The C-123 was an altogether remarkable aircraft. The Chase Aircraft G-20 cargo glider evolved through stages into the C-123 Provider. This cargo aircraft began its career in 1949 when it was produced by Chase Aircraft as a heavy assault glider. From the G-20 (later redesignated as the CG-20), Chase developed the piston-engined XC-123 in 1949 with a 67-troop capacity and the SC-123A in 1951. The first prototype XC-123 made its initial flight on 14 October 1949, powered by two 2,200 horsepower R2800-23 piston engines. A second prototype was built as the XCG-20 glider (later redesignated as the XCG-20). It was later flown as the XC-123A with 4 J-47 turbojet engines first flew 21 April 1951, as the first all-jet Air Force cargo transport. Few other aircraft can claim to have been flown as an unpowered glider, as a piston engined aircraft, and a jet engined aircraft.
In either case, the aircraft was very maneuverable at low speeds. This made the powered version an excellent tactical transport. It featured high-mounted wings and tail surfaces on a pod-type fuselage, which made for easy rear end, unobstructed on and off loading. With its powerful engines, it showed superior ability to operate in short field landings and take offs. In the production versions it could carry 61 fully equipped troops for assault or evacuate 50 patients on litters plus 6 attendants. The full-section rear ramp door made it an ideal aircraft for support of airborne operations from 1950s into the 1970s.
The production version, with 2 piston engines, was designated the C-123B. Chase had began deliver of C-123As in 1952. However, in 1953, after Kaiser-Frazier acquired a controlling interest in the company and subsequently experienced delivery problems, the Air Force cancelled the contract for C-123Bs. Animosity between the US Air Force and Henry J. Kaiser, owner of Kaiser-Frazier, led to the US Air Force deciding to not honor any further contracts with him or companies he owned. The Fairchild Corporation then bid on and won the contract for 300 C-123Bs, which they built between 1954 and 1958.
Though numerous variants and subvariants were built, the primarily models were the C-123B and -123K tactical transports. Many C-123B were modified to the C-123K standard. C-123Ks were in part converted from previous aircraft, mostly C-123B models, with the aircraft being fitted with auxiliary powerplants in the form of a pylon-mounted GE J-85 turbojet outboard of each of the standard piston engines, generating 2,850 pounds fo thrust each. These were for emergency use. Of the 300 built, 183 were converted to the C-123 with the underwing auxiliary jets, beginning in 1966.
The C-123K configuration was an outgrowth of a single YC-123H, which was equipped with the same auxiliary engines, as well as a special wide-track landing gear arrangement for improved short-field performance. In addition, 10 C-123Js were built with 2 small Fairchild J44-R-3 jet engines added to their outer wings, also to give them improved takeoff performance from short runways. Sometimes referred to as LC-123Js, these aircraft were heavily used in support of USAF operations in the arctic. Other short-field developments included 2 aircraft modified by Stroukoff Aircraft, the YC-123D and YC-123E. These aircraft included numerous experimental modifications, leading to the development of the Stroukoff YC-134.
The existence of the CV-2 Caribou (later redesignated as the C-7) in the Army inventory changed the fate of the Fairchild C-123 "Provider." The US Air Force was scheduled to be phased the C-123 out of the active Air Force inventory in 1961, with a few programmed to the reserves and the remainder to be declared surplus. When Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara suggested that the Air Force turn over the C-123's to the Army (to train on this type aircraft prior to the receipt of the Caribou), the Air Force suddenly discovered new and pressing Air Force requirements for the C-123. Thus the Army Caribou protagonists not only pushed the Caribou into being, but incidentally saved the C-123 for much-needed duty in Vietnam. In deciding to retain the C-123, the US Air Force successfully made the case that it was best suited to provide the support the US Army had been looking for in the acquisition of the CV-2. In 1966, the CV-2s were finally transferred from the US Army to the US Air Force.
The Provider appeared in Vietnam in 1962 for use on a variety of missions. They included airdrops of troops, ammunition, food and other supplies, as well as chemical spraying, mercy flights, rescues, air evacuation, and delivery of fuel bladders. At Khe Sanh combat base, South Vietnam, C-123s resupplied marines during the siege in 1968, initially by landing on runway then by low altitude parachute drops.
During its early career, C-123s were often used as transports for paratroopers. Later, in the Vietnam era, it became an all purpose tactical aircraft often working with special forces. The first C-123 squadron to be assigned to the 1st Air Commando Wing was the 1775th Troop Carrier Squadron, transferred from Pope Air Force Base on 15 April 1964. This unit was subsequently redesignated as the 317th Troop Carrier Squadron (Commando) on 1 July 1964. The C-123 was the primary aircraft used in Operation Trail Dust (also known as Operation Ranch Hand), the spraying of the jungle with defoliants to clear vegetation to help stop enemy troop movements. The short range transport, nicknamed "Thunder Pig," was used predominately in the 1960's and 70's to haul beans, bullets and the like onto short runways and makeshift airstrips.
