The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
Plane for Hire
MAC, though a military organization primarily designed for combat operations, is also a business and is run like one. It has customers to be served, production schedules to be met, and books to be balanced at the end of the year. Its customers are other elements of the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and other agencies of the government, including the Office of the President, the State Department, NASA, and the Atomic Energy Commission. It charges these users for its services on a ton-mile basis, or on a mission basis, at rates that are based on its predicted operating costs for maintaining a basically regular but highly flexible schedule of global flights. For special missions that may come up on short notice-such as hauling Secret Service men and their vehicles when the President goes out of town-the rate may be higher, reflecting higher costs. To meet unexpected contingencies, a crew must be kept continually on standing alert at Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, their bags packed, ready to move within an hour. Unlike civilian airline crews, who fly from A to B to C and back again, MAC requires all its pilots and navigators to be able to fly to any airfield in the world with no more support than a trip kit full of maps. Two StarLifters, for example, hauled communications gear and White House staffers to Peking when the President visited China last March.
Though MAC operates strictly on a cash basis, charging for every airlift service it performs, it is not permitted to make a profit, nor must it suffer a loss. This financial balancing act is achieved through the operation of the Airlift Service Industrial
Fund, administered by the Department of Defense. The various customers forecast what airlift they will need in the ensuing fiscal year. MAC analyzes these estimates, and makes up its operating budget and its rate card. Thus the Army knew to the penny what it would have to pay into the Fund when it hired MAC to move 2000 paratroopers and 173 tons of equipment 9000 miles from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to a drop zone on the Han River thirty-five miles south of Seoul, Korea, in an operation called Focus Retina. (No adjustment was made for a slight circular error which dropped the airborne troop commander into the Han, which was extremely chilly in March.) MAC earns its keep in various ways other than by the support of strictly combat operations, of course. Whenever disaster strikes around the world, the StarLifters swarm in, hauling supplies for the helping agencies. The great airlift of trucks, blankets, and medicines into Lagos, Nigeria, was a MAC operation, as was the transport of a replica of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis to the Paris Air Show. The plane in which Lindbergh flew the Pacific was also airlifted, by C-141, to Osaka for display at Expo '70.
As bigger, faster aircraft of longer range come into the Air Force inventory, MAC has discovered that it can carry out its airlift commitments more cheaply, and there has been a steady reduction in its rates, both for cargo and passenger transport and for special missions. Forty-two StarLifters, for example, could have handled the entire Berlin Airlift, which required 320 C-54's. With the StarLifters at work, it now costs $180 per ton less to haul cargo from the East Coast of the United States directly to Southeast Asia, over the North Pacific route, than it did in the old days of the piston transport, when freight was moved by truck and rail to the West Coast ports and then island-hopped from there across the mid-Pacific. It is also 1200 miles shorter.
In one respect, MAC works exactly like any commercial airline which must show a profit. It must keep its planes moving, for a six-million-dollar airplane that is sitting on the ground is not earning its keep. The 284 StarLifters now operating throughout the military airlift system are required to be in service a minimum of eight hours a day, and squadron operations are set up to maintain that pace.
This is no great feat for the rugged C-141, for in accelerated performance tests it has proved that it can keep going for twelve to fifteen hours a day without breaking down. "The old bird just goes and goes and goes," says Captain Robert Cortez of the 21st Air Force at McGuire. Men, however, are more fragile than machines, and to keep a squadron of StarLifters in the air for eight hours a day seven days a week, month after month, puts a tremendous strain upon flight and maintenance crews alike. It also puts particularly heavy pressure upon the one man who must withstand all pressures-the squadron commander. It is his responsibility to manage his sixteen aircraft-and the sixty-four crews who fly them-with such skill that there will always be a good bird and a fresh crew cocked and ready to take off for anywhere within fifteen minutes of a scheduled block time, on a mission that might have been laid on either hours or months before. Since the planes and crews spend much of their time thousands of miles from home, this takes some skillful juggling.
While pushing his crews to the limit of their endurance, he is also supposed to inspire in all his people such an esprit de corps, such a fierce pride in the squadron, that they will ship over automatically when their hitch is up. This is important, for in a squadron commander's career, a high retention rate is almost as important as a high rate of on-time departures.
So let us now take a look at a squadron commander who has managed somehow to bring off this feat without loss of zest or sanity. His name is Wayne G. Duckett, and he was, when interviewed, commander of the 58th Military Airlift Squadron at Warner Robins Air Force Base near Macon, Georgia. He is typical of all of the officers of roughly equal age and rank who now are commanding MAC squadrons at McGuire and Travis, Dover and McChord, Charleston and Norton. His problems, and theirs, are the same. He, and they, go by the same book, and march to the same drumbeat. All are skilled professionals, dedicated to their trade.
