Building the Nova Vacuform of the Lockheed C-141A Starlifter

Having provided the airlift backbone from the Vietnam war onward, the C-141A was of prime importance to the US Air Force for more than 4 decades, and is only now verging on extinction with aircraft being scrapped as there are being replaced with the C-17A. It was the first large aircraft to combine jet power with the convenience of a rear cargo ramp and intercontinental range. All but one C-141s was later also stretched in the B version in the late 70s and early 80s, which improved usability, as the Air Force noted they tended to run out of space before they ran out of weight capability. During this modification, the Starlifter also gained a refuelling receptacle. The C-141 started out in a natural metal scheme. Later in the 70s, a grey and white scheme was adopted. Only in the late 80s, were various camouflage schemes adopted, just in time for the first Gulf War. My consultant Bat Masterson advises that the Starlifter was also nicknamed “subsonic bug sucker.”

As I wanted to set my C-141 in the Vietnam war era, I therefore settled on a natural metal scheme and needed to source a Nova C-141A kit. Nova also built a C-141B and it is possible that the Combat Models kit is made from the same molds. This eventually became available on a used kit stand at the IPMS Nationals for a hefty £50. Thankfully, this model also comes with decals. Ruttland Models also makes a fine resin interior set with resin wheels and turbine blades, which really make construction a lot easier. The Nova instructions are not completely perfect, but very detailed and helpful.

00 C-141A 63 9075 in Vietnam


As usual, one starts off by removing all the vacuform parts from their backing and sanding this smooth. I needed to make the wings removable for transport and therefore cut the one piece top wing into 3 parts; 2 outer wings and the wing center box. The lower wings were already in two parts and left as is. The plastic of the interior parts, dating back to the mid 80’s had suffered from the ravages of time and was becoming so brittle that it needed to be reinforced in many places.

Wanting to see some results quickly and also make use of the resin parts, I started with the engines. Into each rear engine half, I stuck small pieces of plasticard so that the rear turbine would have a backstop.

01 C-141A Engine internal


I also stuck larger strips of plasticard onto the bottom joint line. I reinforced, the front edge of the pylon with a piece of sprue. The tabs for inserting the engines into the wing were also cleaned up quite a bit. With the pods assembled, I added the resin fan blades and then covered all the joints and panel lines with filler, as the Nova panel lines were rather disorganized.

02 C-141A Engines Basic


All the panel lines were then recarved according to reference material and the results were primed with grey Halfords. The engine then received their thrust reverser spikes made out of laminated plasticard and were then put aside.

03 C-141A Engines recarved and primed


The wings were next on the list. Having already cut them into 3 parts they were worked on in parallel.

04 C-141A Wing Cutouts


Large vacuform wings not only need interior spars in order to keep their shape without sagging or cracking when being handled, but I also needed the spars to slide into the wing center box.

05 C-141A Wing Spars


As usual, I used the thick dark grey rubberised plastic from Aircraft in Miniatures which is strong, flexible and easy to work with. You start of with a slightly oversized spar and then sand off just enough until the top wing fits snugly. I also used strips of plasticard to reinforce the area just in front of the trailing edge and round sprue to strengthen the leading edge. With all this preparation, the top wing was simply glued on and secured with bulldog clips.

06 C-141A Wing assembled


After the leading and trailing edges had been filled and sanded smooth, I set about to recarve all the panel lines. These were very easy to work with.

07 C-141A Wing fully recarved


After I cleaned up the interior edge of the wing, which would later abut to the fuselage, I added tabs to the spars which would later slide into the wing box and primed them.

08 C-141A Wing primed


The tail plane was more problematic to work with, as the plastic was brittle and had cracked in several locations. Newer kits probably don’t have this problem. I therefore needed to reinforce the plastic with strips of plasticard as well as add spars to hold the structure together.

10 C-141A Tailplane halves


The bottom of the spars would later on also sport locater tabs to slip into the holes cut into the top of the fin. Again the spars were sanded until the bottom halves fit smoothly.

11 C-141A Tailplane assembled


They were then glued together and held together firmly with masking tape and bulldog clips. The tailplane panel lines, however, proved to be a little more difficult to recarve as the filler over the cracked parts was very vulnerable. The result was acceptable, but far from perfect.

12 C-141A Tailplane bottom


The fuselage would prove to be the piece de resistance, as I also planned to open up the rear cargo doors and the front hatch. If you don’t open up the cargo doors, you can make life a lot easier for yourself by simply installing the frames provided in the kit and reinforcing the joint lines with plastic strips. From the basic fuselage halves, I cut out the landing gear doors and the carcgo doors.

13 C-141A Fuselage cutout and parts


A the same time, I also cut out the door at the top of the landing gear pods, where the landing gear tops stick out after they are rotated down. They pod parts were set aside for later. The next obvious place to work on was the landing gear bays, were an interior structure needed to be created.

14 C-141A Fuselage Wheel Bays

15 C-141A Landing gear bay


Except for the brittleness issue, the decking over the cargo door also proved relatively strait forward to attach once the frames provided were adjusted.

16 C-141A Fuselage Internal Rear

17 C-141A Fuselage Rear Internal

18 C-141A Fuselage Rear Internal top


With the rear decking in place, the rest of the fuselage needed to be worked up. Before installing the lower frames and the cargo floor, I wanted to fill in the area in the front and back of the landing gear pods to conform with the rest of the fuselage. A couple of locator strips were glued into the orifice and pieces of plasticard were cut into the right shape and bent until their curvature fit into the required place.

