C-123 landing

The Fairchild C-123 was powered by R-2800, anti-detonation injected, reversing prop engines. The also had antiskid brakes. We had the capability to get rid of all of the fuel we were carrying. The fuel was carried in nacelle tanks behind the engines and two pylon-mounted tanks on the wings. We had four switches overhead to drop either one or several or all of the tanks. The aircraft was unstable, as if it were mounted on a pinnacle trying to fall off. When it rained you got wet in the cockpit. During the rainy season, we wore ponchos and carried all of our maps in plastic wrap.

I was stationed in Saigon, Vietnam, with the 19th Air Commando Squadron flying C-123 aircraft. We achieved an extremely proficient operational ability in all aspects of flying the aircraft. We did this by operating the aircraft into and out of some of the most demanding landing sites imaginable. We landed on roads, fields, sidewalks (Song Be City), and runways made of grass, laterite, sod, clay, asphalt, and PSP steel planking. This was done at a rate of from 20 to 30 minutes between landings and a rate of up to 20 to 30 times per day. This led to the high proficiency necessary to accomplish the demanding missions of our operations.

When we accessed the performance charts to plan an operation, we would subtract 50 feet (each pilot set their own minimums) from the runway length available and use that runway length as “slop” for the takeoff or landing. To determine how much weight we could take out of a site, we would work backwards in the performance charts from the runway length minus 50 feet and go back through the chart to see what total weight we could use for that length. Subtracting our current weight from that performance chart weight gave us the weight of load we could accept.

C-123 landing

An assault landing is a fairly dramatic event.

We definitely got enough practice of short field, soft field, and slick field takeoffs and landings, as we were doing them almost every day and numerous times each day. The landing for short landing areas were what we called “assault landings.” Configuration and positioning the aircraft on short final could be done from any altitude. You simply flew until the runway disappeared under the nose of the aircraft, then accomplished the assault landing configuration, with prop levers full increase, throttles closed, gear down, and flaps full down. The aircraft would descend between 3000 and 4000 ft/min and appeared as if it were backing up away from the runway. You would hold this until it appeared that you are on a reasonable final approach angle.

Then the throttles would be advanced to hold this angle in transition to the angle of attack indicator. We flew the angle of attack indicator, and used throttles to adjust the touchdown point until just above the touchdown point. Then we would close throttles, flare, touch down, lift the throttles, and pull them into full reverse thrust. Full reverse thrust gives us about 80% of max power. At really short runways, we would stay in reverse thrust until the swirls came around from behind and pretty much put us IFR (zero visibility). We would stay in reverse until we felt that we were either stopped or backing up and then we came out of reverse. Needless to say, we were on our antiskid brakes while all of this was happening. Empty I think we could stop at about 700 to 900 feet.

Stabilized approaches, for the most part, were used at larger runways but each of the other landing areas had various obstacles or other reasons that we could not do that. For example, Song Be had a mountain directly in line with the landing area and also had a large tree to the right of the runway about 50 feet from the end of it. This necessitated a close-in, slanted base leg with an offset to the runway until passing the tree. After passing the tree, you quickly offset back to the right to touch down in the middle of the landing area. There was a walkway in the middle of the landing area and you had to get your nose gear on and stay on that walkway to prevent your wingtips from hitting chain-link fences on both sides of the runway. The runway is listed as 120 feet wide. Our wingspan was 110 feet. Turning around at the end was accomplished with the flight mechanic outside on intercom headset, while we maneuvered, similar to doing an automobile three-point turn on a narrow highway. It took about maybe six to eight turns and backups to accomplish this turnaround.

The photo above displays how proficient we were by showing an approach and landing on the very approach end of a very short runway. This was illustrative of our crews’ ability to maneuver the aircraft and touchdown with precision. If you look closely, you can see the end of the runway just under the landing gear. This is the proficiency that we strived for.

Mud

Many landing areas had no paved surfaces whatsoever.

We got shot at a lot while in Vietnam, mostly on our drop missions where we were low and slow. And we took quite a few hits, mostly coming from underneath the aircraft, going through the bottom of the aircraft and out the backbone of the aircraft. Unfortunately the elevator and rudder controls cables were fed up and back through the backbone of the aircraft. Needless to say, we did suffer control cable separation after being hit with ground fire. Therefore, we would often practice flying and maneuvering without different control availability. This practice gave us confidence that we could fly the aircraft without various controls to maneuver the aircraft.

Slick runways—we had them. The second picture that accompanies this article was taken at Quan Loi and is listed in our airfield directory as “use only when dry.” You had to be on top of your game to land here and keep the aircraft on the runway. Taxiing in the parking area was something else. You could turn the nose wheel steering max one way and add 100 RPM opposite the nose wheel position and the aircraft would turn opposite of the nose wheel. You could not put the brakes on and stop the aircraft. You had to find a rut and when you felt the main year go into it, you reversed the props to stop it in the rut. If you shut down without doing that, the aircraft would start to slide because the parking area was on a slant. Everybody referred to it as slicker than “greased owl s__t.”

