14 July 2012

Why the C-123?

Because we had them. Hundreds of them! Chase and later, Fairchild evolved the C-123 from its earliest glider-based concept to a small, intra-theater airlift. Interestingly, the C-123 is the only USAF weapon system which had versions as a glider, twin engine reciprocating, four jet, and finally hybrid twin reciprocating/twin jet high-wing transport. Developed early in airlift history as what was thought of as strategic airlift, the C-123 quickly because a theater-level truck, hauling whatever was too heavy for a helicopter or whatever needed to be lifted fifty miles or more.

Quite unique. Quite disarming to see the nose ring left over from its glider design! Equally disarming to see the twelve feet of blue-red flame coming out of the reciprocating engines' exhausts! For the guys coming over from jets and 130s, their jaws always dropped as they stood at the starboard troop door of this "dumpster."

But it flew! Not only was it in-service before the C-130 was launched, it offered unique airlift capabilities. It was second only to the C-7 Caribou in its short field takeoff and landing characteristics. Twelve tons of vital cargo could be delivered to thousands of places a C-130 would never fit. Or, where a C-130 would never lift off from again because of runway surface wheel load or takeoff obstructions. Getting there at a modest 173mph, and with a 2300 mile range, what made the C-123 the darling of Army and Marine FEBA operators was the low stall speed to help drop into tight landing areas. Along with the short-lived C-7, the C-123 greatly increased battlefield mobility. And this mobility is missing today, with the C-123's capabilities not fully replaced with Army rotor wing airlift or even the Osprey.

Getting beans and bullets to the combat PFC who needs them meant every front line commander appreciated the C-123, and praised its ability to quickly evacuate 46 litter or ambulatory patients. First extensively practiced at Pope AFB NC and later, Dreux Air Base, France, the C-123 also excelled at pinpoint target parachute deliveries, dropping low-level cargo pallets extracted from the aircraft by drogue parachutes.

Retired in 1982 from the last USAF Reserve units which flew them, the C-123 succumbed to the obvious supply difficulties of its unique fuel (aviation-grade gasoline), unique engines (R2800s), and unique propellors. But there were efforts to evolve a follow-on system.

Fairchild YC-134A
First was Fairchild and their proposal to develop a YC-123E, able to land on all surfaces...water, land, ice or snow! Only a single variant was built. Fairchild then proposed YC-134A, of which only one was built. Successful in most regards, it did not provide enough improvement to warrant development. 

Twin Turboprop C-123T "Turbo Provider"
Then in late 1980, the Thai government expressed its concern with the increasing obsolescence of that nation's fleet of C-123B and C-123K models. Together with civil aviation resources in Southern California and USAF assistance, Allison turboprops were added to a C-123 airframe. While this addressed the commonality of fuel, engines and propellors airlift leaders sought, the resulting cost and performance were too close to the C-130E models, and the Thai government opted for that more capable aircraft, placing great reliance on the Herc's greater range and payload and forfeiting the Provider's short field takeoff and landing advantages forever.

But the idea lives on in European aviation. The Nord C-160 developed the C-123 concept more fully, and also nearly-identical variants as on the right.

But for the aircrews, we sometimes have to remind ourselves we usually flew a bunch of other airplanes was well. Many C-123 veterans like John Harris of the 731st flew fighters before getting "stuck" in the Provider. Most of us have far more C-130, C-5 or other aircraft experience, but like Col. Joe Jackson of Washington State, who earned the Medal of Honor during Vietnam, we seem to be forever "C-123 guys."

Colonel Jackson:
"I flew fighters for 17 years and nobody ever called me a fighter pilot," he said. "I flew reconnaissance airplanes for 3 years and nobody ever called me a reconnaissance pilot. I flew C-123s for one year and I'll forever be known as a transport pilot."

While he likes to make light of his time in the C-123, Colonel Jackson flew nearly 300 combat missions in the aircraft during the Vietnam War. It was during this time that he received the nation's highest award for military valor for a dangerous, impromptu, rescue operation of three American military personnel.

No pressurization. No air conditioning, No commode. No coffee pot. No respect. But never equaled!

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