wing is affiliated, standing ready to move them into battle anywhere, any time, with all their weapons except their biggest guns and tanks,which the StarLifter's big brother, the C-5 Galaxy, now is assigned to carry.
The winding down of the war in Vietnam has relegated the movement of troops and weapons to a less active role, but the planes and the crews have kept up their combat training between their global peacetime missions. The crew that two days ago may have been buying opals and slapping mosquitoes at Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia, tomorrow may be dropping cargo pallets and paratroopers over the Salton Sea in California, or the old artillery ranges at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. McGuire, for example, picks up Army troops in Massachusetts, flies them 3000 miles, and drops them in Alaska. Then it picks them up and brings them back and drops them at their home station. All the wings-McGuire, Travis, Dover, Charleston, McChord, and Norton-carry out their drop training in conjunction with MAC's associate wings, skilled Reserve crews made up in the main of former Air Force people now turned civilian, who come back to fly the same big birds the regular squadrons operate. The day when the Reserve squadrons are assigned old and obsolescent planes is nearly at an end.
Every few years all of this special training comes into focus in one fierce week-long competition to determine the sharpest combat air-drop pilot, crew, squadron, wing, and numbered Air Force in MAC. To the traveler along a country road who may look up to see a 300,000-pound airplane thundering over at 500 m.p.h., so low above the treetops it looks as if he could reach up and scratch it on the belly, this may only be the Air Force playing games. To the mechanics who get the planes ready for these drop exercises and to the crews who fly them, it is the most there is, or can -be, in the flying business. It is the World Series and the pro football playoffs, and the Masters at Augusta and the Grand Prix and the Calgary Stampede all rolled into one. It is the world's heavyweight airlift championship and it takes a special kind of skill, courage, and flair for flying and navigating a big jet. Called CARP, for Computed Air Release Point competition, it is the most demanding test ever devised of precise control of heavy jet aircraft flying at low levels and high speeds, and the winning flight and maintenance crews, the winning wing,
First Jet Paradrop: Fully equipped paratroopers "stand in the door" and drop simultaneously from StarLifter's left and right side doors. The C141 is capable of dropping 123 men on a single flight, more than any other plane can deliver. It was the first jet from which paratroops ever jumped.
and the winning air force in MAC take on among their fellows a special luster of professionalism. The winning is not easy. It requires that a crew using its own computations leave a specified point at a certain time-to the nearest second-and fly at certain computed speeds, altitudes, and headings, to reach a specified target area at a certain time- to the nearest second-and there drop its cargo, after taking into consideration the force and direction of the winds and the rate of fall and the weight of the cargo, so that it will drop as near as possible to a predetermined impact point. The target zone is an open field, 1000 yards wide and 2000 yards long, and any navigator should be able to find such a vast expanse of ground with his eyes closed. But the point is to drop more closely than anyone else, to a specific compass coordinate, marked by a nail driven in the ground under a surveyor's theodolite. In training, any drop within 50 feet of this marker is considered a bull's-eye, but in the CARP competition, judges measure these drops in inches, if need be.
As they go in on their drop approach, the planes are flying 500 feet above the ground, at a speed of 500 miles an hour. A few seconds' error in speed and altitude here can roll a Star-Lifter up in a ball. A perfect drop is worth 425 points, but minor errors can be costly. The plane that is dead-on its computed time over target earns 150 points, but there is a graded scale by which points are taken away if it is early or late. From one to ten seconds' deviation costs 5 points. If it is ninety seconds off schedule, either way, it loses the whole 150 points. It can earn 150 points if its drop is on target. It loses 5 points if it is off by one to ten yards. If it is off by 300 yards the crew might as well have stayed at home; it loses all 150 points.
Maintenance scoring is equally meticulous. While the flight crews go through their anguish in the air, the ground crews suffer when the inspectors 'from MAC headquarters swarm over their aircraft on the ground.
To search out the Einsteins who can fly these three-dimensional missions with absolute precision in point of time, speed, and compass heading, the MAC squadrons abandon temporarily the MAC idea that any crew picked at random can fly any Starlifter with equal competence on any mission. Wing commanders pore over squadron lists to select the sharpest aircraft commanders for their Blue and Gold teams. The pilots, copilots, navigators, engineers, and loadmasters are carefully handpicked, and the maintenance men who look after the engines, environmental systems, and control surfaces, and the electronics and communications people who check out the radios, computers, and navigation aids, are selected after equally prayerful study.