Takeoff from a short field was done by pulling the yoke all the way back and wrapping the left arm around the yoke to the elbow. Throttles to max power, using the torque gauges; check all instruments and release the brakes. The aircraft would lift off when it was ready to fly. During takeoff from short fields, when we lifted off we were 15 knots below power-off stall speed. That meant that if you lost power, you stalled and you came down (hit the ground) from however high you were. We normally lifted off and leveled off a few feet above the runway or field and accelerated until we at least got past power-off stall speed. We now had 15 knots to go to get past minimum single-engine control speed. If you lost an engine prior to reaching the minimum single-engine control speed, then usually the procedure was to pull the other engine and put the aircraft down. Now you know why the aircraft was modified, adding the jet engines.

We hauled everything imaginable including people, combat troops, paratroopers, cargo of all descriptions, ammunition, vehicles, trailers, fuel bladders, drums, foodstuffs both frozen and fresh, animals, mail, and the wounded or dead. We also had flare missions. Our missions with the above included air para-dropping or free dropping and air landing.

Ralph Grigg
Latest posts by Ralph Grigg (see all)
28 replies
  1. Dave Jordan
    Dave Jordan says:

    More stories, please. i appreciate all of your articles – this is a great way to a get a feel for our history.

    Reply
  2. Glen Pruet
    Glen Pruet says:

    I read your articles and see what “REAL” pilots did for us personal use pilots, some of us that think we are hot shots but reading your message keeps us humble. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  3. John Stipetich
    John Stipetich says:

    When were you with the 19th TAS? I was there from Feb 1970 until Sep 1970. I started with the Ranch at Bien Hoa in Seo 1969.
    Then did a 2nd tour flying the OV10 over the trail. Asked for a 3rd tour and Randolph gave me a C5 to Dover!
    My email – [email protected]
    My cell – 713-385-7825

    Reply
    • Ralph Grigg
      Ralph Grigg says:

      I was there from Feb 66 to Feb 67. At that time Ranch was in Saigon. One of my Hulbert transition class mates was in Ranch. He kept trying to get me to come over to the Ranch. I told him that that was monotonous. I told that I get shot at once or twice a day and it scared the crap out of me but the Ranch Hands got shot at all day – that is monotonous.

      Reply
  4. JOhn
    JOhn says:

    Ralph:

    Thanks for a great article on stabilized approaches, high stakes flying, risk acceptance, and wringing every bit of performance from your aircraft. Great stuff!

    Did you know Charlie Stroud? He flew Volpars in ‘Nam for Air America (AA) in the early to mid ’60s. One of his stories (that I validated through several conversations with other AA pilots, including his co-pilot on that mission) was flying from Saigon to a short runway LZ near the DMZ at NIGHT to pick up a green beret (GB) team under heavy fire from surrounding NVA. Charlie pulled it off, with precision and aplomb. While he never said how long his wheels were on the ground, but it couldn’t have been much more than a minute and a few seconds. The GB team piled into his aircraft as he it spun around by the light of that jeep. His co-pilot and other AA pilots independently corroborated that Charlies’ sole point of reference on the ground for that short field night landing was a jeep sitting on the very end of the runway with it’s lights pointed down runway.

    One of Charlies neighbors in the airpark where Charlie lived his final years, himself an incredible pilot, led efforts to get him the FAA Master Pilot Award. Charlie flew all over the world from the early 40’s until he was forced into retirement on his 60th birthday. He was also a talented A&P. He flew everything from SE Beechcraft and Cessnas to re-purposed US bombers and the hotrod Volpar. I’d have to dig into my notes for dates, but I recall he flew around the MIddle East and Europe in the late 40s or early 50s in a B-24 or a B-25 as personal pilot for for the King of Jordan.

    Reply
    • Ralph Grigg
      Ralph Grigg says:

      Thanks for responding. I did not know Charlie. Air America was next to us at Saigon but we didn’t have any contact. We did fly some personnel and cargo for them.

      Reply
  5. Ralph Grigg
    Ralph Grigg says:

    I did get instruction on 90/270 turn arounds from a former Ag pilot that did it before entering the Air Force.

