The first prototype 61-2775 flew on 17 December 1963, the 60th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. The first C-141A, delivered to Tinker AFB, Oklahoma in October 1964, began squadron operations with the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) in April 1965. Starlifters made flights almost daily to Southeast Asia, carrying troops, equipment and supplies, and returning patients to U.S. hospitals. The last C-141A 67-0166 was delivered in February 1968. Drawing heavily on experience with the smaller C-130 Hercules, the Starlifter featured a fuselage of similar cross-section, a rear ramp and loading assembly with two large clamshell doors that could be opened in flight for airdrops, rear paratroop doors on both sides, and landing gear housed in external fairings.A high-set wing, swept 25 degrees, was adopted for high-speed cruise, with powerful flaps provided for good low-speed field performance. The aircraft also featured a T-tail, four underwing TF33 turbofan engines, and integral wing fuel tanks. During the 1970s, the entire fleet of 270 aircraft (minus the four NC-141A aircraft used as aerial testbeds) were returned to Lockheed for modification.
This process consisted of lengthening the aircraft by 23 feet, 4 inches (7.16m), which increased cargo capacity by about one-third to 2,171 extra cubic feet (61.48 cubic meters) and increased the maximum payload weight from 70,847 pounds (32,136kg) to 90,880 pounds (41,222kg). Lengthening of the aircraft had the same effect as increasing the number of aircraft by 30 percent. At the same time, a universal air refueling receptacle, with the ability to transfer 23,592 gallons in about 26 minutes, means longer nonstop flights and fewer fuel stops at overseas bases during worldwide airlift missions. This in flight refueling system is housed within a characteristic "humped" fairing above the flight deck. This new capability provided the Starlifter with true global airlift capacity. The prototype C-141B made its first flight on 24 March 1977 and Lockheed completed the final B-model on 29 June 1982. Of the 285 C-141A Starlifters built, 270 were converted to B-models. 63 C-141Bs received further modifications to become the C-141C. Each received a "glass cockpit" which features an all-weather flight control system, a Global Positioning System (GPS), chaff/flare dispensers, and a new fuel quantity indicating system. These upgrades were completed by 2001.Throughout its career the C-141 Starlifter has been the workhorse of the air mobility fleet, flying regular supply missions around the world in addition to special requirements. The latter have included disaster relief, evacuations, aid delivery and missions in support of combat operations. Perhaps the Starlifter's finest hour came in the second half of 1990, when the entire fleet was instrumental in transporting much of the equipment for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm