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In the 86-foot-long cargo bay, former crewmen recall the hardware a C-133 could lift. (Mark Duehmig)

The Curse of the Cargomaster

Readied to transport the first U.S. ICBMs, the Douglas C-133 had a peculiar habit. It kept crashing.

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They’d fly it again, if they had the chance. Among the group gathered at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, there’s a man for every crew station at the ready. They flew, maintained, navigated, and sometimes cursed one of the least understood aircraft in the history of the U.S. Air Force, the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster. In a conference room at Dover’s Air Mobility Command Museum, papers are shuffled—Where was that article from the base news? Smudgy documents, their margins trailing off the page from copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy Xeroxing, are offered. A small stack of VHS tapes forms a centerpiece. The men, some slowed by age and ailment, chatter and argue. A clamor of “There I was” stories fills the room, accompanied by hand flying. Then, with quiet authority, Hank Baker, a retired C-133 flight engineer, holds his hand up, as if to take an oath.

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“Let me tell the story, please,” Baker says, silencing the room. The men defer. Baker describes his dogged negotiations to bring the C-133B from display at the former Strategic Air Command museum in Offutt, Nebraska, to the ramp outside, an effort that has made him a C-133 honcho at Dover. After his introduction, jackets are gathered; pants hitched up. We stroll outside in the chill rain to walk around the last Cargomaster to leave the production line. I can see why the crewmen are proud of it: the majestic tail, impressive expanse of wing, elegantly streamlined engines, and thin, rapier props. This is a serious lifter of missiles, trucks, tanks—anything, really. But when we come to the nose, the face is a surprise: a clown visage with a ridiculous radome.

“In the early days of moving large cargo, we had to learn a lot of it as we did it,” says Baker. “And, we didn’t know a lot about what things weighed…especially when they saw that you could move other things besides a missile.”

The C-133 was developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company at a time when the Air Force was in a hurry to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles to bases around the country. The big turboprop, which first flew in 1956, had a cargo bay big enough to carry an Atlas or Titan ICBM, but to make loading them easier, Douglas modified the original design with clamshell doors to increase the size of the opening in the aft fuselage.

Dover’s Cargomaster is parked next to its older, smaller cousin, the Douglas C-124 Globemaster. Many C-133 aircrew transitioned from the lumbering and unpressurized C-124, called Old Shaky by its crews and dragged aloft by four brutish Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines—each a deafening whirl of connecting rods, pushrods, and 28 pistons the size of coffee cans.

“I had thousands of hours in the C-124—flying through weather at 10,000 feet,” says Harry Heist, a retired navigator and Dover volunteer. “When I transitioned to the C-133—pressurized, flying above the clouds—I felt like I had been born again.”

Baker and Sandy Sandstrom, a former flight engineer, fire up a diesel-engine external hydraulic power unit, and Sandstrom boards the crew ladder and disappears into the fuselage. Soon there’s a loud pop, and the rear clamshell doors slowly begin to part. They reach the end of their travel and stop with a shudder. We climb the aft ramp into the bay, and Baker recalls that often during fuel stops, a random piece of equipment—a truck, maybe an artillery piece—would appear at the back of the aircraft. Could it fly? “Our motto was, ‘Anything that’ll fit in the hole,’” says Baker.

After a tour of the cargo hold and cockpit, we climb down the forward boarding ladder. Baker squats next to where the Cargomaster’s nosewheel strut pokes out of the fuselage. In a loaded airplane, the more weight above the strut, the less of the smooth, machined inner cylinder would be visible, he says. “We’d look at the nose strut—the usual deflection was a pack of cigarettes. If it was less, the load was too far forward. If it was more, it was too far to the rear.”

Sandstrom shuts down the ground unit, and the pitch of the big diesel engine spirals down. The shouting stops, and as the men resume talking, the discussion turns to what the crews who flew and maintained the big airlifter inevitably end up talking about.

The crashes.

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About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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