The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
Meet the Crew
IT HAS BEEN SAID-by navigators, obviously-that the typical MAC StarLifter crew is made up of three high-school drop-outs (the loadmaster and two flight engineers); one juvenile delinquent (the copilot); one dirty old man (the aircraft commander); and one upstanding, clear-eyed, clean-living American boy who bears the heavy burden of guiding planes bearing these other raffish characters safely across vast reaches of empty sky from one remote place on the earth's surface to another.
This irreverent description serves to introduce the quartet of highly skilled professionals who shepherd the C-141 on its global missions, doing everything to make it go except actually flying it.
Let us begin with the loadmaster. He is a noncommissioned officer, usually a tech sergeant or above, who, though he may have had little formal education, is a man of judgment and common sense. His concern is with the locks and latches, and with loading the airplane in such a way that in flight it will balance as beautifully over its designed center of gravity as if it were flying empty. He is also concerned with attaching parachutes to pallets laden with heavy cargo, so that in flight these cargo-drops may be snatched out of the back end of the plane to float softly to the ground. He is familiar with the safe stowage of dangerous cargo, such as explosives, or corrosive acids, or highly volatile liquids and gases. And his expertise in this field is such that if he tells the pilot that something is leaking, and that dangerous fumes and vapors are being given off, and that this cargo should be thrown overboard, the pilot bows to his judgment. The plane drops down to a lower altitude, and with
the loadmaster supervising the procedure, the dangerous cargo is jettisoned.
His domain is the huge, dim, almost windowless inner shell of the cargo cabin, and everything that is hauled there and all persons or animals that travel there are his responsibility. He knows how to reconfigure the aircraft, changing it quickly from a cargo ship to a hospital plane, from a hospital plane to a paratroop ship, from a paratroop ship to a conveyor for the Minuteman missile, which fits so closely into the metal shell that it must be loaded with the aid of surveyors' instruments. He works like a horse when the plane is on the ground, supervising the loading and tie-down of cargo, and he is likely to know swear words derived from a dozen European and Asiatic languages, which he addresses to native forklift drivers who carelessly ram their machines against the petal doors and the ramps of his aircraft.
He is responsible for the lights, the oxygen system, and the intercom that serve the cargo compartment. He sees to it that Fleet Service has cleaned the crew latrine and has loaded aboard potable water and a coffee maker that is working. His first act, once the plane has come to cruising altitude, is to take coffee orders from those on the flight deck. After this, if he has no cabin passengers, his duties only require that he check occasionally to see that his cargo is still tied down and nothing is leaking. This done, he can climb into a crew bunk with a paperback and read himself to sleep, remembering to keep his mask and his portable oxygen bottle close beside him.
If passengers are aboard, the loadmaster's duties are the same as those of an airline stewardess. A comfort pallet that is both a passenger latrine and kitchen has been placed aboard. In its ovens he heats TV dinners, serving them cheerfully to any sleepy-eyed passengers who stumble drowsily from their backward-facing seats. If the plane is crossing an international border, he must see to it that each passenger fills out customs, immigration, and agriculture cards, and that each has his passport and shot records ready. If there were an emergency, and all passengers had to evacuate the plane in a hurry, he would shepherd them off, leaving just before the flight engineer and the pilots. On the ramp, he must see to it that the plane is parked in the right place, that the wheel chocks are in place and the electrical system is grounded, and notifies the base fire department that the plane is there. He then briefs and posts the local guards who will keep the plane secure until the next crew takes over. His duties now are ended and he is free to join the rest of the crew, who by this time are already on the crew bus, thirsting for a beer.
