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One of the Last Remaining C-141 Loadmasters Retires

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christian Sharpe; Jim Bove

In 2006, the Air Force retired the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter after four decades serving as the backbone of strategic airlift. For the majority of Airmen today, it is but a history lesson. But not for the soon-to-be retired Master Sgt. Steven Gore, one of the last active duty loadmasters to have flown on it.

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Gore was routinely exposed to military cargo aircraft as Charleston Air Force Base (now Joint Base Charleston) was home to a large fleet of C-141s and was the first operational C-17 base. It was during a kindergarten field trip in 1984 that he first stepped foot on a C-141. Gore stated, “I kept getting in trouble with the teachers for picking up the co-pilots microphone and trying to talk to the control tower. Little did I know 15 years later I would be talking on that microphone for a living, guess I was getting in some early practice.”

Immediately upon graduation from high school in 1997, he approached the local recruiters about becoming a jet engine mechanic but was still unsure of exactly what he wanted to do in the Air Force. His father was an Air Force veteran, and having spent 35 years as a communications and navigation systems repairman on cargo aircraft, he shared sound words of wisdom, “You want to be the guy that breaks the planes, not the one fixing them. Go be a loadmaster and see the world.” 

With this invaluable insight, Gore embarked upon what would become a 23-year career as an aircraft loadmaster amassing nearly 5,000 flying hours.

Upon completion of technical training, much to the younger Gore’s surprise, he received orders to McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey (now Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst AFB), flying the C-141. This was a surprise as the aircraft was slated for retirement and most new trainees received orders to the new C-17. According to Gore, “Obviously, my hopes for crewing the newest aircraft in the fleet while being stationed where I grew up were dashed that very instant and there was some disappointment. My instructors sensed this and reassured me that I would become a better loadmaster by starting my career in the C-141 and that I could easily switch over to the C-17. They were right, it made me a better aviator and allowed me to put an airlift legend in the history books.”  

With the newer C-17 inheriting the bulk of cargo missions, the C-141 was used primarily for European and Pacific cargo resupply missions, presidential support missions, and special operations alert.

“Missions in the C-141 were becoming difficult to fly since replacement parts were on short supply and being discontinued as the aircraft was being phased out. It was a reliable aircraft, but it required a lot of maintenance hours and money to keep it in the air,” Gore said.

Not long after his arrival at McGuire AFB, Operation Allied Force in Kosovo broke out and that’s when he received his first exposure flying the Starlifter in a combat zone with the primary duty of shipping cargo and NATO troops from Germany into the region. Meanwhile, the C-17 delivered larger loads of equipment such as tanks, helicopters, and supplies.

In the ensuing months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, McGuire AFB became one of the main support bases for ground zero, shuffling in digging and recovery equipment, emergency medical personnel, and search and rescue teams from across the nation.

In 2002, with the C-141 getting closer to retirement, it was time for reassignment and that’s when Gore received the location he had desired upon entering the military. He was headed home to Charleston. During the transition, he was reunited with familiar faces as the instructors who trained him on the C-141 were now civilians training him on the C-17. The faces were familiar, but the material was not. He learned quickly and, literally, on the fly, as he was headed to the busiest C-17 base during the height of the war on terrorism. The days were long, and the nights spent away from home were many.

“I spent 300 days a year flying, in addition to deployments,” Gore said. “Missions lasted two to three weeks. We’d come home long enough to check our mail, pay bills, and do laundry, before we’d be called back to work.”

As the U.S. seized Baghdad International Airport, allowing flights in and out of the Middle East, then-Staff Sgt. Gore began realizing the toll the never-ending schedule and high-risk situations had on him. Handling cargo, personnel, and refueling, all while under enemy fire, and witnessing gruesome attack victims began taking its toll on everyone. Gore was no different.

In 2011, he was given the opportunity to put his in-depth knowledge of aviation and airlift to use with the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Now a master sergeant, he began flight testing the C-17 which consisted of developing and testing new aircraft tires, next generation radar, major software upgrades, and pushing the limits of the aircraft to new heights during experimental airdrops.

He also collaborated with NASA to further the return of the human space flight program. Data and information he and his team tested, collected and confirmed is applied to launch cycles and simulations today. Gore also assisted SpaceX in the early years of its space mission development.

His next stop took him to Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, as command manager of aircrew tactics. He and his team ensured that the same standards were applied to airdrop missions around the globe for the Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. Meanwhile, he still assisted NASA and SpaceX with their astronaut recovery process. Gore said, “I think my biggest accomplishment was that I got to return to the NASA stuff and help develop the astronaut maritime recovery package for future SpaceX launches and recoveries.”

Currently weapons and tactics superintendent at the 43rd Operations Support Squadron at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, he continues to share what he’s learned with his Airmen. Like the C-141 that he dedicated his early career to, the time on his career is ending after 23 years, but Master Sgt. Steven Gore has experienced a historical ride and bridged the gap to ensure his knowledge and expertise continues to impact aerospace and Airmen in the future.