The C-141 Starlifter was the US Air Force’s first major jet aircraft designed to meet military standards as a troop and cargo carrier. Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) built a total of 285 C-141s, and for more than 40 years, C-141s performed numerous airlift missions for the USAF. With its great range and high speed, the Starlifter projected American military power and humanitarian efforts rapidly across the globe.
The Starlifter originated from a 1959 requirement for a fast, strategic transport aircraft that would serve as a “work horse” for moving U.S. Army troops rapidly anywhere in the world. The C-141 made its maiden flight on December 17, 1963, and the C-141A became operational in April 1965 with the 1501st Air Transport Wing at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
In July 1986, the USAF began transferring its C-141s to Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units, and the last two Starlifters were retired from service in 2006. Over their four-decade career, Starlifters logged more than 10 million hours, including a record set in 1981 when a C-141 flew 67,000 pounds of cargo non-stop from New Jersey to Saudi Arabia, refueling three times in flight.
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.
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.
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.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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