Wayne Duckett, at forty-nine, is a colonel with twenty-seven years in the Air Force, and he figures that in the normal course of things, it is hardly likely he will make his star, for in three years he plans to retire. A big, heavy-set man, standing six feet three and weighing around 225 pounds, he tries to keep in shape by playing golf, and the first year after he retires he is going to spend hitchhiking around the world on MAC aircraft, playing every golf course he can find. (This is the only free airlift that MAC provides. It will haul retired military, and certain other passengers, on a catch-as-catch-can space-available basis.) With that out of his system, he is going to move out to the West Coast to be near his oldest son and his newest granddaughter. Wherever he lives, of course, he will surround himself with the bamboo furniture, the big brass trays, and the hibachi jars that all MAC flyers pick up on their travels. He has another son, sixteen, and a daughter, fifteen, who is so fond of dogs and of her father that her favorite, a small female of undetermined ancestry, is named George, which is her father's middle name.
Born on a hill-country farm in Georgia, Colonel Duckett was educated at Berry Schools at Rome, a famous mountain school for children whose families lacked financial resources. He helped pay his way there by working as a cabinetmaker, a hobby he hopes to develop during his retirement. He has one unhappy memory of his country boyhood-a trick knee suffered when he "crashed while flying a hard-tail." Translated, this means that he was riding a mule and fell off. The knee, however, has never hampered his flying. He has more than 11,000 hours in the air, most of it in big ships. He flew cargo C-46s in the Pacific war, starting out in Australia and ending up in Japan. He has had special training as a weather officer, and has served in that capacity at various posts, including the Philippines and Japan. He was one of the first pilots to qualify on the C-141, and flew the first operational aircraft when it was delivered to Travis.
He has been in StarLifters ever since, and his opinion of the plane is so high it would even make Chuck Wagner blush. He is extremely proud of the fact that as commander of the 58th at Robins, he was able to maintain a reliability rate of 96.4-meaning that that percentage of his scheduled flights got off on time. He attributes this not only to good maintenance but to the plane's innate ruggedness.
During his time at Warner Robins he was sending an average of two and a half planes a day to Southeast Asia and three or four a week to Europe. His squadron was required to fly 3779
hours a month, and he pushed his people hard to make it. There were some days, he recalls, when all his planes were out, and once he had no planes at home twice in one day. A plane came in, and by making a mighty effort, his people cleaned it up, fueled it, loaded it, shoved a fresh crew on board, and sent it out again. Ordinarily, though, a third of his planes would be at home at any one time, loading or under maintenance. It seemed to run in cycles. One day there'd be nothing on the ground and the next, they'd come swooping in from the ends of the earth like a flock of homing pigeons.
To keep from being taken by surprise and found unready by these sudden movements, Duckett kept a close watch on bis planes as they moved through the system.
"No matter where they go," Duckett says, "they are really never out of sight of home. When they leave, we know where they are going, and if there is any delay en route we know about it. When it's time for them to turn for home, we monitor them on in. It may be Vietnam, the Philippines, anywhere-we follow that aircraft to make sure that it gets back here in time to make its scheduled departure on its next trip. We would like to have it back about six hours, at least, before it's supposed to go again. That gives us time to get it cleaned up, do any maintenance on it that has been deferred, and really get it shined up before we send it out."
Duckett is pleased that his squadron has picked up a reputation around the system of always sending out clean and well-kept aircraft. This is not always the case when they come home. A crew may fly its home-station airplane only on the first leg of the circuit. Then the plane goes on while the crew rests. While a plane is out in the system, it is flown by crews from several squadrons, some of whom may be so untidy in their personal habits that they leave cigar butts in the flight deck ashtrays and candy wrappers on the floor.
"You can tell whether professionals have been flying your plane, or just a bunch of kids, horsing around up there for fun and games," Duckett says.
As the man on whom the final responsibility falls for meeting schedules and keeping his planes in tiptop shape, Duckett spendsH2/STARLIFTER
quite a lot of time out in the system himself, checking up on the kind of maintenance an aircraft gets when it lands at Elmen-dorf, Yokota, Kadena, or Clark. He spends about fifty hours a month in the air, making one long trip to the Far East or to India or Africa, and a short trip to Europe or Latin America. Like all other staff people who have desk jobs but are on flying status, he likes to get into the Southeast Asia battle zone once a month, for this means combat pay, plus an income-tax advantage. Mainly, though, he just likes to fly. His crews, who fly about eighty-five hours a month, and are gone about sixteen days out of the month, can't quite understand why the Old Man is always so ready to fly the line.
"To me," he says, "that's the best way in the world to relax. Just clear off your desk and put on your hat and walk out there and fly off to the ends of the earth. It's refreshing. On top of that, I get to see a lot of my old buddies."
At home, Duckett spends a great deal of his time down on the flight line, for he knows that a squadron's record is only as good as its maintenance. He pushes his maintenance people hard, but when they do a particularly good job, putting out extra effort to get a plane ready to go on time, he lets them know he appreciates it.
