|Provider: The Fairchild C-123 Assault Transport By Tom Hildreth
In 1975 I hosted a photographer's tour of several bases in New England. The Air Force Reserve still operated the Fairchild C-123 Provider then, and I was surprised to hear a guest express a negative opinion of the aircraft's capabilities. Sure, the C-123 wasn't photogenic, but it was a true tactical airlift success. Somewhat overshadowed by the larger and more numerous Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the C-123 had proven to be a platform of unparalleled utility. Operated by TAC, SAC, ANG, AFRES and the USCG as well as numerous foreign air forces, it is interesting that NATO did not field an equivalent aircraft. Though I was not a Provider crewmember, I made a couple of trips in the type in Vietnam. Before we look at aircraft's development and service life, allow me a moment to reminisce.
C-123K (54-0688) of the 315th TAW photographed during engine maintenance at Tan Son Nhut AB, Vietnam in 1969. Photo: Tom Hildreth
The prop on No. 1 engine began to turn slowly. I could see its light-dark-light-dark strobe effect from my seat in the cargo hold before the engine fired up. The brakes squealed as we trundled out to the active runway. The loud whine of the J-85 booster engines turned into a deafening roar, and though this didn't actually seem to speed up our departure, the aircraft was airborne about a quarter of the way down the runway. The jets were turned off after a one-minute run time and the aircraft settled into a wallowing cruise under the power of the two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 piston engines. From where I sat, the sound of the piston engines bore no resemblance to the romanticized drone of a propliner. A short way from our destination airfield the throttles were pulled back. The dirt on the floor began to dance an inch off the deck as the aircraft resonated to the changed engine RPM. I heard the rush of the slipstream underneath me as the landing gear extended from the boxy fuselage. Across the hold my buddies surged toward the nose of the aircraft restrained by their seatbelts. As the descent became steeper, it required considerable effort to remain in place on the fold-down cloth seat. I assume the pilot managed to flare the aircraft before we met the ground, but it was a pretty rude greeting just the same. The trip was worthwhile; we were about to begin a few days "In-country R&R."
The Chase Aircraft Company was founded in February 1943. The early efforts of this firm took place in one of New York's boroughs, and were directed toward the development of cargo gliders for the Army Air Corps during World War II. The first military glider produced by Chase was the XCG-14. This 16-seat prototype was of wooden construction and flew for the first time on January 4th, 1945. The 24-seat XCG-14A that followed flew for the first time on October 16th, 1945. Eventually the firm relocated to West Trenton, New Jersey. The performance of the two gliders led to a new contract for two larger XCG-18A all-metal gliders that were to bear the name Avitruc. The first of these 32-seaters took to the air in December, 1947. An upswept rear fuselage appeared with this model and this feature was eventually developed into an hydraulically-operated loading ramp. This shape remains as a characteristic of most military transports to this day. The five YG-18A service evaluation examples ordered on March 5, 1948 had a respectable payload of four tons. On that same date another contract was awarded to Chase for two examples of a further enlargement of the glider design to be designated XG-20.
The Avitruc - An Operational Predecessor
With cowl flaps wide open, a YC-122C of the 16th Troop Carrier Squadron roars down a dirt strip. Photo: Fairchild Aircraft Company
During the test and evaluation phase of these gliders Air Force interest began to shift towards powered assault aircraft. The adoption of this policy meant that no production examples of the Chase gliders were to appear. Convinced that their airframes were sufficiently robust to accommodate power plants, Chase installed two Pratt & Whitney R-2000 radials to YG-18A AF 47-0641. This aircraft first flew in powered form in November 1948, and was quickly redesignated YC-122. The next year nine YC-122C aircraft were ordered which were powered by Wright R-1820 engines of 1,425 HP each. These 30-seat aircraft had an empty weight of 19,000 lb. and featured the unusual combination of fully-retractable nose gear and non-retractable main landing gear. The attachment point for the tow cable was retained in the nose and all internal fuel was carried in jettisonable self-sealing tanks in the engine nacelles. This feature was later carried over to production C-123 aircraft. Most of the YC-122Cs served operationally with the 316th Troop Carrier Group at Sewart AFB, Tennessee from 1951 to 1954. From late 1954 to mid-summer 1955 a number of these aircraft were operated by the 16th Troop Carrier Squadron/463rd Troop Carrier Wing at Ardmore AFB, Oklahoma. After retirement from military service, ten of the YC-122s were authorized for reclamation and salvage. The large XG-20 design became the subject of powerplant application as soon as the airframe became available. AF 47-0786 was fitted with two 2,300 HP Pratt & Whitney R-2800s and thus became the XC-123. The first flight for this type was October 14, 1949. This was less than a year after the first YC-122 flight and five months before the first flight of the XG-20 glider. Evaluated at Eglin Field, Florida during the spring of 1950, the XC-123 greatly impressed the Air Force. The second XG-20 airframe did not perform for very long as a glider. It was soon equipped with two General Electric J-47 jet engines under each wing and flew as the XC-123A on April 21st, 1951. The use of these early jet engines on an aircraft designed as a glider and unlikely to exceed Mach .4 was certainly novel, if not questionable. Although high-volume production had not yet materialized, the Chase transport series quickly grew in size and variety.