In March 1964, the Royal Thai Air Force requested two C-123 aircraft with Royal Thai Air Force markings to allow the Thai contingent to function as an integral unit and to show the Thai flag more prominently in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland and Military Assistance Command, Vietnam did grant the request for C-123's. The commander of Pacific Air Forces was asked to provide the aircraft. The Commander stated that C-123 aircraft were not available from the United States and recommended bringing Thai pilots to South Vietnam to fly 2 C-123's owned and maintained by the United States, but carrying Thai markings. Arrangements were made to have these pilots in Vietnam not later than 15 July 1964, assuming the Thai crew members could meet the minimum proficiency standards by that time. The crews, consisting of 21 men, became operational on 22 July 1966 and were attached to the US 315th Air Commando Wing for C-123 operations. Five men remained with the Vietnamese Air Force, where they were assigned to fly C-47 aircraft. The Royal Thai Air Force strength in South Vietnam rose to 27 at that time.
On 12 May 1968, the crew of Bookie 771, a C-123 piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joe M. Jackson attempted the rescue of a 3-man USAF combat control team from the Special Forces Camp at Kham Duc, South Vietnam. In the ensuing action, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the only airlift crewmember to win a Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.
The situation Lieutenant Colonel Jackson and his crew faced at Kham Duc was dire. Viet Cong forces had overrun the forward outpost and established gun positions on the airstrip. They were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons, and recoilless rifle fire. The camp was engulfed in flames and ammunition dumps were continuously exploding and littering the runway with debris. In addition, 8 aircraft had been destroyed by the intense enemy fire and one aircraft remained on the runway, reducing its usable length to only 2,200 feet.
To effect the rescue, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson would have to stop his aircraft in a hurry, but using reverse thrust to slow the C-123 would automatically shut off the 2 jets that would be needed for a minimum-run takeoff. Meanwhile, the weather above the field was deteriorating rapidly leaving time for only one airstrike prior to the landing. Although fully aware of the extreme danger and likely failure of such an attempt, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson elected to attempt the rescue.
Nine thousand feet high and rapidly approaching the landing area, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson pointed the aircraft's nose down in a steep dive. With full aileron and full opposite rudder the C-123 fell out of the sky. Approaching tree-top level, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson coaxed the aircraft's nose up breaking the dizzying decent one quarter mile from the end of the runway.
Taken by surprise, enemy gunners opened fire on the C-123 as it neared the strip. Successfully negotiating the gauntlet of fire, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson landed the aircraft and brought it to a stop 1,100 feet down runway. The crew could see bullets striking all around them and could hear the sound of enemy guns and mortars above the roar of their 4 engines. As the Combat Control Team scrambled aboard, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson turned the airplane to depart to the north, over the same end of the runway he had landed on. Despite the fact that the enemy had fired at Bookie 771 while it was descending, while it was on the runway, and while it was climbing out, the aircraft did not sustain a single hit.
In addition to its functions as transport, 2 aircraft were converted in 1965 to NC-123K attack aircraft (later redesignated AC-123K) with multiple sensors for counterinsurgency efforts, attacking ground forces with cluster munitions. These aircraft were used in South Korea before arriving in Southeast Asia in 1968.
Also, by combining the Starlight scope's capabilities with those of the C-123 Provider transports assigned to the 56th Air Control Wing, a crewman looking through the scope from an open hatch in the belly of the transport's cargo bay from an altitude of 4,000 to 6,000 feet over the Ho Chi Minh Trail got an excellent view of any activity taking place under the C-123's flight path.
By adding an aerial flare capability to the Provider, the "Candlestick" concept was born. C-123K Provider transports belonging to the 606th Air Commando Squadron had this special night mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After observers first detected truck traffic below with a handheld Starlight scope, the C-123 "Candlestick" missions exposed the trucks with six-million candlepower aerial flares. When a totally blacked-out Candlestick aircraft detected truck traffic, strike aircraft (also blacked-out) were called over the convoy, which was still oblivious to what was going on above it. With the strike aircraft ready, the C-123 dropped its six-million candlepower flares and "marker bricks" over the trucks and flew out of the immediate vicinity. The strike aircraft followed the reddish-tinted flares to the hapless trucks. The results were dramatic, both at the moment and in the rise in USAF's end-of-month truck-kill tallies.
Besides the USAF and the US Coast Guard, which operated HC-123B rescue aircraft, other operators of the C-123 aircraft were Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, and Venezuela. Production stopped in September 1969. The US Air Force quickly phased out the C-123 in front line service in favor of the C-130, the aircraft initially planned to replace it, following the end of the conflict in Southeast Asia. The final examples departed the Air National Guard in the early 1980s.
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