The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
Voices in the Night
OUT OF ELMENDORF, the route of the StarLifters lies west and south over the great bulge of the North Pacific to Yokota in Japan. In the long daylight of the sub-Arctic summer, or the twenty-hour dark of the winter nights, the heavily-laden planes climb seven miles above the earth before they level off in the thin cold air high above the weather. Below, under a layer of cloud that is always there, lies the 1200-mile chain of the Aleutians, black volcanic islands whose peaks thrust 9000 feet above the slate-gray sea. The names of these bleak rocks ring in the memory like leaden bells-Adak, Shemya, Attu-old way stations and by-passed battlefields of the now half-forgotten war with Japan.
For nine hours the big cargo-lifters race the sun, their journeys beginning usually in the twilight of an Alaskan evening and ending at dawn at the huge air base south of Tokyo, which is the hub of our airlift operations in the Far East. The hours of darkness are brief, spent as the plane slides down the long curve of the Kuriles-Russia's islands, with unfamiliar names like Paramushir and Shaskotan and Matua and Rasshua. There are strange voices, too, speaking in these dark skies-the voices of the Soviet controllers at radio stations on the outlying islands, and sometimes their traffic is so heavy that it is difficult to make contact with our own check points. For all their electronic aids, navigators sweat as they fly this route, watching their computers, taking their long-range fixes, training their radars on the island land masses to the north, shooting the stars with a sextant in the age-old way to cross-check their electronic guidance systems. At one point along this leg of the journey, Russian turf is only 180 miles away-and though it has not happened yet, lurking in the back of every navigator's mind is the worry that he might come too close and look out in the dark to see a Soviet patrol plane, wagging its wings and blinking its lights in the international message, "Follow me."
Nobody was concerned with this possibility as, in a summer twilight, a Dover bird, flown by a Dover crew, sped down the Aleutian chain from Elmendorf, bound for Yokota with a load of airplane engines consigned to Cam Ranh Bay. They had other, more immediate concerns. No one aboard had been in-country (into Vietnam) in the current month and time was running out. They were also inhibited by the presence of a stern and professorial major who rode the copilot's seat and, in his role of flight examiner, asked sharp and searching questions of the harassed young captain riding as aircraft commander. The young officer answered as best he could, but as the Black Hatter pressed him harder, he began to grope for the answers, finally withdrawing into himself with the dry grin of a treed possum. It was obvious that he was unhappy. It was equally obvious that the major was not pleased, so there was no banter, no friendly give-and-take as the plane climbed out and leveled off at its cruise altitude of 37,000 feet. The usual sense of relief and relaxation did not come. The atmosphere remained tense and silent.
Then, suddenly, the mood changed.
The navigator came on the intercom. He had been doing a little figuring, he said. And if his computations were not in error, and if the winds blew as predicted, and if all these T-tails that were coming at us out of the sunset passed safely by-this plane should put down at Yokota about 4:30 the next morning, which was the last day of the month. Then, if the gods remained benign, and the ACP at Yokota did not goof off in some unforeseen manner, it was highly likely that as they finished their twelve-hour crew rest and became legal again, a plane would be ready and waiting to take them in-country-which means into the Vietnam combat zone-early on the following evening. And if their luck still held, the five-hour flight to Vietnam would see them landing at Tan Son Nhut or Da Nang or Cam Ranh Bay, not long before midnight, thus safely beating the end-of-the-month deadline.
Nor was this all. They would, naturally, unload and get out as fast as possible, since no MAC commander in his right mind would expose a six-million-dollar airplane to the danger of Vietnamese mortar fire a second longer than was necessary. But if it so happened that the loading took an hour or more, and the plane was still on the ground a few minutes after midnight, then the crew would have established their presence in Vietnam on the first day of the following month. They would then have achieved a double dip, a feat of timing much to be sought after but rarely accomplished.