SAC C-123B photographed at Westover AFB, MA on 18 Aug 1962. Photo: Tom Hildreth
In May 1953, Henry J. Kaiser acquired 49 percent of Chase Aircraft stock. A small batch of C-123B-CN aircraft (AF 52-1527 to 52-1531) was produced under the Chase name at the Kaiser Company's Willow Run, Michigan plant. This facility had become the second source for C-119 Flying Boxcars for the Air Force, and it was planned to introduce the C-123 into production on a second assembly line parallel to that of the C-119. Both production lines were to be used for the C-123 after the C-119 run ended. A remarkable maximum delivery rate of 35 aircraft per month was forecast. This was not to be achieved however, because in June 1953 all USAF contracts with the Kaiser organization were canceled. Requests for competitive bids for C-123 production were forwarded to several major aircraft manufacturers. In October 1953 the Fairchild Aircraft Company was awarded the contract to begin series production of 293 C-123B aircraft. The name Provider was bestowed upon the new craft that soon began to roll out of Fairchild's Hagerstown, Maryland facility. Production proceeded in seventeen consecutively numbered batches.
U.S. Coast Guard HC-123B at lift-off. Photo: USCG-Miami
The C-123B weighed 35,000 lb. empty, and accommodated 62 fully-equipped troops or a large variety of vehicles and weapons. It could be quickly converted to a 50-litter medevac transport. The C-123B became operational when it equipped the 309th Troop Carrier Group at Ardmore AFB, Oklahoma in July, 1955. The aircraft's ability to operate from short, minimally-prepared landing strips soon attracted the attention of the Strategic Air Command. This large organization needed an aircraft to support their northern snow-bound bases and sites. SAC operated more than 60 different Providers between 1958 and 1966. Many of these were returned to Fairchild at the end of their SAC tour. The US Coast Guard evinced an interest in the C-123 as a logistical transport with a secondary mission of search and rescue. Delivery of at least six Providers to the USCG took place in 1958. These aircraft operated from many USCG air stations in Miami,Florida; Barbers Point, Hawaii; Kodiak, Alaska; Guam, and Naples, Italy. The Coast Guard C-123Bs (referred to as the HC-123B by some USCG sources) were easily distinguished from their Air Force cousins by the large nose-mounted APN-158 radar. These aircraft were flown to the Military Aircraft Storage Disposition Center (MASDC) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona after their 1971 retirement from Coast Guard service. South Vietnam received a large number of Providers throughout the duration of the Southeast Asia conflict, and Thailand also operated the type. The Royal Saudi Air Force took delivery of six C-123Bs that received RSAF serials 430 to 435. Aircraft 431 from this group reportedly served in the Egyptian Air Force. Eighteen B models went to the Venezuelan Air Force (AF 57-6185 to 57-6202).
FAA C-123B photographed at Anchorage, AK, May 1975. Photo: FAA
To improve the short-field capability of the C-123, Fairchild installed a J-44R3 turbojet of its own design on each wingtip of YC-123B. The increase in performance led to the production of ten similarly-powered C-123J models. These aircraft were outfitted with retractable skis for operation from compacted snow runways, and equipped the 408th Air Transport Squadron of the 4081st Strategic Wing at Harmon AFB, Newfoundland. This organization used these aircraft extensively in the resupply of remote sites in Greenland. Many of the J models later served with the 144th Tactical Airlift Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard. The Federal Aviation Administration's Alaskan Region operated N98 and N123, aircraft that had Continental J-69 jet engines on the wingtips. Air Force concepts of battlefield air supply were altered considerably by the Vietnam War. Operational demands were made which soon approached the maximum capabilities of the C-123B. More power and agility were needed to meet these challenges. Fairchild developed the unique YC-123H (AF 54-2956) as a technology test platform in response to the emergent need for an improved tactical transport. This aircraft featured a main gear track width that was increased 5 feet to 17.6 feet and had larger tires that gave 41 percent more ground contact. These changes significantly improved rough-field and cross wind operations. A landing approach parachute system was installed above the rear cargo door that allowed for very steep descent into small airfields in hostile areas. Most significant of the modifications was the addition of pylon-mounted General Electric J-85 jet engines that were fitted under each wing at the mid-point. The small jet engines weighed only 389 lb. each yet produced 2,850-lb. thrust that was nearly three times the augmentation boost available to the C-123J. The H model did not attain production status but in effect served as the prototype for the highly successful K model that followed.
