Not as glorious as an F16 Fighter operating off a Nuclear Aircraft Carrier would be considered, the C-123B filled an important role in the Aviation ranks of the U.S Coast Guard, and did it very well. The C-123B was a STOL aircraft (short takeoff and landing). Equipped with two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines, it was a tough dependable plane designed to be used on unimproved air fields.
Originally designed as an assault glider, it was developed as a powered aircraft by Chase Aircraft in the early 1950’s. The contract to produce the plane was awarded to Fairchild Engine and Airplane. Production was aimed at the Air Force, but in 1958 the Coast Guard received it’s first HC123-B, followed by 7 more in 1961. Installation of a dome on the nose of the aircraft accommodated a large radar allowing the plane to meet the requirements for search and rescue and long range flight over water.
Stationed in far off places, such as Naples Italy, Kodiak Alaska, San Juan Puerto Rico, Miami, and the territory of Guam in the South Pacific, the C-123 flew to many interesting places that you wouldn’t expect to find Coast Guard personnel.
At numerous LORAN ( Long Range Aid to Navigation) stations in the South Pacific the Coast Guard maintained radio beacons used to direct ships and aircraft passing through the area. Service men who were stationed at these isolated posts served a one year tour of duty. With little opportunity to leave the small island they were stationed on. The only contact they had with the real world was the weekly arrival of the trusted C-123B bringing mail, food, supplies, and of course Beer and Ice Cream.
The Coast Guard manned the aircraft with a crew of five, Pilot, Co-Pilot, Flight Mechanic, Navigator, and Load Master. Which ever island they were landing at, they were treated as honored guests. Curious islanders, or isolated radar crews, the C-123B was a weekly arrival that was much anticipated.
The C-123B wasn’t known as a quiet luxury aircraft, in fact as a crew member you could hardly talk to the person sitting next to you, unless both of you were using headsets and talking over the wires. The resonance of the two engines running in unison was a soothing sound. When the RPM would wander off on one engine it would create a rhythm your ears would easily pickup. The roar was deafening. When new people, unaccustomed to such basic air transportation, flew to their appointed duty station, a look of terror would come over them. During that first roll down the runway, they were hoping that thing really was capable of flying. The C-123B is nothing like a Boeing 747.
With a cruising speed of 205 mph and able to carry 30,000 lbs of crew, fuel and cargo, the C-123B was neither fast nor glamorous. The usual small island you flew into consisted of a runway that started at the edge of the island, sporting a 15′ high wall of rock with nothing but ocean and sharks below. At the other end of the runway was the same thing, rock wall, with ocean and sharks. You rapidly appreciated its truck like abilities. It was designed to do a job, work hard, and get you home when it’s done. What more could you ask.
The C-123 was used widely in Vietnam during the conflict by the U.S. Air Force. With a number of different configurations, gunship, defoliant spraying (Agent Orange) and cargo transport. Some of the planes were upgraded to include two small jet engines outboard of the propeller engines. They were designated the C-123K model. A total of +-350 C-123’s were built with the predominate Air Force base being in Ardmore Oklahoma.
The U.S. Coast Guard retired the last of its C-123B’s in 1972, one example, tail number 4705 is now a member of the permanently grounded display at the Pima Air Museum in Tucson Arizona. An excellent museum of hundreds of aircraft that served in all branches of the military. They also have an Air Force example of the C-123K.
Very few of these aircraft are still in flying condition, those that are can be found all over the world. Some were given to the Taiwanese Air Force, and one gained a celebrity status as the main character in the movie Con-Air. They weren’t showy, just a good solid airplane.
Source: Personal experience as a Load Master on C-123B’s stationed on the island of Guam