On display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio are many notable aircraft including Air Force VC-137C SAM 26000 “Air Force One,” which brought President John F. Kennedy’s body home from Dallas, while President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office on board; the B-29 “Bockscar,” which dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and ended World War II; and even the Air Force’s own “flying saucer.”
However, another special aircraft in the collection is the C-141–serial number 66-0177–which was used to airlift the first American prisoners of war (POW) to freedom from Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973. Nicknamed “The Hanoi Taxi,” the C-141 flew two missions into Hanoi and carried out a total of seventy-eight POWs and two civilian returnees to the Philippines, and then four missions from the Philippines to the United States.
That particular C-141 continued to fly missions around the world for nearly thirty years and logged more than forty thousand flying hours. During its lifespan, the aircraft underwent some significant changes–including having its fuselage lengthened while aerial refueling capability was added in the early 1980s. It had been delivered to the United States Air Force in 1967, and remained in service for forty-three years–it was the last C-141 to be withdrawn from service and has been in the museum’s collection since 2006.
The aircraft’s roots can be traced back to the early 1960s when the Military Air Transport Service called for a new aircraft to replace its fleet of slower propeller-driven aircraft including the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II and Douglas C-133 Cargomaster. The C-141 flew its first flight in 1963, and the production of an eventual 285 planes began two years later.
The C-141 StarLifter was the first jet-powered airlifter, and from 1964–2006, the aircraft served as the mainstay of U.S. military airlift and participated in every operation from the Vietnam War to Iraqi Freedom. It was far faster than the prop-driven aircraft it replaced, which proved invaluable during the Vietnam War–where it was able to cut down the roundtrip flight time between California and Saigon from ninety-five hours to thirty-four hours, while the aircraft’s ninety-three-foot cargo bay made it easy to offload almost seventy thousand pounds of freight per hour.
In addition to the now “famous” Hanoi Taxi, other StarLifters played an important role in rescuing American personnel and Vietnamese refugees alike during the 1975 exodus from Saigon. In 1983, C-141 aircraft were used to evacuate seventy-eight wounded U.S. Marines from Beirut following the 1983 bombing of the barracks in the city. Two years later a C-141 was used to carry thirty-nine hostages to freedom after the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in Egypt.
Early in its operational service, the StarLifter demonstrated that it could carry even larger loads, and the U.S. Air Force increased the size of the “workhorse” by lengthening the fuselage of the C-141A by 23.3 feet. This stretch version was designated C-141B and gave the Air Force the equivalent of ninety additional StarLifters. The aircraft were upgraded again to the C-141Cs with the addition of advanced avionics.
In 1986, the Air Force began to transfer the aging planes to the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units, and the last two StarLifters–including the Hanoi Taxi–were retired from service. Over the course of four decades, the aircraft logged more than ten million hours, and in 1981 set a record when a C-141 with sixty-seven thousand pounds of cargo flew non-stop from New Jersey to Saudi Arabia.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.