The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
IN THE BEGINNING of the StarLifter program, Lockheed had every hope that the big cargo ship would be in production for many years, as was its predecessor, the Hercules. They saw it as a classic cargo transport for the civilian airlines, in the great tradition of the famous DC-3, or Gooney Bird, which is still in the air after more than thirty years.
Civilian cargo-carriers, though they showed much interest in the StarLifter at first, finally decided that the C-141 was too much a military plane to suit them, even though it was certified for civilian use by the FAA-a process which added greatly to its cost. The civil airlines felt they had no real need for a cargo plane designed to land on short fields, nor one with floor beams strong enough to support a Sherman tank or a heavy howitzer. Nor did they heed Lockheed's argument that the StarLifter's loading system-the aft-end loading of palletized cargo at truck-bed height-would mean a great savings in cargo handling, for this meant that their cargo-handling equipment, geared to side-loading, was obsolete and would have to be replaced. Many companies also felt no great need for the C-141's greater speed and range and payload. So they bought, instead, the StarLifter's little brother, the commercial version of the C-130 Hercules; half the size of the bigger plane, but also, at 3.1 million, about half as expensive.
Lockheed also hoped that other nations would buy the C-141 to modernize their military airlift fleets, and its salesmen prowled the world seeking these markets. Unfortunately, England, one of the best prospects, ran into financial crisis and settled for the Hercules. Also, when the word got around that the C-5 Galaxy, the world's biggest cargo plane, was on the drawing boards, the nations that might have been interested in the C-141 decided to wait and take a look at the Big Gal. So the StarLifter found itself caught in a squeeze between two of its stablemates.
(Early in 1972 the StarLifter did find one purchaser outside the military. Lockheed's demonstration plane was bought by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to be fitted out with a 36-inch infra-red telescope and other scientific instruments. Operating in the dry thin air above 40,000 feet, the plane will act as an airborne observatory, providing detailed information of the planets and their moons, of comets, asteroids, the sun's surface and many far-off stars, nebulae and galactic phenomena.)
By the time the StarLifter production line shut down in February, 1968, the workhorse plane had taken us a long way along the road to an airlift capability sufficient to our needs. There were limits of performance, though, beyond which it could not go. One last step into the future was needed-an even bigger, more versatile plane, which would team with the 141 to form an airlift fleet of hitherto undreamed of performance-one that would let us fulfill our commitments to the friendly nations we are pledged to protect, while at the same time withdrawing our standing armies from their soil.
Thus the giant C-5 Galaxy was born-the biggest winged vehicle in the world, capable of carrying heavier weights, of greater volume, for longer distances than any other aircraft ever built.
It is 248 feet long and 223 feet wide and its tail stands 65 feet in the air, the height of a six-story building. Its takeoff weight is 728,000 pounds, carrying a payload of 220,000 pounds. In tests, it has taken off at near 800,000 pounds, and it has set an unofficial world record for heavy paradrops by releasing a total of 160,000 pounds of simulated cargo on one flight. It can carry 50 tons for 5600 miles without refueling, and 110 tons for 3050 miles. Empty, it can fly for 7320 miles nonstop, and when refueled in midair, its range is limited only by the endurance of its crew.
It is not only the biggest airplane in the world, it is the most expensive, and because of this, it has been savagely attacked. The StarLifter was built at a time of depression in the aircraft industry, when the plane builders who served the Air Force were hungry and looking for work. The C-5 went on the drawing boards at a time of booming business and soaring inflation, when every subcontractor had more than he could handle. The Star-Lifter was built at a time when the mood of the nation was sympathetic to military goals and in support of the government's policies. The C-5 went into production at a time of bitter opposition to the seemingly endless Vietnam War, and of angry and suspicious disenchantment with the Pentagon and all its works.
In such an atmosphere the Galaxy's huge cost made it fair game. When the last StarLifter rolled out the door of Lockheed's assembly hangar, it wore a price tag of about $6 million. When the last Galaxy rolls out sometime in 1973, the cost will be around $30 million. (Critics estimate the cost at nearly twice this figure, but they include the many items of support, and facilities construction, such as huge hangars, along with the vehicle itself. They also ignore the fact that when the Air Force dropped its buy from 115 to 81 planes, development costs had to be distributed among fewer aircraft.)
The StarLifter was the best airplane the Air Force felt it could afford at the time it was built. The Galaxy was the best airplane that men who had been building airplanes all their lives could conceive of, and it was built to specifications laid down by the Air Force and Army, based on more than a decade of airlift experience gained in Berlin, Beirut, Korea, and the Congo. The plane that rolled off the assembly line at Lockheed-Georgia on March 2, 1968, is more than just a bigger StarLifter. It represents a new dimension in aviation technology. It can go where the StarLifter cannot go, and do what the StarLifter, rugged as it is, and advanced as it is, cannot do. It can land on 4000-foot dirt runways and kneel to truck-bed height to load or unload cargo simultaneously from the nose and tail. If no airfields are available near the troops it must supply, it can drop loads of up to 200,000 pounds on one flight. Its special black boxes enable it to pinpoint target areas at night, or in zero-zero weather, and it can do this while flying in formation with other aircraft.