"What I want," said a Norton maintenance sergeant, "is a crew of hot-runnin', straight-up, sharp troops-buck sergeants who've come along fast in their jobs since they was one-stripers."
The planes are selected as carefully as the men. Two months before the competition begins, the crews pick the bird they think will win for them. Everything is considered. One plane may be a little rougher than another, a little less smooth and shining. But looks are not enough. Each plane's maintenance -record is pored over, to see what write-ups have been made on it in the past. If these have been minor nit-pickings, the plane is then taken up and wrung out, its air-drop mechanism, never used on the cargo runs, tested until it is working perfectly.
In the normal operation of a StarLifter squadron, crews whose members may have never met before assemble at the flight line to pick up an airplane they have never seen before and fly it to the ends of the earth. In preparing a CARP competition crew for its ordeal, no such offhand arrangement is permitted. Once the crews and the airplane they are to fly have been selected, they then must practice until they work together like the fingers of a hand. Night after night the maintenance crews sweat over the planes and their black boxes, tuning and testing and polishing them until they are perfect. Clocked by a stop watch they practice over and over the quick-stop, fast-fly techniques of blocking in, grounding, refueling, and preflighting a plane that must be made ready to go in a hurry. Day after day the flight crews fly the practice runs, the classic profile of the combat airdrop, stylized as a ballet though different in detail for every target area.
"It's about the only fun left in flying a cargo plane," said a Norton copilot who had come to MAC from the fighter squadrons. "It's the only time you can legally buzz. You come whooping in right on the deck and a dune buggy pops up right under you and you ought to see the look on the guy's face. Picnickers, guys out for horseback rides, farmers-they aren't used to seeing a plane this big flying this low. They go ape."
Planes do not go out of their way to buzz a picnic party or a lonely motorist trundling down a country road, of course, for they must follow a fixed route from which they cannot deviate. This strict adherence to a preset route has occasionally caused a pilot embarrassment. A favorite landmark for McChord navigators, flying approach runs to a remote drop zone near Moses Lake, was an old cemetery, seemingly long abandoned. One McChord crew roared over a hill not much above treetop height to look down in startled shock to see they had broken up a funeral. The mourning family and the officiating minister were running wildly in all directions from an open grave into which the coffin had just been lowered. After that the route was changed.
Except for the fact that the taxi roll and the takeoff run are made with the navigator looking at his watch and giving the countdown in seconds, the start of a combat drop varies but little from that of any routine mission. The plane climbs out to the pre-set altitude at which it will level off. Here, though, everything begins to change. The cargo StarLifter on its global travels is a loner of the skies. As a combat drop plane it flies in formation, three planes or six following each other across the skies 2200 feet apart from nose to tail and separated laterally by a wing's width to avoid wingtip turbulence. Starting from different runways, or perhaps from different airfields, they rendezvous at a high altitude and in a precision game of follow-the-leader go down together in a high-speed penetration, dropping 3000 feet a minute down to 5000 feet. Here they orbit and form up again in train as the lead plane straightens out on the heading to the target. Then they drop again, to 500 feet.
Here all resemblance to a normal cargo mission ends. The StarLifter flying at 39,000 feet over the ocean seems to hang motionless in the air. The StarLifter traveling at 500 miles per hour and at 500 feet over rough rolling land is like a roller coaster. It is a rough and bouncy ride and back in the cabin the loadmasters, fighting nausea, curse the wagtail turbulence. The pilot yells with glee as he handles the yoke, making his minute adjustments with the skill of a surgeon. His eyes rove the instrument panel, as he keeps speed and altitude markers on the numbers that the navigator in his first computation has cranked into the computer, and watches the dot on the radar that is the plane ahead of him.
Hilltops, trees, ponds, streams, highways, railroads, houses flash beneath the belly of the plane as the navigator, crouched on a jerry can at the pilot's left shoulder, peers through the windshield, relating these landmarks to the colors and the contours and the markings on his map, to confirm the computed headings. Out the right-hand window the copilot helps keep watch, confirming each landmark as the navigator spots it coming up.
The tension in the plane is palpable as in these last few minutes the plane roars on toward its target. Now a freeway shows ahead, and in its curve the brick house that was expected. Then, two miles beyond the freeway, the water tower, and then the cattle pens, and then the dam at the head of the lake that marks the Initial Point-six minutes from target.
