Issue Date: September 20, 2004
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.”