Among the flight crews, he keeps a sharp eye out for those he thinks will turn out to be "real fast burners," and he pushes them along as fast as he can. Some of them, right at first, seem none too excited about what they look on as an aerial busdriver's job. So he gives them a little thumbnail sketch of MAC's role as he sees it. It used to be, he explains, that the Navy was the long arm of United States policy, hauling Marines and soldiers and their weapons wherever they were needed. Then the Strategic Air Command became the main instrument, for it could deliver the nuclear bomb. The intercontinental missile followed, starting the big bomber down the road to obsolescence. Then as the country turned from complete reliance on the nuclear weapon to a new concept of flexible response, with force applied in just the amount needed to counter a given threat, MAC took over the hero role. So a MAC crew member is more than a flying truckdriver. He is a vital cog in our national policy.
Duckett also bears down hard on the idea that every MAC crewman-and particularly any man who wears the burgundy-colored scarf and leather cap of his squadron-is a special ambassador, representing America to all the world. They will be flying into many foreign countries, he points out, and they must be careful to mind their manners and their language, so that they will not cast discredit on the United States.
His primary interest, of course, is in their flying skills, and nobody in his unit is upgraded to first pilot or to aircraft commander, which carries with it the Duckett lecture, until he has proved himself. First, in local flights, he must demonstrate to a flight examiner that he is a good airplane jockey, capable of handling the bird in all sorts of emergency situations. He is then taken out for a line check, with Duckett himself sometimes riding along in the right-hand seat as check pilot. There he is watched carefully to see how much he knows about MAC communications-how to get help for a plane in trouble a thousand miles from land, for example. He is tested on how much he knows about maintaining the plane and its systems out in those areas where MAC has no support troops. He is checked on the way he handles his crew, and the foreign nationals who will load and unload and service the plane. Above all, he is watched to see how good, or bad, his judgment may be in a "Go" or "No Go" situation. Would he press on or turn back, for example, if he was flying an air-evac mission and his radar went out, and he had been briefed that there were thunderstorms on his route? The answer to that one would be easy. If he ever expected to earn Duckett's accolade-"He's a good troop-he can hack it"-he would be well advised to do a quick 180. You don't haul wounded men into stormy weather under any circumstances.
Duckett, like every other commander, recognizes that certain social tides are running now, in and out of the country, which affect the morale of his troops. The mood of restlessness and rebellion that has been sweeping the country's youth is felt strongly in the Air Force, whose people also are of high-school and college age. There is a general impression among MAC's younger troops that they are having to work too hard. Since their Air Force job is the first one they ever had, they have no basis for comparison, and anything they are called on to do seems excessive. This is no great problem, Duckett finds. "Encourage them a little, give them a little recognition, and they will work their tails off," he says.
He is, however, concerned about the increasing use of drugs among Air Force personnel, particularly the use of pot. When Duckett arrived to take over command of the squadron at Warner Robins, he discovered that one of his enlisted men had rented a nearby farm and was growing a crop of marijuana for sale. The Air Force, of course, cannot afford to have drug addicts working on airplanes, and its policy in the past has been to kick them out as soon as they are discovered. Duckett, though in no sense tolerant of the pot smoker, believes this helps neither the Air Force nor the man. It would be much better, he thinks, to keep him in and put him through a program designed to rehabilitate him.
Though the drug problem does worry him, he is not too greatly concerned about how most of the young airmen he knows are eventually going to turn out. His main concern is with keeping them. Both the young officers and the young airmen, he says, are the best-educated, sharpest, most alert and intelligent group that he has ever been associated with in the Air Force. His main concern is with keeping them in uniform so that they can serve the Air Force of the future.
"I remember in the old days you had to tell a guy when to get up and when to go to bed, when to go to work, when to get paid-everything," he says. "We don't have that kind of man in the Air Force now. We've got a sharp bunch of boys with tremendous potential, and if we could just give them something to look forward to, we'd have a great organization. I hate to see them getting out, for we've put a lot of time and money into training them. It's not a complete loss, of course, for they take back with them what they learned here and become productive people in civilian life. But it hurts like hell to lose them."
The secret of keeping them, he thinks, is to somehow instill in them a pride in what they are doing; pride in tuning an engine perfectly, pride in hitting a block time on the nose, pride in every aspect of the airman's career. Pride in even the little things. PRIDE PREVENTS FOD said a big sign outside Duckett's operations office. FOD means damage to a plane's engines or control surfaces by foreign objects left lying around on the ground, and Duckett himself will stoop to pick up even the smallest pebble he sees on the ramp where the planes are parked.
Like any commander, Duckett has his moments of discouragement and doubt. Then, standing on the flight line, he will watch a plane lift off, on time, bound for McGuire, where among other cargo, it will pick up a pallet load of whole blood, desperately needed in Vietnam.
"Sometimes it's just a job," he says, "and you wonder if the struggle is worth it. Then all of a sudden it becomes something you can be proud of. Like bringing home a plane loaded with wounded. Or getting that blood over there in a hurry, knowing that in a few days from now it may save a man's life on the battlefield. You know then, what you have trained and worked for, all these years, is not only worth doing. It's worth giving all you've got.