Cold War Era

Hanoi Taxi: the story of the C-141 StarLifter that became the first Aircraft to Return Vietnam Prisoners of War to the US

Although C-141 StarLifter aircraft had flown many military and humanitarian missions, none was more significant than the mission flown by the Hanoi Taxi.

On Aug. 23, 1963, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed it was a “great moment for our nation” when he unveiled by remote control from the White House the initial Lockheed C-141 StarLifter military transport plane. By ceremoniously pressing a gold key in the nation’s capital and allowing for the virtual rollout of the carrier some 650 miles away in Marietta, Georgia, President Kennedy ushered in the first jet-powered airlifter and set in motion a versatile aircraft which helped write history throughout its 43 years of service.

A C-141 Starlifter aircraft, better known as the Hanoi Taxi, flies over its soon-to-be new home at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force adjacent to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, Dec. 13, 2005.

Responding to President Kennedy’s order to develop an all-jet military transport troop and cargo carrier, Lockheed produced the StarLifter on time and under budget using the exclusive designs of its Marietta-based engineers.

From 1965 to 2006, it served as the mainstay of the US military airlift, participating in every operation from Vietnam to Iraqi Freedom. The aircraft’s speed proved invaluable during Vietnam by cutting roundtrip flight time between California and Saigon from 95 hours to 34, while its 93-foot cargo bay made it easy to offload almost 70,000 pounds of freight per hour.

Interior view of the Lockheed C-141C Starlifter “Hanoi Taxi” in the Global Reach Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

Although the C-141s had flown many military and humanitarian missions, none was more significant than the mission flown by the Hanoi Taxi, the aircraft on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. This C-141 (serial number 66-0177) airlifted the first American prisoners of war (POWs) to freedom from Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973. The Hanoi Taxi flew two missions into Hanoi, carrying out 78 POWs and two civilian returnees to the Philippines, and four missions from the Philippines to the U.S., carrying 76 ex-POWs. Afterward, the Hanoi Taxi continued flying missions around the world for three more decades and logged more than 40,000 flying hours. During its lifespan, the Hanoi Taxi underwent many changes. Originally built as a C-141A model, its fuselage was lengthened and aerial refueling capability was added in the early 1980s. The USAF redesignated it as a C-141B. Later, the aircraft had its wings strengthened and was converted to a C-141C by the installation of advanced avionics.

When the aircraft left the ground, the POWs knew they really were free.

In 2002 the Hanoi Taxi received its final programmed depot maintenance. It was also repainted as it appeared when it went to Hanoi in 1973 — except for the Red Cross which was used to show it was carrying hospital patients. The Hanoi Taxi flew in these markings for the next four years instead of the standard paint scheme in recognition of its important history.

The C-141 “Hanoi Taxi” touches down at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force during its final flight on May 6, 2006. 

In May 2004 the Hanoi Taxi again tapped the timelines of history when Maj. Gen. Edward J. Mechenbier, himself a POW repatriated from Vietnam, flew it back to Vietnam to repatriate the remains of two American service members killed in action. The Hanoi Taxi was flown to the museum in May 2006.

In December 2015 the aircraft was moved into the fourth building at the museum. The new hangar opened to the public in May 2016, and the Hanoi Taxi is now on permanent display in the Global Reach Gallery. Visitors to the museum are able to walk inside the cargo bay of the aircraft through a rear ramp door.

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Paul Kari, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, poses with the Lockheed C-141C Hanoi Taxi in the new fourth building at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force on Dec. 16, 2015. Kari was flown to freedom on the Hanoi Taxi in 1973. (U.S. Air Force photo by Don Popp)

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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