The Curse of the Cargomaster

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

In the 86-foot-long cargo bay, former crewmen recall the hardware a C-133 could lift. (Mark Duehmig)
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Was the Cargomaster dangerous? Ten had crashed, and 61 men had been killed. In 1964, the C-133’s accident rate per 100,000 flying hours stood at 2.7, while the C-130’s was 1.9. The overall Air Force rate was 7.7. The C-133 had supported operations around the globe, and was even trusted with transporting Apollo command modules after they returned from the moon.

The debut of Lockheed’s C-5A Galaxy brought an unceremonious end to the C-133’s service. “On the first of January, 1971, we all walked across the street and into an empty building and we became the 9th Airlift Squadron,” says pilot Larry Phillips. “All the guys who walked across the street that day were -133 people.”

At Dover and Travis, both steeped in the heritage of airlift triumphs like the Berlin Airlift and the re-supply of Khe Sahn, the Cargomaster is a hero. “In general, the [C-133’s] biggest contribution is its development of the pattern of the modern cargo airplane, with a high wing and rear ramp,” says James Stemm, a curator at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona. “The Cargomaster was the first application to a long-range heavy-lift aircraft. It leads pretty directly to the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.”

The last time a C-133 flew was in 2008, when Ken Kozlowski’s Cargomaster, N199AB, traveled from Alaska to California to become part of the Travis Air Museum’s collection. “We always knew we were operating an airplane with a bad reputation,” says Kozlowski. “But it always got us home. That airplane never hurt anybody.”

At Dover, Baker and his crew have pointed out unique features on the cockpit control panels and flight engineer’s station, the cargo compartment’s miles of wiring harnesses, air and hydraulic lines, and cables that pass through the fuselage ribs; the high wing; the squat landing gear…. The rain is still coming in waves. Baker and Sandstrom grimace against the cold and button up the C-133. Sandstrom stows the forward crew ladder and closes the access panel. Both men give the Cargomaster a backward glance, then head inside.

John Sotham is a former associate editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian. Further reading: Remembering an Unsung Giant: The Douglas C-133 Cargomaster and Its People, Cal Taylor, Firstfleet Publishers, 2007.

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 retired 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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