27 August, 2015

Profile 106: FINISHED—"0641" as flown February 18, 1973

Chances are REALLY good that you give no thought of how much your life revolves around the word, "Logistics."

Bold statement, eh?  And how do I know?  Because I don't think about "Logistics" much either. 

Regardless, have a look at the airplane above.  It's a Lockheed C-141A Starlifter.  It's big, it's loud, but on an air show flight line, the "F" and "B" airplanes always seem to attract the bigger crowds.  "C" planes are really just big pickup trucks.  Right?  I mean, what self-respecting 10 year old, staring up at the model airplanes hanging over their bed, wishes, "Some day, I'm going to fly Cargo planes."

General Eisenhower, however, made a comment that those 10 year old would-be combat pilots would do well to think about:

“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have
been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”

All that stuff in the grocery store?  Food at the restaurant?  Stuff at the store?  Logistics—the practice of hauling stuff from point A to point B.  Put another way, no cargo?  No combat.  Period.

Let's take a moment, step back and prepare to appreciate the most important aspect of any force, Military or Civilian.  And in this case, the C-141 is the Queen Mother.

Designed in 1960, the C-141 was a response to what the military learned in WWII—the world was getting smaller and military activity depended on moving materiel over huge distances, quickly.  We all have our opinions on whether or not the United States should have military presence in this country or that* but the reality is, if we don't want to fight HERE, we have to fight THERE.   And "there" means moving a lot of gear.

On paper, the potential of the C-141 had to be an outrageous dream.  Yet, compared to its WWII equivalent—the C-47 (aka DC-3)—the Starlifter truly lived up to its name.  Have a look at the graphic I put together...
The C-47/DC-3 is largely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest aircraft ever built and there are solid reasons why.  But in the military application, look at the numbers:  The Starlifter had twice the range, three times the speed and nearly twenty times the payload.  If you work out the ratio of cost/unit compared to hauling capacity, the C-141 crushes the C-47 by being three times as efficient.

Go ahead, do the math...I'll wait.

The C-141 was a simply amazing aircraft!

For all the news coverage of government waste, I wish the average folk could realize that, for the most part, the engineers of American industry and the bean counters of Military Procurement do their best.   And it's a pretty fine "best" too.

Sad to say, the Starlifter is no longer moving stars.  The last military flight occurred on 6 May, 2006.  It was a pretty big deal and someone did a great job documenting it on YouTube (click here).  But wait a bit before clicking on it, ok?  There's more you should know.

Today, the American airlift capability is practically spread out over three basic types - the C-5 Galaxy, the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 Hercules.  I made another graphic so you can see the how the heavy-lifting is distributed.

Somewhere between the ginormous C-5 Galaxy and the "jack of all trades" C-130 lies the former domain of the C-141.  Today, the C-17 is doing the 141's job and from what I've read, even more efficiently. 


Logistics isn't always about "the numbers."

Sometimes, Logistics is about...this.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, "Burst of Joy" by Slava Veder.
Please. Click here.

You knew it was coming.  "0641" was not just hauling stuff.  This C-141 was one of 16 that ferried 592 American POWs from Hanoi to Clark, AFB during Operation Homecoming.

Take another pause, ok?  Think about what it would be like to have someone you hold dear taken away from you, held in uncertainty...and then returned.  Forever changed.

(I was serious. Take the pause)

The process took almost a month and a half.  C-141s would lumber into Hanoi's Gia Lam airport l and pick up the POWs as they were processed out of the infamous North Vietnamese prison system. 

Each C-141 would carry about 20 POWs.   Of course, a Starlifter could carry many more than that, but Operation Homecoming wasn't a cattle car operation.  Instead, it was a strange diplomatic maneuver that took a month and a half to work out.  I bet it drove the C-141 crews crazy, too.  Left to their own devices, they could have probably had them all home in 12 hours.

This all being stated, have a look at the drawing again—0641 is the very C-141 that flew into Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport on February 18, 1973 to return 20 POWs, one of which was then Lt. (jg) "Charlie" Plumb.

Ok.  The C-141 retirement video mentioned previously is really a fine piece that captures what the C-141 was all about.  But before you do, watch the video below.  The man shown is Charlie and the song is one written and performed by the POWs for President Nixon as an act of gratitude.

Logistics, indeed.

(Special thanks go to the Plumb family for putting together this very cool clip).

IMPORTANT NOTICE:  Charlie signed a number of prints of my artwork featuring his F-4B Phantom and the C-141A Starlifter that carried him to freedom.  If you'd like to purchase one, proceeds are going to the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.   CLICK HERE.