The far shore of the lake shows dimly ahead and the navigator's eye is glued to his watch. "Type One slowdown-now!" he snaps. With one motion the pilot with his left hand hauls the yoke back into his belly, with his right pulls the throttles back to engine idle. "Flaps," he barks, and the copilot yanks the lever. The nose rises, the airplane pops up into a power-off float, climbing, as the speed drops from 350 knots to 300 ... to 250 ... to 200. ... In his jump seat the umpire's eye flicks from the speed and altitude tapes to his stop watch. If the maneuver has been perfectly timed, the speed of the plane will drop to 130 knots at the same moment the pilot levels off at 1000 feet-the pre-set drop altitude and drop speed.
Back in the cabin, fighting off nausea, the loadmaster hears on the interphone the navigator call the six-minute warning. He goes over and taps the shoulder of the lean, hawk-faced paratrooper who leans back in his bucket seat, seemingly asleep. A member of a twelve-man Air Force combat control team that8/STARLIFTER
drops behind enemy lines to set up the ground control that guides the drop planes in, he has jumped out of so many airplanes it no longer either exhilarates or frightens him. The only thing that depresses him is that his jump pay is only $45 extra a month, which is less than the $95 extra pay the loadmaster gets for flying. And he has to fly to jump. The loadmaster consoles him with the fact that he only flies one way.
The jumper stands up, yawns and stretches, and shrugs under his parachute straps. He moves over to the jump door and hooks up his static line, standing by the door as calmly as a man waiting for an elevator. The three-minute warning bell comes on. The loadmaster lifts the door and light pours into the plane, and the great roar and rush of sound. He swings out the spoiler, a lightweight, perforated aluminum screen that swings out into the slip stream, with a little platform for the jumper to stand on, out of the blast of the wind.
"One minute to go," the navigator calls over the PA and the paratrooper steps to the platform, standing over empty space, the wind jerking at the calves of his trousers where they blouse above his jump boots.
"Ten seconds," the navigator calls, then "Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . greenlight." The green light flashes on above the jump door. The jumper steps off into space and is gone, down and back, and out of sight, the static line ripping off his back and the parachute blossoming.
The loadmaster swings in the shield, slams down the jump door, calls "Cabin secured" into his mike, and the engines roar as the StarLifter rises in its getaway climb.
As the plane turns for home the crew listens for the happy word from the ground. "You have an IP," meaning Impact Point-a perfect drop.
The crews come into the competition proud and cocky as athletes. They have worked long extra hours at no extra pay, but the very fact that they have been chosen, among all their fellows, to represent their squadrons on the combat drop team is in itself a high reward. It is a special tribute to each man's professionalism and it will show on his record whenever his name comes up for promotion.
The planes themselves seem to take on a special aura once they are picked for the combat role. The StarLifter loading for a conventional freight haul is a patient, enduring mule of an airplane. The drop planes that face each other on the crowded ramp at Charleston seem poised like gamecocks in the pit, heads thrust forward and low to the ground, hackles raised, wings akimbo, ready to spring.
The months of training together revive the team spirit of the integrated crew, the loyalty of men to each other and to a single airplane that has been to a great degree lost in MAC under the more efficient policy of complete interchangeability of men and aircraft. Flight crews have always worn bright caps and scarves to identify their separate organizations, and these now take on a new panache. They are the colors worn by knights in a tournament now, not merely articles of uniform.
Maintenance crew members, accustomed to working on many aircraft and assigned to no single one, begin to invest their competition planes with a personality. "This droop-winged old bug-sucker is beginning to get to me," a McGuire maintenance sergeant says. "We've been going together eighteen hours a day for two months now, and I guess if you spend that much time with any girl you begin to get pretty fond of her."
A McChord crew gives its StarLifter the irreverently affectionate name of Superhog, and as it leaves the blocks to fly its Charleston missions, a crew member drags an ear of corn tied to a string along the ramp in front of it, "Just to give her the trail," he explains.
Professionalism of the highest order and pride at its peak are manifest in the conduct of the crews at Charleston. Long-forgotten courtesies and formalities are revived. Ground crews, their white uniforms immaculate, their black boots spit-shined, stand at attention on the parking ramp behind their gleaming toolboxes as the flight crews come out to board the plane. The crew chief, stepping forward and saluting, says formally to the aircraft commander, "Sir, the plane is ready." And as the plane taxis out, the crew chief on the ground and the aircraft commander in thecockpit exchange salutes. As a plane returns from a mission, the ground crews swarm around it before the fans stop turning. In appearance, bearing, and all-around smartness, the ground crews in their sparkling, short-sleeved whites make the flight crews in their rump-sprung ramp pajamas look almost shabby.