It is not a particularly glamorous job-except when the plane he is flying is carrying somebody like astronauts, or the pretty singers and dancers of the Bob Hope Christmas show. Nor a frustrating one-except when something fouls up on a low-level cargo drop, and a 35,000-pound load goes out the back door and the parachute harness fails and the model Sherman tank smashes into little pieces on the floor of the California desert while a bunch of Air Force and Army generals look on, thinking unkind thoughts about the loadmaster. Nor an exciting one-except when, at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of the night, he goes back to find some rusty cans of varnish leaking and the warning tag says that this cargo is highly inflammable at temperatures above 40 degrees. And the flight engineer bleeds the air pressure off and the plane drops down to 20,000 feet, and everyone goes on oxygen as the loadmaster opens the door and hurls the leaking cans out into the night from the small troop-drop door by the tail. But then the door won't close tight enough to seal, and three men struggle with it and the pilot drops down another 10,000 feet, and they try again, the loadmaster, his face purple from having to work without his portable oxygen bottle, putting all his weight on the handle. Then, the flight engineer up on the flight deck starts putting the pressure back on, and the building up of air pressure, plus the loadmaster's weight, forces the door tight closed and the plane, which was burning fuel at a fearful rate at this low altitude, begins to climb back to 39,000. All the loadmaster says when the latches catch is "Got a good door, sir," and the pilot answers with an equally laconic "Roger."
Nobody makes any point of it, but everybody knows that in a few minutes more they wouldn't have had fuel enough to go back home to Dover, or go on to Spain. They'd have had to go into Lajes, in the Azores, to refuel.
Loadmasters as a tribe do not look upon air-freight-terminal personnel as being especially gifted men intellectually. Long before the plane reached Spain on that trip the loadmaster had made out his report, and under "Remarks" he went into considerable detail on the mentality of anyone who would be careless enough to load on a plane cans of inflammable varnish so rusty that they were leaking.
On the ground or in the air, the flight engineers on a Star-Lifter are busy men with broad responsibilities. Like the load-master, they are usually aging noncoms of wide experience and years of service-master sergeants usually, or chief master sergeants. They have wives and kids at home, and, feeling guilty at being away so much, they load them down with gifts and souvenirs from the bazaars of all the world. A StarLifter always carries two, one of them serving as first engineer and NCOIC, the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge, the other functioning as scanner and taking his turn at the engineer's panel on the longer trips.
The flight engineer's console, located just behind the copilot's seat, is a big board that sparkles like a Christmas tree with red and green lights when he flips the switches to see if all his systems are functioning. From it, he can read at a glance the health of the plane in which he is flying, or is about to fly. Long before the pilots show up, he and the scanner are on the flight deck, running a preflight check list, testing all the systems that make the airplane go. The engineer is concerned with temperatures, and voltages, and the rates of flow of fuels and hydraulic fluids, and with the speed at which turbines turn, and the difference in the pressure of the air that goes into the engine and the air that comes out the nozzle. He is watchful for any variation from the book-approved standard in any instrument on the panels-a loss of pressure, an increase in heat, a vibration beyond the norm. He is responsible not only for engine performance, but for the proper operation of all flight controls, and brakes, spoilers, and landing-gear controls, and for all the elec-
Meet the trical and mechanical systems that make up the plane's environment-heat, light, cooling, air pressure, oxygen-all of which are supposed to be working perfectly when a jet lifts up into its working habitat, the freezing cold of the nearly airless troposphere where the big planes function best.
It is obvious, then, that the old happy-go-lucky days when all the engineer had to do was "kick the tires and light the fires" are long since over. The flight engineers have performed more than 150 separate checks and inspections, on the flight deck, in the cabin, and on the ground beneath the wings before No. 4 engine flames into life and, standing fire watch, the engineer on the ground growls into his mike, "Scanner coming aboard," and the loadmaster slams the crew-door down and locks it, and the scanner, taking one last look around in the cabin, calls on the intercom, "Clear to taxi." And whether the journey be for 30 miles or 3000, the procedure is the same.
Like the loadmaster, the engineer is a calm man in an emergency. In a plane bound from Kadena to Saigon his quiet voice on the intercom: "Pilot from engineer: be advised, sir, there's a vibration beyond acceptable limits on the No. 4 engine," was as matter-of-fact as if he were announcing that his coffee had gotten cold. But on his recommendation the engine was shut down, and the plane was diverted to the nearest field, which was Clark in the Philippines. From years of experience with these engines, the engineer knew that the odds were 9 to 1 that it was an instrument giving a false reading rather than an engine that was beginning to shake to pieces. And he, like all the crew, was anxious to get to Saigon, and offload, and turn around and head for home. But when at Clark the maintenance people found that it was the instrument and not the engine that was at fault, he was not embarrassed. For he had learned well what they teach engineers at Altus-that "get-home-itis" is no excuse for taking chances with six men's lives.
