C-123 in flight
6 min read

This is a story about shooting an ADF approach in IMC conditions that were below minimums, without functioning ADF equipment. I was stationed in Saigon with the 19th Air Commando Squadron flying C-123 aircraft.

Our major overhaul facility was located in Taiwan. Periodically we flew aircraft up to Taiwan to run them through the maintenance facility to overhaul them back to peak flying condition. The facility was located in Tainan, Taiwan. Our crew consisted of two pilots, a navigator, a loadmaster, and a flight mechanic.

The aircraft that we were assigned to deliver was a basket case. It crashed on a French rubber plantation. It was making an assault landing in bad weather, and while on short final the crew saw that there were two helicopters on the end of the runway. One was a CH 46 and the other an H1. They were in the committed phase of assault landing meaning that no matter what they did, they were going to touch down.

C-123 in flight

The C-123 didn’t win any beauty contests, but it was a tough airplane.

They added power and were able to clear the helicopters, but they slammed into the runway very hard. The nose gear was rammed back up into the nose of the aircraft. The runway was very narrow and was lined with concrete telephone poles. The aircraft left the runway to the left and hit one of the concrete telephone poles with the left wing. The wing spar in the C-123 is a T-formed spar. They hit with such force that the telephone pole went through the front of the wing, through the front part of the wing spar T, continued removing the bottom part of the T, and for a little way into the back part of the T.

A RAM (heavy maintenance) team was sent to recover the aircraft. They formed a two-inch sheet of aluminum that went from the underside starting behind the wing spar then over the front part of the wing and over the top side back a good distance from the damage to the wing spar. It was then secured to the wing. Another part of the team was working on the nose gear. They jacked the aircraft up and removed the nose gear. They repaired the structures that hold the nose gear and put the nose gear back in place. They used chains to hold the nose gear in place and then welded the chains to add strength.

An air crew was sent to retrieve the aircraft. The RAM team supervisor said the aircraft was ready to go. The aircraft commander told the RAM team supervisor, “Okay, get in, we’ll go.” The RAM team supervisor said, “No way will I get in the aircraft.” The crew brought the aircraft back to Saigon.

In our mission briefing, we were told that, with the nose gear welded down, we could not make left turns. If we needed to make a left turn while taxiing, we had to go past the taxiway and make a 270-degree turn back to the taxiway.

The weather for our trip did not look very good as there were storms between Vietnam and the Philippines. We decided to fly north to Da Nang and check the weather again. On takeoff at Saigon, we noticed that the wing, as we picked up airspeed, started to twist and feather into the slipstream.

In addition to that, when we hit any turbulence, that part of the wing past the wing spar damage would flex up and down. We determined that the wing would not survive any turbulence. At Da Nang, we found that the weather was still bad between us and the Philippines, so we filed our international flight plan to go up the airways past the coast of China. We reasoned that, if we ran into any bad weather, our wing would come off; however, we would have the option of going over and landing on the coast of China. We didn’t have to do that as the weather stayed good and we made it to Tainan.

We delivered the aircraft to the Tainan facility, but were told that our aircraft to take back was in Taipei. We caught the train to Taipei.

C-123 cockpit

In the soup, with two sick engines, and this panel to get you home…

The airport where the aircraft was located was Songshan. When we would pick up an aircraft out of overhaul, we would do a very meticulous preflight inspection. In addition to a normal preflight we would check many of the systems beyond the preflight requirements. In addition to the normal run-up, we would also run the engines up to maximum power to make sure everything looked good.

The before takeoff briefing covered all of the normal and emergency conditions that we might experience. The weather conditions were briefed as indefinite, obscured ceilings of one to 200 feet ragged. We had no takeoff or landing minimums. I briefed that, if we had an emergency, we would continue straight to the ADF fix, and do a procedure turn back to the fix, and use the ADF procedure for landing. At that time, Songshan had an ADF approach to runway 10. We were taking off on runway 28.

We were cleared to take off on runway 28 so we taxied into position, stopped the aircraft, and ran the engines up to 100 percent. Everything looked good. After brake release and on the takeoff roll, all instruments looked good. After liftoff, and initial climb out, everything was still performing as expected. We entered the clouds about the time of gear retraction. As soon as the gear was up, the number one engine started surging and the number two engine started backfiring. I briefed that we would continue straight ahead to the ADF and return for landing. I looked down at the ADF indicator and it was rotating continuously.

