We mentioned in the comments on an earlier post that we like our airplanes a little ugly (but not our women!). Here’s a slightly ugly one for you- The Chase/Fairchild C-123 Provider.
Never heard of it? You’ve almost certainly seen it. It starred in three movies that I can think of off the top of my head: Con Air, Air America, and Operation Dumbo Drop.
Right after World War II, the Army Air Forces were looking to replace the obsolete Waco CG-4A gliders used during the war. A greater cargo capacity was needed to transport heavier artillery and anti-armor weapons for airborne troops. While the AAF in the main suspected that air drop of heavy equipment would be feasible using the new C-119 cargo plane, they hedged their bets and asked for bids for a large assault glider. Chase Aircraft answered the call with the CG-20. Two prototypes were built in 1948. One was tested and flown as a glider, but it quickly became apparent that any field that would allow the glider to safely land would be big enough for a powered aircraft to land, and take off again, for that matter. And the CG-20 would be far to expensive to be used as a disposable asset the way the CG-4A was.* Since the CG-20 had been designed with a powered version in mind, both prototypes were used to evaluate different powerplants. One, the XC-123, had two Pratt&Whitney R-2800 engines, and became the prototype for the C-123 series. The other became the XC-123A, and was powered by four J47 jet engines in pods, incidentally becoming the first USAF jet transport. The jet version didn’t offer very good performance, but the piston powered XC-123 was ordered into production, with minor improvements, as the C-123B. Chase Aircraft designed the aircraft, but because of limited production capability, and for political reasons, Fairchild Aircraft was awarded the production contract, and just over 300 C-123Bs were built.
In spite of its assault glider origins, the C-123B wasn’t really intended or suitable for the assault transport role. It had difficulty operating from rough, unprepared surfaces. And in spite of the relatively large production run, in the 1950s, it was something of a redheaded stepchild in the Air Force transport family. At a time when the huge C-124 and C-133 were in demand, the C-123B was used for less glamorous jobs, hauling “ass and trash” from one airfield to another. But as the war in Southeast Asia began to heat up, the Air Force realized it needed a small tactical airlifter to support its own, and Army operations at large numbers of widely scattered small bases. And if the Air Force wasn’t going to do it, the Army said it would be very happy to do so with its CV-2 (later, C-7) Caribou fleet, and maybe even the DHC-8 Buffalo. The Air Force reacted quickly. Shades of today’s C-27J program fiasco…
By adding an improved landing gear, and adding two J85 jet engines to improve takeoff performance, about 180 Providers were upgraded to the C-123K configuration. C-123Ks would provide logistical support to bases throughout the war zone during the entire duration of the conflict. There was always a shortage of C-130s in Vietnam, and C-123s had lend a helping hand. A handful would soldier on until the late 1970s or early 1980s with the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. In fact, my cousin made his first jump at Airborne school in 1979 from a C-123K.
The other widely known C-123 mission was rather infamous. Under a program known as Ranch Hand, modified UC-123s were equipped with aerial spraying equipment and applied Agent Orange over large swaths of South Vietnam as a defoliant. The reasoning was, if the VC were hiding in the jungle, remove the jungle and kill the VC. First, it later came out that Agent Orange was a significant carcinogen. Secondly, can you imagine the outrage of the environmental lobby today if the US pursued large scale defoliation as a national policy today?
Some C-123s were also modified into a wide variety of other special configurations. A couple were modified as flare ships, dropping flares to provide illumination to friendly forces on the ground, or for AC-47 and AC-119 gunships. Two were highly modified to act as night time snoopers over the Ho Chi Minh trail, equipped with night vision systems, thermal imagers, and even cluster bomb dispensers. Redesignated NC-123K, and later AC-123K, they were apparently not entirely successful, as they were only used for a couple months, and no further conversions were undertaken.
A handful of other aircraft were used by Taiwan, on behalf of the CIA, in a role that hinted at the MC-130 Combat Talon mission. Modified with special self protection jamming and terrain following radar, these “Black Cat” C-123s transported special operations and clandestine agent forces deep into North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
One suspects that the selection of the C-123 for several of these missions wasn’t so much because the Provider was the best platform, but because there were a fair number of them around, and no one was going to really miss them if they were lost.
The C-123 was rather freely distributed to our allies, primarily in Southeast Asia. The US Coast Guard also operated it as a long range search and rescue platform, until it was replaced in that role by the HC-130H.
A handful of C-123s are in private hands, and still in use as cargo aircraft. One Thai C-123 was converted to turboprop powerplants. Consider this, the Provider, in one form or another, has flown as a glider, a piston powered aircraft, a hybrid with piston and jet power, a turboprop, and as a pure jet transport. Can you think of any other aircraft with that record?
*yes, I know, in the CBI, CG-4As were extensively reused by snatching them back into the air, but in Europe, they were generally a one shot proposition in combat.