Lying back in his chair, looking half asleep but alert to every blink and bubble of the instruments on his panel, a good flight engineer knows from moment to moment how his plane is doing. On a flight as far as from Travis to Hickam or Charleston to Elmendorf, he can read his fuel flow gauges a thousand miles out, and estimate within four or five hundred pounds how much he will have left in the tanks at touchdown. Pilots sometimes bet him on this, to their sorrow. They try to outwit him by coming in fast to land, or making great sweeping turns to throw his calculations off. Nearly always, he wins.
The loadmaster deals with weights and measures, with ponderous things that take up space. The engineer works with voltages and pressures that can be controlled. At his panel directly behind the pilot's seat, the navigator must concern himself with forces that are measurable, but unseen, and in great degree uncontrollable. His interest is in the wind and its force and direction, in the mysteries of magnetism and of radar beams, in the tracks of the stars and in the power of great storms to do him harm. His tools are instruments that measure time and distance and direction and it is he who is responsible for guiding the plane through the great ocean of the air, from one point where two imaginary lines of latitude and longitude intersect upon a map, to safe landfall at another.
His job is not as burdensome now as it was in the old dead-reckoning days, when a navigator's error caused a plane to overshoot an island and left Captain Eddie Rickenbacker floating on a raft in the South Pacific with a sea gull sitting on his head. Today's navigators are no smarter than those of earlier times, but their tools and techniques have been greatly improved. The navigator beginning a long overwater flight in World War II, for example, would spend two hours laboriously laying out his flight plan. On a map he would plot the course from A to B, taking into consideration the force and direction of the expected winds-an ever-challenging variable-on which he computed his ground speed and his estimated time of arrival. Today, whenever a MAC navigator reports to an Airlift Command Post anywhere in the world, he is given a flight plan to his next destination that has already been prepared for him by a battery of computers at MAC's world-wide navigation service located at Suitland, Maryland.
All the navigator has to do is to crank into his plane's two computers the latitude and longitude of his destination and the place he is landing, plus the headings and winds from the computerized flight plan. The plane's own computers then take
over the toilsome task of dead reckoning, reading out on the pilots' panel, or feeding into the automatic pilot, the proper track and headings. The navigator need only look at an indicator on his panel to see whether the plane is left or right of track, and how far it still has to go to its next checkpoint. As the plane moves from checkpoint to checkpoint, the computers refigure its position once every second, using the input from the Doppler radar (which measures ground speed and wind drift), the true air speed, and the reading off the gyro compasses. It also constantly asks itself, "How am I doing?" testing its calculating networks and its memory drum by presenting itself with a pre-set problem. If it comes up with the wrong answer, it flashes a light announcing that something is wrong.
However, if the navigator should attempt to confuse the computer by cranking in data that could not possibly be true, such as presenting it with coordinates that would put the plane in another hemisphere, the computer will rebuke him. A light flashes and the word REJECT appears on the panel.
If the black boxes have gotten so smart they can take over the navigator's job, what's the use of having a navigator at all? To this question, Navigator Roy Baker gives a wry grin.
"We go along to keep the pilots awake," he says.
Though Roy Baker sometimes says that if the wind didn't blow there'd be no reason for a navigator, there is still a great deal for him to do. For all their pulse-feeling and their rejection of wrong data, computers can make mistakes and so can the electronic devices that serve them. The computer's dead reckoning, for example, is no better than the information given it by Doppler radar, and the compasses, and these devices are subject to error. To make sure that the computer is getting, and putting forth, sound information, the navigator uses his tactical and long-range navigational aids (TACAN gives bearing and distance to a ground transmitter of known location up to 195 miles away, LORAN to greater distances), and that most ancient of navigators' tools, the sextant, which he pokes through the Star-Lifter's tiny astrodome to take a star shot. The computer can also be prepared to do the mathematics required by a celestial fix.
"If your computer places you within four or five miles of
where your celestial computation says you are," says Roy Baker, "you can figure you are in pretty good shape. You split the difference. You update the computer by about two miles and go on from there."
