Monday, September 27, 2010

Curse of the Cargomaster Update 2

Lou Martin also wrote a fascinating, multi-page letter about his 133 experiences to the author of the article, Curse of the Cargomaster. It's too long to show in its entirety on a blog post, but below are a few beginning and ending paragraphs. I will also forward the entire letter to our current e-mail list, so those interested can access the whole thing. Any questions or comments should be sent directly to Lou at his e-mail address:

September 2, 2010

Mr. John Sotham
Air & Space Smithsonian
MRC 573 P.O. Box 37012
Washington, D.C. 20013

Dear Mr. Sotham,

Having logged 4,700 hours of pilot time in the C-133 I found your article, The Curse of the Cargomaster, in the September 2010 issue of the Air & Space Magazine very interesting and well done. However, I would like to add a few personal anecdotes regarding my experiences when flying the legendary C-133.
I reported into the 39 MAS in July 1964 and after completing ground school I made my first flight in a C-133 on August 17, 1964 and by mid September was flying missions, mostly to Europe, as a second pilot (the lowest ranking for new copilots). My first impression of the Cargomaster was that it was noisy, vibrated constantly, had a nearly uninhabitable cold uncomfortable cargo compartment and that the aircraft commanders I flew with appeared irritable and somewhat apprehensive regarding the reliability of the aircraft. They seemed ready to abort whenever they experienced a strange sound or a momentary disruption of RPM (burble) in one of the propellers. However, I had flown problematic aircraft in the past so I just carried on, enjoyed the return trips to Europe and the Christmas shopping in the well-stocked military BXs.

On November 7, 1964, when in crew-rest in the Azores Islands we heard of the fatal crash of a C-133 shortly after taking off from Goose Bay, Labrador. My aircraft commander told me that this was the sixth fatal crash of a C-133 with the cause of each listed as “Undetermined.” The flight back to Dover was void of the usual cockpit chatter.

On January 10, 1965, we learned of another C-133 crashing into the Pacific Ocean soon after a night takeoff from Wake Island. This was the seventh unexplained fatal crash of a Cargomaster that had claimed the lives of 50 crewmembers. Compounding the mysterious crashes was that in each accident there were no radio reports from the pilots indicating an impending emergency. Disregarding the fact that the C-133 was becoming more important in supporting airlift requirements for the expanding war in Vietnam, the Air Force grounded the remaining 42 aircraft. This grounding order was accompanied with the following statement, “C-133 Cargomasters will not be allowed to resume flying until a cause factor for past accidents is found and corrective actions are taken to prevent similar loss of aircraft and crew.”
The aircraft was extremely noisy, the tips of the 18 foot diameter propellers spinning at supersonic speed caused a vibration so severe that it could cause bodily discomfort and frequent maintenance problems, the cargo compartment was so cold and noisy that it was not suitable for carrying passengers and rendered the two bunks in the forward cargo compartment unusable and its “Jack-in-the-box” reputation for in-flight malfunctions kept the crew members ever alert for another Douglas Cargomaster surprise.

Unfortunately, the Air force and other aviation related organizations have not recognized the tremendous job the Cargomaster and it crews performed. A few years ago, the official Air Force Magazine published an account of the aircraft flown during the War in Vietnam. I was disappointed and surprised that the C-133 was not included. (I wrote a complaint letter to the editor but received no response.) In addition, I was recently reviewing books in a Barnes & Noble bookstore and came across a large book titled: The Air War in Vietnam. The book was loaded with large color pictures of every aircraft utilized, except the C-133. It was not even listed in the extensive index section. I am pleased that you bestowed long overdue recognition to the C-133 in your article.

Following the ditching accident on April 30, 1967 the C-133s enjoyed nearly three years without an accident and flight crews from both Dover, AFB and Travis AFB were becoming adjusted to the frequent Douglas in-flight surprises and providing critical worldwide airlift support in a creditable manner. However, on February 6, 1969 this record was tragically shattered. A C-133 crashed in Nebraska killing all five crewmembers following a nighttime in-flight breakup from 25,000 feet. The fuselage just forward of the wing constant section had separated from the rest of the aircraft due to a antique crack in the metal skin and suddenly, like a crack in an eggshell. Propagated around the entire fuselage. Seemingly, the metal skin had weakened through thousands of hours of vibration from the sonic boom pulsations from propeller tips rotating at super sonic speeds. (This was the ninth fatal accident of a C-133).

The accident must have been an unbelievable catastrophic experience for the crew as one second they were sitting in a well-lighted warm cockpit and a second later, they were in complete darkness, with no engine sounds and a sensation of falling to earth five miles below. It is estimated that the severed cockpit section took two to three minutes before crashing. All five crewmembers were found still strapped in their seats.

This accident was especially painful for me as the aircraft commander was Major Bill Tabor. We had been assigned to the same C-119 squadron in Germany during the 1950s and a few weeks before the accident he was on an overnight at Dover AFB. We shared several beers in the Officers’ Club while discussing what we were going to do after retirement. Following this accident, all C-133s were inspected for fatigue cracks and to prevent a similar accident 16 steel straps were wound around the forward section of the fuselage. From a distance, these straps took on the appearance of duct tape and the common mantra among crewmembers was; “Now the generals want us to fly aircraft held together with duct tape.”
Your article for further reading recommends Cal Taylor’s outstanding book Remembering An Unsung Giant. I would also, in an unassuming manner recommend my book Close Encounters with the Pilot’s Grim Reaper. I devote an extensive chapter on flying the C-133 from a flight crew’s viewpoint along with many exciting encounters in this memorable aircraft.


Lt.Col. Lou Martin (ret.) USAF

AND the following further update: A reply from John Sotham to Lou Martin....

Lt Col Martin,

Thanks very much for the letter--the magazine staff forwarded it to me
and I really enjoyed reading it. I sure wish I had known about you when
I was writing the story!

Thanks again for your interest in Air & Space, and mostly for your
service to our country.

John Sotham

1 comment:

Robert Houston said...

The article was quite interesting and informative and one part in particular caught my attention the testing at Edwards.It prompted this question.

Is there anybody out there who was at Wright-Patterson during the investigation of the C-133 when all 42 aicraft were grounded. There was an extensive inspection and testing going on at the same time with two A models 56-2000 & 56-2008 at Wright-Pat. just curious?