    Reply
  6. Joe Vaillancourt
    Joe Vaillancourt says:

    I flew with 310th Air Commado Squadron at Nha Trang. Lots of stories to tell, but one I must
    is not in the books. Don’t remember the rough strip, but somewhere south of Ben Hoa. No aids except a dead snag next to runway that I eyeballed as abort point. Was in country ‘65-66
    Knew the acft well, so departing max effort t/o short field didn’t feel acceleration was right. At the snag didn’t look like enough runway left to abort
    with wall of pine trees at end and gradual rising hill to boot. While in training at Hurlbert ,FL an instructor back from Nam tour said “just remember, this thing WILL fly at 60knots”,30 short of T/O speed 90knots.
    I saw my life flash before me
    instantly and verify that saying when death imminent. So we had 60 knots and I pulled it off. The stall warning stick shaker was shaking the hell out of me, we were barely flying and minimally over the pine trees. It occurred to me that
    if I banked either way my stall speed increased and down we go. Now what. I could only think of trying to skid the plane until parallel to the hill contours and slowly accelerate, all the while the stick shaker vibrating like hell. It worked and we gradually flew out of predicament and to home plate (Nha Trang). While taxiing into the chicks, the ground crew was paying a lot of attention to theC-123 and after shutting down others sauntered up to it. When I got out, I was astonished to see many pine needles imbedded in the bottom of the fuselage and wheel well covers.
    Those beer LaRues never tasted better ! Oh, I remembered back to when I was two years old.

    Reply
  7. jim hardy
    jim hardy says:

    Thanks for your service! Dad was there 62 to 64 flying the 123 before they had the jet engines. Based in Saigon, and Da Nang. Sure like to know more about what he did over there. He died in an accident before we were ever to sit down and talk. I did meet his Load master on a concert tour once., he was driving our tour bus. Joe Perry. Anyway to find out more about our family’s duty over there? jim

    Reply
    • Ralph Grigg
      Ralph Grigg says:

      I’m writing these stories about what we faced on each sortie. If you haven’t read all
      of my submissions you can get the list by going to
      AIRFACTSJOURNAL.COM/AUTHOR/RALPHGRIGG/
      You can get an idea about what your father did over there. We didn’t have the Jet Engines either.

      Reply
    • Ralph Grigg
      Ralph Grigg says:

      I was based in Saigon and did considerable work in the Delta. I was there in early 66 to early 67. Were you there when Martha Ray was visiting? I have another story based on her as a nurse and LtCol in the reserves.

      Reply
  8. Jim Roberts
    Jim Roberts says:

    Ralph, I was a member of the 19th Air Commando Squadron from Jan 1967 to April 1968. It was the high point of my aviation career, a career made possible my my Squadron Commander Lt Col. Merle D Turner. As a 2Lt. and apparently well regarded co-pilot, I was assigned to be his co-pilot one day in September 1967. When I showed up at 0630 at the squadron facility on the Ton Son Nhut flight line, I was discreetly informed that Lt. Col. Turner decided he wanted a more mature co-pilot. I was crest fallen that he replaced me with an older pilot, a major whose name I can’t recall. Bad weather at their destination apparently prompted the switch. As you may know, both he and Lt. Col Turner died hours later when they flew into the side of a mountain somewhere in the Vietnamese Highlands. Effectively, Lt. Col Turner gave me the rest of my life for which I am forever grateful. Years later, I found his grave. He was buried with his crew and passengers in a mass grave at Ft Sam Houston National Cemetery. How I found him is another story. My recollection of his demise and his decision that allowed me to have a rich life is one of many memories of my 1.5 year tenure as a pilot in the 19 ACS.

    Reply
    • Ralph Grigg
      Ralph Grigg says:

      I departed the 19th ACS in late Feb 67. I don’t remember your name but I am the worlds’ worse at remembering names. I was an IP and could have flown one or more of your in country checkout flights. At that time I was primarily flying Thai pilots and Thai flight mechanics. Have you looked into the Air Commando Association or the C123inSEA organization?
      I tell every one that the flying over there was the most exciting and challenging experience that I have ever had.

      Reply
  9. Jack Morris
    Jack Morris says:

    Ralph:

    I enjoyed your first hand account of flying the C-123 in Vietnam. Not involved in that conflict, but I just finished a very interesting book by a pilot who flew C-123 missions for Air America among other aircraft in their fleet. I don’t know if you know him or heard about him. His name is Neil Graham Hansen and the book he wrote is simply titled: Flight.

    It’s a good read for anyone interested in understanding what it was like to be a pilot flying countless missions in which the next minute could be your last.

    Jack

    Reply
    • Ralph Grigg
      Ralph Grigg says:

      Thanks for commenting. I will look for Flight online. I don’t know if you have read my other articles. You can get them by logging on to: AIRFACTSJOURNAL.COM/AUTHOR/RALPHGRIGG/
      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      Reply
    • Ralph Grigg
      Ralph Grigg says:

      Thank your for your comments. I am always looking for ways to improve but I am appreciative of favorable comments. Thanks

      Reply

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