The navigator is not only responsible for keeping the computers honest, but for filing the "aireps"-the air reports that must be transmitted back to Suitland through MAC's highly efficient communications net, every time the plane passes through another 10 degrees of longitude. This includes his position at the moment, in terms of latitude and longitude, his altitude, and the ETA at the next checkpoint. It also includes a complete weather report, including velocity and direction of the midpoint winds, the most important variable in making up a computerized flight plan.
It is his job also to watch the weather radar, keeping a sharp eye out for thunderstorms. The propeller planes which had to fly down at the altitudes where storms are most violent just bulled their way through. The big jets duck and swerve and climb and will go twenty miles off their course to dodge a storm.
"It's not that they aren't just as strong as the old planes," said Roy Baker. "It's just that they go too fast. When a Gooney Bird or a DC-4 or a Connie plowed on into a storm, they were making about one hundred and eighty knots true. Now, in the jets, we are making about four hundred and fifty knots true, and if you hit a thunder-bumper going that fast, you are going to lose some pieces. You can get your radome beaten off by hail in a matter of seconds, with the pieces going into the inboard engines.
"Lightning is a danger, too, because if you get a little lightning hole burned in the skin of a pressurized plane, you just might get a blowout, a rapid decompression. And that is a bad thing. So it is up to the navigator to spot these big hammerheads on his radar and guide the pilots around them."
It is also the navigator's job, Roy Baker points out, to monitor the plane's approaches, keeping the pilot within five degrees of his proper heading, five knots of proper speed, and within 200 feet of the required altitude. A pilot has his hands full, swinging in to intercept a glide path through rough weather, with no, or low, visibility, through skies that may be full of other planes.
Meet the Crew/8^
Often, when approaching a foreign airfield, he is also straining to understand the heavily accented English of the ground controllers who are giving him instructions. This can make for some hairy, and also hilarious, moments.
"We were going into Rome not long ago," Baker relates, "and the weather was pretty bad, and there were about ten airplanes trying to report their positions to .the Rome tower all at once, and all of them were making about five hundred miles an hour. So the Rome controller said, to everybody in the air, 'O.K. O.K. Everybody standa still a minute. Don'ta anybody move!' Another time, going into Cappecino, outside of Naples, the controller there was giving us glide slope information on the radio and we got a little low, and he said, 'MAC 2345, you are going very low on the glide path,' and then as we got in closer he said, 'MAC 2345, you are very, very, very low on the glide path, and I tella you if you don't pull up you are gonna busta your ass.' So we pulled up."
Americans are not noted as linguists, and pilots sometimes have difficulty understanding controllers closer to home. A Canadian controller at a checkpoint called Montjolie was puzzled not long ago when he answered a MAC copilot's radio call and was told, "Get off the air, Munjerlee. I'm trying to call Mount Jolly."
Even though the computers have taken much of the hard work out of navigating, good navigators are still very proud of their ability to fly thousands of miles over water and hit their ETA on the nose. This is not only a matter of professional pride, it is a necessity, for when approaching U.S. shores, a plane must enter the ADIZ, or Air Defense Identification Zone, within five minutes of its estimated time, and within twenty miles of its predicted point of entry. On a flight from Itazuke, Japan, to Norton Air Force Base in California, a distance of 6053 nautical miles, Roy Baker proudly recalls that he was off only three minutes, in an eleven-hour-and-forty-minute flight. A 200-mile-an-hour tailwind had pushed them along a little faster than he estimated.
Navigators like to bet with pilots on the exact time they will block in at their destination, and it is feared that in these wagers a certain amount of chicanery is involved on both sides. Pilots have been known to dawdle while headed to the ramp, or to go down the taxiway at near to takeoff speed, if it was to their advantage to lose, or gain, a minute or two. Navigators have also been known grossly to deceive pilots, by telling them they are running a little behind their estimated time of arrival (ETA) when actually they are a minute or so ahead, or by giving them a false time hack.
Only the loadmasters have no special skill on which to wager, but they are inveterate gamblers on nosewheel roulette. In this game each crew member puts up a small sum and writes his crew number-from 1 to 6-somewhere on the periphery of the nose-wheel. The number wins that is closest to the ground when the plane blocks in at the end of the mission. Nobody has yet figured out how to rig this game, though the navigators are said to be working on it.