Even if they had to leave Vietnam before midnight, there would still be hope. If they could get in and out in a hurry, and back to Yokota in five hours, this would give them plenty of time to crew-rest again and come back in-country for a second time on the following evening; an opportunity made possible by the yo-yo flights in which planes and crews make three quick shuttles into Vietnam or Korea, before they must turn for home. The listening crew needed no explanation of the double dip. One of the more pleasant perquisites of being a MAC crewman is that in any month in which he flies into the combat zone, no matter how briefly he may stay there, he receives an extra $65 in combat pay. There is also a tax advantage. If he is an officer, he can deduct $500 from his gross income for every month that he flies in-country. If he is enlisted, he can deduct his entire month's pay, up to $500. Thus the double dip means that for a few hours in the war zone-which starts at a navigator's check point called Point Sandy, 300 miles east of Tan Son Nhut in the China Sea-he can qualify for $130 in extra pay and $1000 in tax deductions. Wives, naturally, quickly learn to count on this extra cash, and it throws their household finances sadly out of kilter when their husbands fail to make the money run. Back in the squadrons, scheduling officers realize this, and, not being heartless men, they make every effort to send everybody in at least once a month-including themselves. This explains the sometimes curious make-up of a MAC crew, in which the basic six-man crew is augmented by three flight examiners, and the fact that aging lieutenant colonels may fly as navigators on an aircraft commanded by a first lieutenant.
Once the monthly journey to Southeast Asia is behind him, the crewman breathes more easily, taking with a lighter heart the nonprofit flights to Africa, Europe, Latin America and the South Pole.
It is not surprising, then, that the navigator's prophecy relieved the mood of gloom. To the tune of "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," the flight engineer began to hum an old song of the 124 Globe-master squadrons-"We Fly Fat Birds." The loadmaster recalled a remarkable engine-running offload at the old city of Hue, in which he got two jeeps with trailers and two three-quarter-ton trucks off his StarLifter in such a hurry the plane was on the ground only seven minutes. The harassed AC began to relax, for the mood of the flight examiner who had been torturing him with questions had suddenly changed from one of malice to a kind of mellow irrationality. "You are a real straight-up troop, Charlie," he said to the pilot. "And I am going to give you the benefit of all the wisdom I have accumulated in my years in the Air Force. There are only two things to remember. One, when you go flying always take along an airplane. Two, always land as many times as you take off."
Since the AC was such a good troop, the major continued, when we got to Yokota, he would take him to a restaurant in nearby Tachikawa. There he could meet young ladies who would take him home and teach him the art of Japanese flower arrangement, or the intricate ritual of the tea ceremony. Then when he got home he could surprise his wife with his knowledge of these arts. The AC said he didn't have a wife, and actually, he had something a little more carnal in mind. He'd be glad to take the major to Kay's Bathhouse, which was just a few blocks from the gates of Yokota. There he would see to it that the major got steamed, scrubbed, and rubbed until he shone like Mr. Clean. After that he could have a Japanese maiden trot daintily up and down his spine, massaging his vertebrae with her bare toes until he went to sleep. Then when the major went home he could surprise his wife by how relaxed he was. The major said no thanks. But if he could find the young lady who knew about flower arrangements, he'd ask her, and everybody, to have dinner with him at a steak place next to Kay's, where they served filets of Kobe beef from young steers that themselves had been massaged vigorously every day, to make them tender and distribute their fat.
The navigator said that Kobe beef was good all right, but the best chow in the Pacific was the Mongolian barbecue they served at the Koza Palace Tea House in Kadena, a restaurant that sat on a hilltop overlooking the old Okinawa battlefields, or in that club at Clark, in the Philippines, that is up in the hills. He went on to describe the Mongolian barbecue. You start with a big bowl, he said, and put in it a handful each of bean sprouts, celery, and chopped onion. Then over this you pour a little scoopful-about two tablespoonsful maybe-of sesame oil, soy sauce, sake, garlic sauce, ginger water, and sugar water. To this you add a teaspoonful of pepper sauce, which is the closest thing to the molten flames of hell this side of the nearest volcano. Then on top of all this you spread thin slices of raw beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and liver. Then you hand it to the cook, who is waiting with a long-handled spatula at the ready, at a flat metal sheet which has been brought to a fierce heat over a charcoal fire. He takes your bowl and dumps it upside down on the hot metal and there is a fierce hissing and sizzling, and smoke billows up, and the pungent aroma of garlic, soy sauce, rice wine and ginger fills the room like some rich incense. Shoveling fiercely, the cook attacks the mound with his spatula, nipping it over, shuffling it, raking it together and flipping it over again, bringing the heat evenly to each ingredient. In two minutes it is done and you sit down and eat it with chopsticks and a bottle of Japanese beer, which is the worst beer in the world but this doesn't matter because Mongolian barbecue is the best food in the world,
From food the talk drifted to souvenirs and the best places to buy them. Every MAC crewman who is married has his house done in MAC Modern, which means he has sent home rattan furniture from Japan, lugging it, oftimes, piece by piece. He has monkey-pod trays from the Philippines, beautifully carved wooden screens from New Delhi, camel saddles from Pakistan, huge wooden knives and forks that hang on walls from Spain, and beer steins from Germany. On his floors are rugs from Turkey and sheep skins from Australia. And he drapes his wife with nielo, the black silver from Bangkok, and pearls and silks from Japan, and leather goods from Italy, and topazes from India, and beggar's beads from Turkey. He buys for himself and his friends Japanese cameras and Seiko watches in Okinawa, for they are cheaper there, and he has suit bags made of heavy blue nylon with his name and rank embroidered on them in white silk.