Tension builds up rapidly as the drops begin, and like over-eager football players fumbling on the kickoff, teams are erratic in their early performance. Teams that had been dropping dead-on-target in practice watch in horror as their circular-error averages soar to well over 100 yards in competition. Sheer bad luck plays a part. A Travis crew gets off to a crippling start when a windshield blows out while the plane is taxiing-an unheard-of accident. A short circuit in the autopilot signal-light system causes a fire on a McChord bird minutes before takeoff. The fire is quickly put out, and with the help of a Norton crew the 22nd AF backup plane is quickly made ready, but in putting out the fire, the crew was soaked with a corrosive fire extinguisher fluid and the mission was canceled.
Delivering the Goods: Jerked by a drogue chute palletized heavy cargo roars off StarLifter's aft ramp under the loadmaster's eye, and drifts earthward toward a smoke marker as the petal doors close.
Every crew has at least one bad day, and each has some special triumph. The McChord Gold crew, which lost the mission because of fire, went out the next day to drop a paratrooper within three yards of the impact point. The McChord Blue crew, after dropping its first and second paratroopers 2 yards and 31 yards from the target, suddenly loses its touch and drops the third and fourth more than 300 yards away.
As tensions mount, tempers grow shorter, and the faces of the crew members become more grim and drawn. At the end of each flight the aerial umpires are required to show their score sheets to the aircraft commander. If he agrees with the umpires' judgment, he signs the work sheet and the report becomes official. If he disagrees, he can officially request arbitration. By midweek the panel of officers named to settle disputes is swamped with protests against the umpires' rulings.
The daylong maintenance inspection, scheduled for the middle of the week, adds to the tension. A McChord maintenance sergeant, making one last inspection of his bird before the inspection crews arrive, comes bellowing out of the nosewheel well as if he had discovered a cobra in it. Somebody during the night has pilfered the new nose-gear locking pin that he installed only the day before, substituting for it an old pin of a type no longer used. After a hasty conference with his assistants, the decision is made to say nothing for the moment, in the hope that the inspection team will overlook the substitution.
The inspection team does not miss it. A lean chief master sergeant from MAC headquarters goes over the plane with microscopic eye and hands that move as if he were reading in Braille. He feels under the engine cowlings and examines his fingertips for oil. He feels inside the nacelles, where loose rivets like to hide. He sights along the plane's shining flanks, looking for tiny wrinkles in the aluminum skin, the indication of hidden structural failure. He climbs up on a stand and peers into the engines, turning the fan vanes slowly with a finger. He ducks into the main landing-gear well with a flashlight, looking for corrosion in hidden places. He finds nothing amiss. As he moves toward the nosewheel the ground crewmen follow him, tense and silent. The maintenance sergeant is rubbing a buckeye with one hand and a rabbit's foot with the other as the inspecting sergeant stoops and straightens up in the nosewheel well with his flashlight. When he comes out, he jots something down in his little notebook.
The maintenance chief looks over his shoulder and curses. The inspector spotted the faulty pin. It costs the team 15 points.
"I'm going to get out of maintenance," the crew chief moans. "It's making a nervous wreck out of me. I'm going to get away from airplanes entirely. I'll go into special services where all I'll have to do all day is pass out ping-pong balls."
A formal charge is made with the judges that the proper nose-wheel locking pin has been pilfered by parties unknown- "though I know damn well who done it," the sergeant says-and an inferior pin substituted. The protest is disallowed.
The strain lasts up until the last moments of the competition.
After the erratic performance of the first two days the over-eager competitors settle down. As they go into the last day, only 14i/2 points separate Charleston and Norton, the two top contenders, and McChord, in last place, is less than 400 points behind Charleston. Up until the last moments, the issue is in doubt. Then a bad drop hurts Charleston badly, and by midnight it is all over. The Norton ground crew was waiting with silver buckets filled with iced champagne when its flight crew came home, leading by 40 points in the final tabulations. Later this score was confirmed, and back at the motel the Norton crewmen grabbed all who passed and threw them into the swimming pool.
