Aside from perhaps the Douglas C-47 Skytrain and Lockheed C-130 Hercules, cargo planes rarely garner as much fame as more glamorous military aircraft. The Fairchild C-123 Provider is one of the lesser-known cargo aircraft in US Air Force history. Nevertheless, it proved to be a utilitarian workhorse that served throughout the Vietnam War and beyond. But the tale of the C-123 actually begins with a giant glider.
During WWII, the use of gliders in large-scale invasions such as the D-Day invasion of France allowed the delivery of more troops and equipment than could be accomplished by parachute drops alone. However, paratroops often referred to the crash-prone wooden gliders as flying coffins, and many gliders were actually built by coffin manufacturers along with other woodworking trades. Following the war, the Army requested a much larger glider capable of carrying more troops and vehicles. The Chase Aircraft Company responded with the XG-20, built entirely of metal and the largest glider ever built in the United States. By the time flight testing was completed, however, the Air Force had abandoned gliders in favor of helicopters and powered transports. Only two prototypes were ever built, and only one of them ever flew.
Though the glider was canceled, Chase had planned all along for the possible attachment of engines. A pair of Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radials were fitted to create the XC-123, while four General Electric J47 turbojets, the same engines used on the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, were added to create the XC-123A, making it the first jet-powered transport to be built for the US Air Force. However, the jet engines didn’t provide the performance that the Air Force hoped for, nor did the XC-123A outperform the piston-powered alternatives. Only one was ever built.
The C-123, however, with powerful radial engines that were eventually supplemented with a pair of General Electric J85 turbojets, was a hit. With accommodations for 61 troops or 50 stretchers, the Provider was used widely in Vietnam, where its short-field capabilities made it popular for the resupply of forward bases. It also gained a measure of fame, or perhaps infamy, for its role in spraying Agent Orange defoliant over the jungles of Vietnam as part of Operation Ranch Hand. The US Air Force Thunderbirds used a Provider for hauling supplies and ground crew members, but it was involved in a crash that remains the single worst accident in Thunderbirds history. Providers were built in a number of variants, including a conversion to nighttime reconnaissance and ground attack, a search and rescue version for the US Coast Guard, and numerous export variants for international customers. Fairchild Aircraft, which had taken over production from Chase early on, eventually built 307 Providers from 1949-1970, and the type was retired by the Air Force in 1980.
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