The major said that the things he liked best were the water-colors, and the beautifully printed books and paintings and flower arrangements that are sold so cheaply in Japan. Somebody, in the dark, muttered that by now he was beginning to believe that the major and the Japanese lady did spend their time arranging flowers and drinking tea.
It was deep night now, remindful of the rueful jest that MAC stands for "Midnight Air Corps-when the sun goes down the gear comes up." There were hard white stars above and milky cloud below, and every half-hour or so the blinking lights of another T-tail shone in the dark, headed east at 39,000 feet. For this is the route assigned to the StarLifters-far to the north to keep out of the way of the faster contract jets. Far ahead the long-range radar on the tip of Hokkaido watched to see that the plane didn't stray too far north and into danger. On the radar the navigator watched the little glowing blips that represented the Kuriles. On one of them, called Shima Shira Tuo, a Soviet radar would be tracking the StarLifter as it passed, "painting" it on his radar while it painted him at the same time. In fact, such a station can be used as a navigation aid-by getting a fix on it, and on Hokkaido, a StarLifter can by triangulation get a rough estimate of its own location.
For the East Coast crews who fly the NorPac route after resting at Elmendorf, this flight to Yokota is merely long and dull-a nine-hour drone. For the West Coast planes that come this way when there is stormy weather in the mid-Pacific, it is a fifteen-hour grind, broken only by a quick stop for fuel at Elmendorf, that puts them into Japan bleary-eyed and weary. A delay at Elmendorf may mean that their crew-duty day will run beyond the permissible sixteen hours before they touch down at Yokota. In this case, the AC may call a crew rest at Elmendorf, but this is rarely done, for beautiful downtown Anchorage lacks charm, and Elmendorf, for all its efficiency, is not a place where crews are inclined to linger. The pattern is to request special permission to fly the extra hours-which higher authority is always glad to grant. The urge to press on is less marked when the crew has the opportunity to spend a few extra hours in such pleasant spas as Yokota, Kadena, or Hickam, and planes have a curious affinity for developing in these places mysterious maladies which even the resident Lockheed technician cannot quickly diagnose.
This is difficult to arrange on the rugged StarLifter, a plane whose nature it is to forgive all but the grossest mishandling, and is ready to go more than 95 percent of the time. To keep a Star-Lifter crew on the ground for a little extra rest and recreation, therefore, it is sometimes necessary to enlist the unwitting aid of the Department of Agriculture inspectors, whose job it is to keep plant diseases and insect pests out of the United States. A crew, for example, cannot take a plane out of Yokota on which Asiatic crickets have been discovered, for it surely would be grounded for fumigation at Elmendorf or Hickam. If no crickets are readily available, mice will do. The discovery of a mouse aboard a plane arriving at Hickam from Southeast Asia will mean that the doors must be shut, traps set, and the plane sealed for twenty-four hours. The crew that was supposed to take it out will thus have another day to savor the joys of Hotel Street in Honolulu, or feel the soft winds of Waikiki. Actually, the mouse need not be there in person. A matchbox full of mouse droppings, scattered where the inspector will be sure to see them, will serve just as well.