The modifications that were incorporated in the H model were installed in less than 90 days, and the aircraft flew for the first time in this configuration on July 30th, 1962. The aircraft was quickly sent to Southeast Asia for a realistic appraisal. The obvious performance increases led to a contract to bring 183 C-123B aircraft up to the new C-123K standard. The approach parachute system was not included in the conversion program and time limitations prohibited the installation of the wide-track landing gear, though an anti-skid brake system was installed. The C-123K quickly established a remarkable service record in Southeast Asia the highlight of which was 179 missions flown into the beleaguered American Combat base at Khe Sanh, Vietnam during the three-month siege by North Vietnamese troops. On February 12th, 1968, all C-130 Hercules operations were suspended. The C-123 Providers of the 315th Special Operations Wing were the only fixed-wing transports to continue operation into the base. Two examples of the NC-123K, also known as AC-123K, were produced. These aircraft were highly modified for night surveillance missions in SEA. AF 54-0691 and 54-0698 were modified by Ling-Temco-Vought during 1966 with an extended nose shape that contained "Black Spot" sensors for these special missions. Several C-123s were used as VIP transports. The best known of these was "The White Whale" (AF 56-4375). General Westmoreland used this aircraft as his personal transport in Southeast Asia. Other VIP conversions operated in the embassy support role at scattered locations around the globe.
C-123K (54-0633), operated by the 731st TAS, on the ramp at Westover ARB, MA, 19 Nov 1979. Photo: Tom Hildreth
One controversial duty the Provider was called upon to perform in Southeast Asia was that of chemical delivery. At least three C-123Bs were modified to UC-123B standard by the addition of A/A 45Y-1A aerial spray apparatus. Thirty-four UC-123Ks were similarly produced. Many of these flew on "Ranch Hand" defoliation missions and "Trail Dust" crop destruction flights from Bien Hoa Air Base the activities of these Providers resulted in political repercussions on a wide scale that led to the Agent Orange legacy that exists today. After the war the 302nd Tactical Airlift Wing at Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio operated a small fleet of UC-123Ks that were among the last Providers in operational service. Known as the Special Spray Flight, these aircraft were used to control insect-borne diseases. Missions to Alaska, South America and Guam were among the humanitarian duties performed by this Air Force Reserve unit.
Mr. Michael Stroukoff had been president and chief engineer of Chase aircraft during the Provider's development. The Stroukoff Aircraft Corporation produced four specialized versions of the Provider, which were used to explore short takeoff and landing (STOL) technology. The YC-123D (AF 53-8068) employed a boundary-layer control system for additional lift, and the YC-123E (AF 55-4031) was equipped with features known as the "Pantobase" system. This aircraft also was equipped with wing-mounted pontoons for operation from water. The application of boundary-layer control and the installation of massive Wright R-3350 engines led to the YC-134 variant. The addition of Pantobase to this aircraft produced the YC-134A, which was the ultimate hardware development of the original glider design. During the early 1960s the Fairchild Company proposed a C-123 follow-up design to be powered by four General Electric T-64 turboprop engines of 2,800 HP each. This aircraft would have incorporated tandem main landing gear, double slotted flaps, short-span ailerons and a spoiler system. Though these ideas had great merit, the project did not proceed beyond the paper stage. The Advanced Medium STOL Transport (AMST) program of the 1970s produced two innovative aircraft the Boeing YC-14 and the McDonnell Douglas YC-15. When the program was canceled in 1979, these successful aircraft were retired to the boneyard. Some of the technology developed for the YC-15 has been applied to the C-17 Globemaster III Strategic Airlifter program of today. Russia appreciated the technological advance, and went on to produce a close imitation of the YC-14.
The author would like to thank the following sources for their kind assistance in the preparation of this article: T.K. Rhinehart, Fairchild-Republic Company; USAF Archive Center, Maxwell AFB, Alabama; E.R. Caywood, SAC historian; U.S. Coast Guard, Washington, DC and Miami, Florida; Mr. Harry Huskey, FAA Alaska Region.
Request For Assistance
This writer does not claim to be an expert on the C-123 Provider. I am an admirer of this aircraft that has been overlooked by many in the aviation press. I welcome contact with persons willing to share information, photos, slides, negatives, stories and recollections of the Provider or its predecessors.
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