19 C-141A Fuselage halves


With this area sanded, it was then possible to attach reinforcement strips for the joint line and the cargo floor together with the the frames to support it. At this point the resin cockpit parts were added and I set about adding simulated frames to the rear fuselage.

20 C-141A Fuselage halves detailed


“The entire fuselage along the sides was covered with a phenolic type of press board and was fastened by camlocs. Phenolic is a type of plastic or resin and other organic stuff that's formed into sheets under high pressure. The area behind the jump doors was not so fancy. All of the control cables ran overhead.” I made no attempt to simulate the control cables and Air Conditioning ducts overhead without references as these would be barely visible on the finished model. Note, it was still necessary to use the kit frames to attach the resin front landing gear bay. The frames were only also added on the front half of the fuselage and a large amount of lead weight was inserted into the spaces under the cockpit. With a lot of the other detailing in place, as taken from various reference photos, it was possible to paint the interior.

21 C-141A Fuselage halves painted


For the early machines, this was more than simple, as virtually everything in the cargo area was natural metal as even the insulating fabric was painted silver. Later, “the whole cargo compartment was painted a pale non-glow light green. The big change was when they stretched the aircraft in the late 70's.” The cockpit needed a little more effort with the floors being painted grey and the instruments basically black with some white and red splotches on the instruments.

22 C-141 Cockpit


I kept the cockpit relatively simple beyond that as not that much more is visible when the canopy is attached. Before closing up the fuselage, it’s important to remember that there is a small ladder leading up from the cargo floor to the cockpit. This comes out of the spares box. No attempt was made to create troop seats. Regular black marks were painted on the appropriate marked locations of the cargo floor in order to simulate the rollers. “The floor was all metal with a lot of anti-skid strips. There are two lines of rollers that run the length of the cabin including the cargo loading ramp. The rollers are, I'd say, 6-8" wide and maybe 3.5" in diameter. The roller strips are about 8 or 10 feet long and can be removed flipped over and then stored in their original spaces. They are used for palletised airdrop and cargo. This was neat because the aircrew could configure that cargo compartment for whatever prior to arrival.” With the interior installed and painted, it is now time to join the two fuselage halves and apply filler to all joint lines.

23 C-141A Fuselage 5


I had already prepared the cockpit with a few strips of plasticard on the sides and rear in order to accept the canopy transparency. I also built up the wing box by working around the tabs extending from the wing spars under the top wing center section, which had been cut out at the very beginning.

24 C-141A Wing Box


The arrow shaped construction of plasticard was wrapped in cotton thread and then doused in supper glue to create a very strong equivalent of carbon fiber structure. At that point the previously finished fuselage section was still complete. This needed to be cut out at the appropriate place in order to accept the silver painted wing center box.

25 C-141A Fuselage Cutout for Wing Box


The center section was simply dropped into the open orifice and blended in using plenty of putty. When everything was nicely sanded, it became time to draw on the panel lines and to then carve them in.

27 C-141A Fuselage Panel Lines


It was easier to carve the panel line without the landing gear pods, but with the job complete, it was finally possible to attach the pods, together with the built in blanking off plates in the interior.

28 C-141A Fuselage Gear Pods

29 C-141A Fuselage Gear Pods bottom


When this was successfully filled and sanded and all imperfections corrected, the fuselage was primed.

30 C-141A Fuselage Primed


The completed fuselage is now ready to accept the landing gear.

31 C-141A Landing gear 2


I built up the bottom and top of a cradle to take the landing gear and also prepared a strip o plasticard to act as an extension jack which now holds everything together. The almost complete aircraft is now primed and can then be painted.

32 C-141A Primed

33 C-141A Painted


After applying and masking Corrogard on the wing tops, I used mostly Hallfords Nissan silver as well a several grades of Allclad II on the rest of the airframe. The Corrogard was created using a mixture of dark Allclad and some medium grey. It looks just like on an airliner. The walkways and de-icing strips as well as the section behind the wing could also at this time be painted matt black. You need plenty of Tamiya tape and other masking tape to accomplish all these different layers. With the paint job complete, it was possible to install the pre prepared cargo bay doors. Some minor framing was installed according to reference photos.

34 C-141A Cargo Doors


The local model shop sold me some acrylic hinges of which I needed one for attaching the cargo ramp to the bottom of the fuselage and 4 tiny brass hinges for the side doors. These were simply inserted into between the framing and the inside of the fuselage and worked first time. Decals from the Kit sheet as well as from the spares box were then applied. I wanted a MATS aircraft and only needed to pilfer decals for Military Air Transport Service on the gear pods and for the serial number. I also needed some decals for the escape signs on the top hatches. This completed the kit for all intents and purposes.

The C-141A was from the 44th Air Transport Squadron of MATS based at Travis AFB in California in 1965.

All in all, this was as straightforward a kit to build considering it was a rather large vacuform. The construction time was only about a month, stretched over about 9 months, in between other projects and holidays and proved less troublesome compared to other giant vacuform projects attempted in the past. I’m now ready to for both the C-131 Samaritan and the C-5 Galaxy, which I have on order.

Article and pictures by Alex Hunger except original aircraft pictures via US Air Force.


See the completed model here.


Sources website

Excerpts from Bat Masterson

Lockheed advertisements from Aviation Week & Space Technology from the early 1970s

More sources are available as the Book on the C-17 has a section on the C-141 and there was a book published in the late 60’s, seemingly with full cooperation from Lokheed and the Air Force, but these had no bearing on the construction of this kit.

Model, article and photographs by Alex Hunger