The Curse of the Cargomaster
Readied to transport the first U.S. ICBMs, the Douglas C-133 had a peculiar habit. It kept crashing.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
(Page 3 of 6)
After a departure from Chateauroux Air Base, France, pilot John Burnett was settling in for a long flight. “I was making my radio calls and noticed the airplane shudder a little bit,” he says. “The pilot in the left seat was moving the controls and nothing was happening. I yelled out that I was going for 15 degrees of flaps—we regained control of the airplane, dumped fuel, and returned to Chateauroux.”
Instead of a stall, Burnett believes the elevators were partially blanked out—much as the earliest Edwards tests had demonstrated was possible. In fact, both cockpit airspeed indicators showed that the aircraft was operating well above stall speeds. “If you put the tail down into the turbulent flow from the wing, you lose elevator control,” says Burnett, who was a C-133 flight instructor and examiner. What would happen to a less experienced pilot—perhaps with only seconds to react?
On April 10, 1963, the remains of another C-133 could be seen scattered across a field outside Travis. The mission had been a training sortie for two young lieutenant pilots. An experienced examiner pilot was in the right seat. One of the crew made a radio call acknowledging a runway change, the aircraft entered a steep turn, and then they were gone. Five months later, another C-133 departing from Dover disappeared over the Atlantic.
“It was the talk of the airlift career field,” says retired lieutenant colonel Herbert Nakagawa, who was a navigator trainee in 1965 and accumulated 4,500 hours in the C-133. “I got that assignment [to the C-133] in nav school. One of my instructors came up to me and said ‘It’s been nice knowing you.’ And, he was serious.”
Delivering outsized cargo all over the world, Cargomaster crews were flying thousands of uneventful hours. Still, the drumbeat of accidents continued. “There was sort of a mystique around the aircraft,” says Nakagawa. “It had a reputation as mysterious, since a lot of them just disappeared.”
If you were headed home on leave and waiting in a passenger terminal to fly space-available, would you take the seat on the Cargomaster running up outside, or wait for whatever came along next? “There were a lot of people who were really scared to fly in it,” says Nakagawa. “And there were people who [did] even though they were apprehensive.” But Cargomaster crews, says Nakagawa, “wanted to make it work. They were dedicated to it.”
“I was never scared of it,” says Burnett, who instructed many of the crews at Dover. “It seemed to me that the more we could learn about it, the better we’d be. But I respected it.”
In 1963, a full-scale investigation of the Cargomaster, the first of many, was convened at the Warner Robins Air Materiel Area in Georgia to help Military Air Transport Services study the five C-133 crashes. “They convened everybody,” says Cal Taylor, a former Cargomaster navigator and perhaps the airplane’s most knowledgeable historian. “The airplane builder, MATS… [they got] everybody involved to figure out what was going on.”