For Paul Kari, the U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter was a welcome sight after years in captivity and beatings while an American prisoner of war held in Vietnam.
On Wednesday, the former Air Force fighter pilot shot down over Vietnam took another look at the troop-carrying jet called the “Hanoi Taxi” that flew him to freedom from captivity as the four-engine plane was rolled into a new $40.8 million hangar at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
“I would say that although fighter pilots would say fighter planes are the most beautiful … this one supersedes it because it brought us home to freedom and that’s the most precious thing,” he said.
The decades-old Lockheed-built jet flew around the world for four decades in active service. For years, it was displayed outside in the museum’s Air Park. Museum visitors will see the old plane again once a 224,000-square-foot gallery expansion opens next June.
Kari, 80, of West Liberty Twp., was shot down in an F-4C Phantom on Father’s Day in June 1965 on his 69th combat mission. When the pilot ejected from the crippled fighter, he injured his back, according to the museum.
The aviator was held as a POW for seven years and eight months in the Hoa Loa prison camp, where he endured torture, brutal interrogation, malnutrition and harsh living conditions, a museum narrative said.
The retired lieutenant colonel was on the first POW flight out of Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973, on a trip to the Philippines, a first stop on a journey home to the United States.
“It was, of course, a dream come true,” he said in a interview Wednesday. “It was hard to believe it was happening but it did happen.”
The walk to the giant cargo plane waiting on the tarmac in Vietnam was emotional.
“Halfway to the airplane, an Air Force colonel put his arm around me and welcomed me home and tears, after eight years, just finally burst,” he said.
The jet took 78 American POWs and two civilians out of Vietnam on two trips to Hanoi, and transported 76 POWs once held in Vietnam from the Philippines to U.S. soil.
Edward J. Mechenbier, a former POW himself who was held in Vietnam and a retired Air Force major general, flew the historic plane back to Vietnam in May 2004 to repatriate the remains of two American service members killed in action, according to the museum.
The Hanoi Taxi flew for the last time in May 2006 on a final trip to Wright-Patterson.
“This is actually the last C-141 that was in service,” said Jeff Underwood, a museum historian. “Everyone knew the importance of this aircraft.”
The Starlifter replaced slower propeller-powered cargo planes and marked the first time troop-carrying jets could keep up with modern bombers and tankers, Underwood said.
With the opening of the new hangar, visitors will be able to walk inside the cargo bay through a rear ramp door “so visitors can come in and get an understanding of how airmen did their job,” said Scott Bradley, a museum curator and project manager of the Global Reach Gallery.
Staff writer Lauren Stephenson contributed to this story.