Conversation is the best antidote to boredom on these long flights and MAC crewmen talk, as old-time sailors used to make scrimshaw, merely to have something to do. Much of the talk naturally has to do with girls, and the places around the circuit where they may be seen in all their varied glories. The whirling, stamping, hand-clapping flamenco dancers of Madrid are vividly remembered, but no more so than the ladies of the Nipa Club, in the Philippines, who perform curious acrobatics before an audience that sits in bleachers, as if watching a wrestling match at the high-school gym. Halfway across the world the dusty city of Adana, Turkey, is recalled, less for its ancient Roman bridge, where camel caravans still dispute the right of way with limousines, than for its area known as The Compound. Here, in a dead-end street of a dozen or more low two-story houses, sad-eyed Turkish prostitutes, obese and grimy, lounge glumly on plush velvet divans behind barred windows that open on the dusty street. There at all hours of the day and night prospective clients peer in at them with the appraising look of cattle buyers. Turkish police stand guard at the gates, collecting knives, pistols, and cameras from those who wish to enter. This trace of official sanction has given birth to a romantic legend, which the young airmen repeat as gospel-the doleful-looking ladies are not truly harlots, but dutiful and loving wives and daughters whom the government has graciously permitted to sell their bodies to pay off debts owed by their fathers and husbands.
The talk drifts on, to a comparison of those towns that are happy places in which to crew-rest, and those that aren't. The Eastern crews like Rhein Main, and Frankfurt, and Madrid, and Toledo, where bullfights are held on Sunday afternoon and the great walled castle on the hill looks exactly like the El Greco painting. On the West Coast, the crews from Norton and Mc-Chord remember the Australia-New Zealand run, a pleasant break from endlessly flying into Southeast Asia. The run goes south from Hawaii, with a fuel stop at Pago Pago in American Samoa, and from there to Christchurch in New Zealand to offload cargo for McMurdo in Antarctica. In the short Antarctic summer the McChord ships go on to McMurdo, but usually from Christchurch the plane goes on to Sydney and a twenty-four-hour crew rest, in a pleasant hotel called the Gazebo. Then on to a lonely little place called Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia, where there is some sort of global communications relay point and there are opals to be bought. And from there all the way across the great desert, to a place called Learmouth on the Indian Ocean, where the Aussies are building a naval base. A van comes out with food here, but that is all the help the crew receives. Here the AC is on his own, with no support of any kind. He locates the airstrip as in the early days of flight. He swoops in low to take a look at the windsock to see which way the wind is blowing and then he pulls up and goes around again and comes back to land. It is a trip on which the plane has to stand up, for there is nobody there to fix it if it breaks down. From Learmouth the plane goes back, 3700 miles across Australia and the Tasman Sea to Christchurch and the most pleasant crew rest of the journey. Sydney is fine, but the people there during three wars have seen too many American troops on rest and recreation leave, and their affection is not boundless. The New Zealanders, though, have stoutly refused to let themselves be contaminated by visitors on R&R, and the town is still unspoiled. The people there are warmly friendly, and their prices for essentials such as beer and taxi fares, restore some of its old power to the American dollar. They tell the small MAC contingent there-100-odd men hardly noticed among Christchurch's 170,-000 people-"We like you Yanks, but not in droves."
Whatever the virtues of Christchurch versus Toledo, crews from the West Coast and the East Coast both agree that for those seeking either to purchase souvenirs or to succumb to the temptations of the flesh, Bangkok is a city that stands apart. A night on the town there has been known to leave a man in a sort of cataleptic trance, a condition known in MAC as DNIF, meaning Definitely Not Interested in Flying. A navigator recalls a young copilot in this condition who forgot that in Thailand an electric razor cannot be used without a transformer to step down the current. "He plugged it in and stood there looking at it while it went to pieces in his hand. Then he brushed his teeth with Brylcreem and got back in bed."
Dawn came over a Japan hidden beneath thick cloud as the StarLifter began the approach to Yokota. Soon in the pilot's earphones could be heard the most comforting of all sounds-the voice of the ground controller, reporting "on course ... on glide path ... on course ... on glide path ... on course. . . . You now have the runway in sight. Take over visually. . . ."