For Norton, whose 63rd wing is the youngest StarLifter wing in MAC, it was almost a clean sweep. The hot-running, straight-up troops had done their job well and no standardization officer was there to protest as the Norton plane, blocking in on its home ramp, was seen to be making highly unauthorized use of its pogo stick, the instrument the ground crews use to drain fuel from the wing tank sumps. It protruded from the navigator's sextant hatch, and from it fluttered the aircraft commander's white shorts, on which had been written, in red ink-"#1."
For the winning wing and the plane it flew in competition, one special honor was still to come. Whether victory in the CARP competition had anything to do with it or not, the 22nd Air Force chose two Norton crews to bring home from the Pacific the first men ever to set foot on the moon, and the rocks and photographic film they brought back with them. Flying the StarLifter that had won at Charleston, a crew under Lieutenant Colonel Arthur G. Phillips, Jr., of the 14th Squadron, brought from Hawaii the 13,500-pound trailer, the mobile quarantine facility in which astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins rode home to Houston. It was a perfect flight, and all along the way, all the flight controllers and all the commercial airline captains, hearing Phillips give his position reports, broke radio routine to wish the astronauts a good journey and a safe homing. "It gave me goose pimples to hear them, and to realize who I had aboard my plane," said Phillips.
Hardly less proud than Colonel Phillips was Colonel Philip A. Lock of the 15th Squadron, who brought home from Johnson Island to Arlington AFB, at Houston, the thirty-three pounds of rocks and the fifty pounds of photographic film the astronauts had brought back from the moon. A MAC captain named Thai-berg, he pointed out, had once hauled $26 million in gold bars to Great Britain during a financial crisis there. "But," he said, "it's old Lock, the Lunar Lifter, who is now the champion. He has hauled the moon rocks, the most precious cargo of scientific material ever airlifted and worth more than all the gold at Fort Knox."
Colonel Lock, a jovial and confident man, had one small emergency on his flight. Two hours out of Houston, while flying at 456 knots at 37,000 feet, an engine started losing oil. He shut it down, dropped down to 29,000, and went on in to Houston on three engines at 450 knots, missing his block time by less than five minutes.
While the Norton crews were flying the NASA missions, the Charleston crews which had finished second were receiving their own special reward-a trip around the world. The embassy run hauling passengers and courier mail leaves Charleston at 4 P.M. on Friday afternoon, a line StarLifter like any other except for its red wall-to-wall carpet. It is back the following Wednesday at 7 P.M. In the intervening 123 hours its augmented crew-three pilots, three engineers, two navigators, and two loadmasters- have circled the globe, pausing to sleep in Spain, India, the Philippines, and Hawaii. They have made quick stops in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Guam, and Travis. Roughly half of the time they have been gone they have been flying, or preparing to fly. It is difficult to imagine how such a grind could be considered a reward for distinguished achievement in the combat drop competition, but to the hard-driven crews who fly the line into Europe and Asia month after month, it is a luxury run. They spend most of their waking hours shopping. For the first time in their global wanderings they feel like tourists.
The reason is, of course, that the embassy-run crews do not change planes after each stop. They come home in the same plane in which they left. This means they can bring home the larger gifts their wives delight in-the heavy carved coffee tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the big brass trays from India, the hibachi pots from Japan that may weigh one hundred pounds- without having to manhandle them off and on the aircraft each time they change planes. As it heads for home, the plane looks like a flying bazaar.
After the tension of the combat drop contests, the nerve-tingling low-level flight, the split-second timing of the power-off popups, any normal MAC cargo mission is, in the airman's phrase, a piece of cake, and the embassy run is especially euphoric. Coming home on the last leg from Travis to Charleston the aircraft commander, in his sock feet, lay back in his reclining seat like a man asleep in a barber chair. Behind him, the navigator and the flight engineer played gin. Only the copilot kept awake and alert, his eyes roving over the gauges and the empty skies ahead.
Back at MAC headquarters, the embassy run was just one of many little arrows moving across the great map of the world. At airfields in all the corners of the earth, in the air above all the continents and seas, the StarLifter fleet was working at its job, hauling everything, everywhere.
"It is a new era in airlift, a new type of mobility," said General Jack J. Catton, commander of MAC.
It was, indeed, the beginning at last of the kind of cargo airlift network military men had dreamed of for twenty years.
But it was a long time coming. . . .