This article first appeared in the Wright-Patterson "Skywrighter".
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A distinguished career came to a finish here Saturday (May 6th,
2006). After 43 years and approximately 10.6 million flying hours, the last C-141
Starlifter in the fleet completed its mission, landing at the National Museum of the
U. S. Air Force, its permanent destination.
The C-141, the first jet transport plane used by the military, served as the backbone of strategic airlift for decades. The plane, responsible for flying entertainer Bob Hope and the United Service Organizations - USO - shows into South Vietnam, also flew Arizona Sen. John McCain out of North Vietnam where he was held in for more than five and a half years.
Fittingly, the last flying C-141, tail number 66-0177, was also the very first American aircraft to land at Gia Lam Airport, Hanoi, North Vietnam Feb. 12, 1973 to pick up prisoners of war. Because of that singular honor, the aircraft was dubbed the 'Hanoi Taxi.'
About 120 former POWs were honored with a 'last flight' aboard the 'Hanoi Taxi' May 5. All of the former POWs were repatriated from North Vietnam in C-141s. Most of the men had not flown on a C-141 in more than 30 years. Tears of fond memories and tears in remembrance of fallen servicemembers were seen on the former POWs' faces on the two flights.
'I never thought I'd live to see this day,' said retired Air Force Col. Ben Pollard, who was shot down May 15, 1976 while flying an F105F Thunderchief. He spent almost six years in captivity, leaving just days short of his 41st birthday.
'I never thought I'd live through being a POW.'
Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne flew with the first group of POWs and spoke at the ceremony to all attendees before the second groups' flight.
'What a great honor to fly in the 'Hanoi Taxi' for the second to last time,' Secretary Wynne said. 'So we say goodbye to one wonderful airplane. It will now be enshrined at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. This is going to be one of those aircraft with a legacy that will last forever.'
Secretary Wynne lost his older brother in 1966 when he was shot down over North Vietnam.
In attendance were Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, chief of Air Force Reserve, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington D.C., and Air Force Reserve Command commander, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., as were all three former commanders of the 445th: retired Brig. Gen. Paul Cooper; Brig. Gen. Rusty Moen; Maj. Gen. Robert Duignan; and Brig. Gen. Bruce Davis, the current 445th commander. Congressman Dave Hobson, who represents Ohio's 7th Congressional District that includes Wright-Patterson, also attended.
Over time, the plane became a flying museum, while continuing its real world missions for the 445th Airlift Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve, Wright-Patterson. Above its forward entrance door is the inscription, 'First C-141 to Hanoi.' Aircrew headrest covers on the flight deck bear the familiar black-and-white POW/MIA emblem. Dozens of framed photos are mounted on the side bulkheads throughout the cargo compartment showing POWs in Hanoi and aboard the plane bound for freedom. A label on the flight engineers panel simply reads 'Hanoi Taxi.'
Tech. Sgt. Harold 'Buck' Rogers, of the 445th Maintenance Squadron, like many in his squadron and the wing, said he saw an old friend retire in the C-141.
'You knew it was coming, but it didn't set in until it was really here,' the sergeant said.
'The public sees it flying but doesn't see the day-to-day inspections with every inch of the plane being checked. The safety of the crew and passengers is not just a quick look at the plane, put in some gas and send it on its way.'
Sgt. Rogers said he felt honored to be the last dedicated C-141 crew chief. The sergeant marshaled in the 'Hanoi Taxi,' directing the pilots on where to park the aircraft after it landed on its final flight to the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force.
Close to 1,300 people enjoyed a full evening of celebrating the proud history of the C-141 with the 'Hanoi Taxi' a few feet away. Local Dayton television reporters did several live broadcasts, while Senior Master Sgt. John Wheeler, an 89th Airlift Squadron flight engineer, was married at the tail of the plane, one of the most unique events of the evening.
The plane, which was parked just outside the hangar doors, was open and hundreds of people took pictures and toured it throughout the evening. Now that the 'Hanoi Taxi' is officially retired from flying, the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force will soon place it on permanent display. Perhaps Master Sgt. Herb Nicholson, of the 356th Airlift Squadron, said it best when he said, 'This doesn't have to be such a somber occasion; she's just going to heaven.'