Horseplay in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter

15 Feb 13 5 Comments

The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter is a strategic airlifter: a cargo aircraft specifically used to transport personnel or materials over long distances. This military aircraft has appeared in every US conflict from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

It’s a big, well-stacked, beautiful plane built for comfort, not speed. (A lot like me, actually!)

So I was excited to find that a former C-141 pilot has made an excellent website celebrating the aircraft: C141HEAVEN – All there is to know, and lots more, about the Lockheed C141 Starlifter! This wonderful resource focuses on a single aircraft but with a wide remit, including personal recollections from pilots, historical documentation, newspaper articles and videos.

If you know me, it’ll come as no surprise to know that I was fascinated by the C-141 Lifetime Mishap Summary on the site. Especially this report, which is the only official incident I have heard of which was caused by by a cigar in the cockpit.

C-141 Vance AFB 1982

Synopsis: The highly experienced crew was returning to base from a stateside airdrop mission. During some horseplay, cigar ash was introduced into a crew oxygen hose. The resulting oxygen-fed fire ignited floor coverings and filled the cockpit with dense sooty smoke. After some difficulties, the crew was able to recover the aircraft with only minor injuries.

Returning from Pope to Norton after an airdrop mission, the pilot in the left seat decided to light a cigar.

The pilot, who was in the jumpseat, complained and donned his oxygen mask. In response, the left seater covertly disconnected the jumpseater’s mask from the oxygen regulator hose, with the intent of putting smoke into the hose. Unfortunately, lit cigar ash accidentally entered the oxygen regulator hose before the hose was reconnected.

The jumpseater smelled the smoke and selected “Emergency” on the oxygen regulator. When that didn’t help, he removed the mask to clear the smoke. When he disconnected the mask from the regulator hose, a “2-foot” sheet of fire leapt from the hose. It ignited an oxygen-fed fire that spread to the flooring.

To put out the fire, the left-seat pilot shut off the crew oxygen system. At about the same time, the engineer while switching to “MAX” airflow, inadvertently hit the bleed duct overheat test switch, shutting off the engine bleed valves and disabling the air-conditioning packs. The crew started a descent but soon became hypoxic.

The crew oxygen system was again turned on. The fire reignited with a fireball large enough to melt components on the Flight Engineer’s panel.

The crew eventually extinguished the fire, reset the bleed valves, and recovered to the nearest military base. Members of the crew suffered only minor injuries (but major embarrassment).

I recommend having a browse around the full website: C141HEAVEN. In one incredibly touching blog post, he tells how he managed to return the ID tags to the wife of a pilot who crashed in 1975, after the Parks Service had failed to find the family. The website is still being updated and is a fitting testament to an exceptional aircraft.

Category: History,


  • There are a few inaccuracies in this report.

    I was told this story by Greg Trebon, who was the C-141 check pilot in the jumpseat.

    The co-pilot felt flame in his mask and tore it off his face and dropped it on the floor. It ignited his kit bag under his seat filling the cockpit with dense smoke, so dense you could not see the instruments.

    The pilot punched the button for a 7700 squack and put the plane into an emergency dive to get to an altitude where they could breath without pressurization or the oxygen system.

    After the fire started the pilot motioned to the flight engineer to turn the oxygen off to contain the fire. But once he did no one had oxygen to breath through their masks. He then motioned for the flight engineer to turn the oxygen back on. When he did an oxygen pressure regulator behind the pilots seat exploded sending shrapnel through out the cockpit.

    It wounded Greg by sending shrapnel into his back.

    Once they got to a lower altitude they could continue without the oxygen system. Once they got the cockpit cleared of smoke they landed at an Air National Guard Base in the middle of Kansas.

    The after math of the accident included the cigar jokester being kicked out of the Air Force and the first officer being demoted a full rank for failing to check the intercom during the preflight checklist (the reason for the motioning signals).

    The payload was a number of C-141 crews on their way home. The crew master told the flight crew that he didn’t know what was going on, but he was prepared to keep sending a new crew to the cockpit until things were in order.

  • Sylvia,
    Keep up the good work.
    And: In no way will I point the accusing finger at anyone so the following is a very, very general remark (or if you like: observation).
    It is human nature to try and cover up if you made a serious mess. At least, if you think you can get away with it.
    Stan Laurel was always at Oliver Hardy’s receiving end (“a fine mess you got us into”).
    And even Adam and Eve were trying to cover up.
    Some think that the Bible is misinterpreted: they had no concept of covering their bodies. What they tried to hide was the object of “their shame”. Which was the apple ! They put a fig leaf over the half-eaten apple in the hope that God would not see it .
    So, Sylvia, there is just an eetsy-teeny chance that your version might be accurate after all.
    But: innocent until proven guilty !

  • This is interesting because I was indirectly affected by this incident . I was a Reserve Flight Engineer flying back from Frankfurt GE on Aug 30 1982 . we had multiple problems with fuel pouring out of left wing vent during flight I wrote it up several times but it never was fixed . So when we landed at Mcguire I decided to make a tough decision and RED X the aircraft against the desire of the aircraft commander. I talked with maintenance and my Chief Engineer who in no uncertain terms said that I would be grounded if I flew with the aircraft in that condition again needless to say this was a high profile mission we were flying back with AWACS crews from Saudi Arabia and nobody cared about safety.I had everybody and his mother trying to convince me to take the aircraft but I refused. they alerted another bird and got the aircraft fixed. BUT flying back to Mcguire I was not allowed to sit at the flight engineers panel , they recalled the squadron commander from vacation and he was pissed when we arrived at his office at Norton he kept yelling at me and the AC , to whom he said did you give him a direct order etcetera My chief said nothing except that the general bennett wanted my head on a plate I guess for doing my job , they kept saying I was going to be court martialed but the lawyers at Norton said they didnt have a case because it was a safety issue. In the end the general banned me from flying on his airplanes you have to realize I was in the reserves and we didnt have any planes at that time. To me it showed me they didnt care about safety. My number one concern at all times was safety and found many problems during preflights because of un professional or incompetent personnel The FEFE David Caldron later told me about the horseplay incident that happened about 2 days before and said that was why he came down so hard on me which I thought was unfair needless they wanted me to resign or they would hold a board and kick me out real good professionals Behind closed doors a certain Lt COL Sehorn said if i resigned they wouldnt do anything and I could join another reserve unit which I did 312 th MAS at TRavis where ironically the General was based but after suffering from depression decided to get out of flying. My only regret is that I didnt stay and fight the decision and write my congressman and get that General fired The people in my squadron lied and were really cowards and one of them later became a General believe or not.

    • That’s terrible. I’m so sorry for your ending up in that situation. Thank you for sharing it, the connection with the Lockheed story is depressing but interesting!

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