I continued on runway heading during the climb out and we broke out on top at about 1200 feet. I was considering what options we had and looked straight ahead and saw an antenna sticking up out of the clouds. I determined that, where it was located, it had to be the ADF antenna. I briefed that I would continue straight over the ADF antenna, and use a course 20 degrees to the right for two minutes. The depicted holding was a left-hand pattern. At the end of the two minutes, I turned left to reverse course and used the antenna for a visual reference to align my course to a 100 degree heading. We referenced the chart timing and minimum descent altitude.

As I passed over the antenna, we started our timing and configured the aircraft flaps and gear, but only let down to the altitude that kept the aircraft cockpit above the clouds. I maintained the airspeed that we had used for the timing. When the timing got to where I needed to start down, I started the descent, primarily watching the heading indicator, while maintaining the approach speed.

I leveled at MDA and checked the timing. When the time was getting close, we were still in solid IMC. I felt comfortable descending some more. When the time ran out, we were still in IMC and just as I was about to go missed approach, I saw some flashing. I determined that it was the rabbits, descended some more, and broke out lined up with the runway.

We used what was available to resolve an emergency situation.

Ralph Grigg
Latest posts by Ralph Grigg (see all)
7 replies
  1. Lawrence
    Lawrence says:

    I’m impressed withe the remarkable airmanship.
    The height of the NDB antenna had to be over 1200ft. Is this usual for the frequency of that beacon?
    And why was the ADF not working?

  2. dave sandidge
    dave sandidge says:

    Talk about a harrowing adventure…! Good reading. I had to do something like this one time years ago, but my story couldn’t compare with yours. Had to shoot an ADF approach into a field that was just above NDB minimums – not too low to begin with… I simply used cross-bearings from two nearby VORs for the NDB position and flew the approach based on probable wind speed and direction (taking into account the boundary layer changeover). It worked out fine. But I didn’t have any obstructions in front of me except the flat ground. And I didn’t have any engine or airframe problems at the time…

  3. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Wow. Whoever ordered a valuable trained crew to risk their lives for the first piece of junk C123 made a very poor decision.
    I will never, never, never, take an airplane out of maintenance that could affect its flying without a day vfr test flight but realize that the military is a different world.
    Good job, great skills and a bit of luck. Thank you for your service.

    • Michael Cowan
      Michael Cowan says:


      Yes, during combat it is a different world! I was a chopper guy in Vietnam and we did things almost daily that weren’t exactly by the book.

      That’s why we made the big bucks!! NOT

  4. Cary ALBURN
    Cary ALBURN says:

    I’m always bothered by stories of descending below MDA “because I was comfortable” doing that. Yeah, it worked here, and it might work again, but getting into the habit of busting MDA or DH/DA is a way to die–and there’s no good way to die. I understand the emergency nature of this situation made it a more palatable alternative, but it’s still a scary decision.

  5. Gregory Hanker
    Gregory Hanker says:

    I flew the C-123 back in the late 70s as a USAF Reservist out of Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus Ohio while I was attending medical school in Cleveland. The C-123 was a very unusual airplane. It was initially designed as an expendable glider to land on unprepared air strips, but it was so successful in doing this they added 2 large turbo props and then later on for safety 2 small jet engines. None of the aircraft were standardized. Cockpit instrumentation was all over the place. Operating the 2 jet engines with a toggle switch was a unique experience. It was also one of the only aircraft in the USAF that you could actually backup in reverse.Be that as it may, I had dozens of very interesting cross-country trips in this aircraft. You can still see some of these 60 year old C-123’s in action in many 3rd world countries.

  6. Doug
    Doug says:

    Wow, how did I miss this article?
    Amazing things you can get away with in the military, during wartime. This is just nuts! And all my time in the navy… I thought the helo dudes were crazy!

    Jokingly… “crashed in a French Rubber Plantation”. I thought the French had banned those. :-)

    Couldn’t resist. What a great write up!

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