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Farewell to a Dedicated Veteran of the Skies

By Ed Offley

"Pray the wing flap grease don't freeze," said Maj. Bill Burt.

"Okay," I said with a puzzled frown. "Why?"

"Because if the wing flap grease freezes, we're going down on the ice and you're opening up a news bureau at McMurdo Sound for six months," Burt said with a grin as he continued to study the navigational chart.

We were 7,400 miles from home at the small Navy airport annex at Christchurch, New Zealand, and Burt was preparing to lead an Air Mobility Command C-141B Starlifter on a 22-hour nonstop mission to the South Pole and back. The windowless transport jet stood outside on the tarmac where a crew of loadmasters and ground support personnel were finishing their task of stripping the Starlifter of every extra ounce of weight for the flight.

This mission in June 1989 was an annual task for the Air Force, to airdrop about 30 tons of supplies to the U.S. scientific research bases at McMurdo Sound and the South Pole Base Camp, and I had volunteered to cover the crew from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., on what would end up being a 66,000-mile flight spanning the Pacific Ocean from the United States to Samoa, Australia, New Zealand and then the big jump down to 90 Degrees South.

The highlight of the two-week operation was a 22-hour round-trip flight from Christchurch to the South Pole, which involved three separate mid-air refuelings from a KC-10 tanker and two hazardous, low-level cargo parachute drops flown at near stalling speed while sub-zero wind shrieked through the windowless fuselage when the cargo doors came open.

It is an old truism that you learn more from direct observation than from a book, and my two weeks crammed into the Starlifter with an augmented crew of more than a dozen pilots, navigators and flight engineers constituted an advanced seminar in the vital but non-charismatic world of military airlift. And the one fact I came to appreciate and admire was that the old Lockheed transport was built sturdy and tough.

How sturdy, and how tough, came to mind the other day when I read that the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord had held a ceremony marking the retirement of its last C-141B Starlifter from active service. Aircraft No. 50267 left the base to join dozens of other Starlifters in storage in the desert at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, N.M., on Apr. 10, ending its own 36-year tenure that included more than 46,500 hours of flight.

My own memories spanning a 15-year tenure at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had ranged from numerous training flights around the Pacific Northwest (including low-level airdrop missions in the heat of summer where the plane bounced around the sky like a cement truck on an unpaved road) to intercontinental missions to places as far apart as South Korea, Europe, the Mideast and Somalia.

But it was Jeff Larsen, a newspaper colleague of mine in Seattle, who caught the full context of the Starlifter's contributions to our nation's military security: In a previous life, Jeff served as a C-141 loadmaster and recorded more than 1,000 hours in his logbook during the mid-1960s. His memories include one "hot" landing under fire in Vietnam during the January 1968 Tet Offensive where the Viet Cong tried to shoot down his aircraft as it came in to land.

The Air Force during the last four years has been gradually transitioning to the new and vastly improved C-17 Globemaster III, a state-of-the-art cargo jet with a maximum takeoff weight of 585,000 lbs., an increase of nearly 55 percent from the Starlifter's 323,000-lb. maximum weight, and an ability to land on an unimproved 3,000-foot strip while the older plane was limited to full-size, paved runways. Thanks to computers and advanced avionics, the C-17 can be operated by a crew of just three (two pilots and one cargo loadmaster) while the C-141B with its 1960s-era design relied on a crew of six (two pilots, one navigator, one flight engineer and two "loadies").

But what the C-141 lacked in grace, it more than compensated in longevity over a four-decade span that will come to a final end in 2006. The first Starlifters ferried troops and cargo to Vietnam in April 1965, and served in every operation and crisis since then, including the Korean standoff, the Middle East, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Operation Enduring Freedom.

The Starlifter fleet took troops to fight, returned the remains of those killed in battle, retrieved released prisoners of war, and hauled everything that could fit in its 168-foot-long fuselage, from babies to nuclear weapons.

If you wanted to cover the airmen and the troops, the Starlifter was your discount ticket to realtime - but you paid a price.

The aircraft was either too hot or too cold, and when it was cold the bare metal fuselage deck would suck the heat out of your body. Long hours sitting in the red nylon paratrooper seats would drive spikes of pain into your spine until you daydreamed of chiropractors. Only by the grace of God and a compassionate aircraft commander could you get any view of the outside world at all from the flight deck (other than the palm-sized windows on the paratrooper hatches far in the stern).

But thanks to the men and women of the 62nd Airlift Wing and 446th Associate Wing (USAFR), I was able to see the sun rise twice over the Antarctic ice sheet in a single morning. I saw a swirling constellation of stars that were the running lights of a trio of KC-135 tankers on a refueling rendezvous during a nighttime multi-ship flight nonstop from McChord to Korea. I saw a squad of combat controllers in scuba gear and parachutes step off the open cargo ramp in a spring evening for a 20-second fall into Puget Sound. I shared the red nylon seats with a platoon of mud-stained light infantry fighters coming out of combat in Panama. I watched the Nile River snaking below those large green wings as we flew down-range to Mogadishu. I took notes as paratroopers and Rangers and Green Berets hooked up their static lines to the cables as we came down to drop zones as far afield as Korea, Alaska and the Caribbean. I wouldn't have missed any of it for the world.

So long, baby, it was a hell of a flight.

Ed Offley is Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at defensewatch@aol.com.