It has had its troubles, of course, and they have been widely publicized. Many of them are the normal problems that beset any new aircraft. Others have derived from the complexity of the new .systems that push the state of the art to its limits. Others can be attributed to human failures, and human stubbornness.
In 1966, for example, Lockheed discovered that the airframe it was building for the C-5 was going to run some 15,000 pounds over the 318,000 pounds empty weight specified in the contract- extra weight that the Lockheed engineers considered essential to strength and safety. But the engines that the Air Force had contracted for could not haul this extra weight as far and as fast as the range and payload provisions of the contract called for. So Lockheed had asked the Air Force to buy more powerful engines-a request that would have increased the overall costs of the plane by several million dollars.
Ordinarily this would have created no great difficulty. Air Force and Lockheed engineers would have gotten together, weighed strength and safety, range and payload against added costs, and made a decision in favor of the heavier, more powerful plane. But these were not ordinary times. The Air Force, extremely sensitive to the strong public feeling of animosity toward the so-called military-industrial complex, bluntly refused. A "cure" order went to Lockheed: "Cut the weight to contract specs, or you are in default of contract."
So, having no alternative, Lockheed went to work trimming every ounce of weight it could from structural members by a process called chem-milling, and replacing heavier metals with lightweight and highly expensive titanium. It was, as it turned out, a process far more costly than buying new engines. And it created nightmarish problems further down the line.
In laboratory tests, cracks began to show up in one area of the wings. As the plane went into service and its metals began to undergo the stress of fatigue of daily operations, cracks developed in the engine pylons. On one plane, an engine broke loose while running up for the takeoff, and the whole C-5 fleet was grounded briefly for safety inspections. All suspected areas were examined and beefed up if added strength was needed.
In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Appropriations, Secretary of the Air Force Robert C. Seamans recognized the problems created when the plane was designed "too close to the margin," but predicted that by careful handling the plane would "approach" its planned life expectancy of 30,000 flight hours. "However," he added, "the C-5 is capable of meeting its primary purpose, which is wartime strategic airlift And the peacetime use of these aircraft will be sufficient to maintain combat readiness while conserving the life of the aircraft for its emergency mission."
The controversy over the plane's development problems has tended to obscure the fact that the Galaxy in operation is an efficient airplane. It costs seven cents to haul a ton of cargo a mile in a StarLifter-the most efficient airlifter in the fleet until the C-5 came along. The Galaxy cost is estimated at about four cents a ton-mile, making it competitive with many forms of surface transport.
As its Air Force and Army sponsors planned, it is more than a cargo-hauler. It is, says Philip A. Whitaker, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, "an instrument of national policy, giving mobility to our military forces superior to that provided by any other transport system in the world." The C-5 for the first time gives the military the capacity for a truly flexible response. General Jack J. Catton, commander of MAC, says, "It gives us the choice between the great expense involved in maintaining large garrisons of people, weapons, equipment, and supplies in numerous locations throughout the world ... as opposed to a greater concentration in the U.S. of a lean, effective, highly mobile fighting force which can be used as required in a variety of locations."
Keeping troops in garrisons overseas is indeed a costly business. At least two-thirds of our military budget is represented by manpower and operations costs. Each man in uniform on a foreign base represents from $1000 to $3000 in balance-of-payments deficits-a drain on our gold supply. Each represents from $5000 to $15,000 in direct costs, a drain on tax dollars. No substantial reduction in military expenditures, therefore, can be made without drastic cutbacks in the force of more than a million men we now maintain at garrisons overseas.
Yet how can we withdraw these troops that we have maintained on foreign soil since the end of World War II without abrogating the promises made to friendly countries that we stand ready to defend them from attack?
The answer, says Senator Stuart Symington, is the new concept made possible by the C-5-the doctrine of the "remote presence," the power that lies just beyond the horizon, Catton's lean, effective highly mobile fighting force, alert and ready, poised to strike when and wherever needed.
Studies by strategic thinkers outside the military, made before the C-5 cutback, showed how this remote concept could be supported by the full use of a combined airlift fleet of C-I41s and C-5s. By its speed and load-carrying capacity it could become a flying pipeline, a mobile warehouse, enabling us to close down more than half of the nearly one hundred supply depots we maintain overseas. This would produce an estimated savings in personnel costs, and reduction in balance-of-payments deficits, of more than $12 billion-more than twice the cost of the entire C-5 program. At the same time, combat effectiveness would not be reduced. The StarLifter/Galaxy fleet could transport a full division with all its heavy, outsized equipment to overseas crisis sites in a matter of days.
Savings made possible by the flexible response capability of the C-141/C-5 fleet would vary widely, of course, depending on the number of planes available and the number of men withdrawn. But whatever the true economic value of the airlift fleet, one thing is clear. Once its time of testing is over, and it goes into full operation with MAC, the world's most expensive airplane- which its crews with wry affection now call "Fat Albert"-may be a pretty good bargain after all. To General George S. Brown, commander of the Air Force Systems Command, there is no doubt about it. The Berlin Airlift required 320 C-54 airplanes. One squadron of sixteen C-5s, or less, could have done the same job at a fraction of the cost. "All you hear about the C-5 is criticism," General Brown told the California Air Force Association. "Criticism of its contract, its complexity, and its cost-but the truth is, this is the most productive cargo airplane in the world. It is the distilled essence of twenty-five years of aerospace progress in airlift."