Like any war story, this one is not prefaced with, “Now this is no sh*t” which means that you can believe it or not. But it was told to me by an impeccable source, my best friend,
Colonel Edward Forbes Lincoln.
The C-124 was a very large, four engined transport plane which in its hey day of the Nineteen Fifties, carried freight for the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). It was affectionately called “Big Shaky” as its engines and propellers made a distinct rumbling sound which transmitted their vibrations not only the listeners on the ground but the aircrew flying in this behemoth. It was a bone-rattler and drained the energy of the MATS crews who flew it to every corner of the world. After a twelve or fourteen hour leg, they were tired out and longed for a couple of beers and a quiet spot for Crew Rest that was normally sixteen hours.
MATS C-124s landed at nearly every military and civilian airport in the world; if the runway was a mile long and the temperature was not extreme, Big Shaky could get in and out with a moderate load of cargo. Normally the crew consisted of an Aircraft Commander (AC), a co-pilot, a Flight Engineer and a Navigator. Handling the loading duties were two loadmasters, usually lower ranking enlisted men. It was a group of professionals who knew their jobs and could handle most anything that was thrust upon them: soldiers, sailors, tanks, large trucks, missiles, cartons of toilet paper or refugees from some war torn country.
On this particular trip in 1957, Shaky and its crew had landed at the Agana Naval Air Station on Guam. They were greeted by the Transport Control Center Duty Officer, a Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade, who told them that they would have a Minimum Crew Rest – twelve hours.
“Why?” said the Aircraft Commander. “We’ve been on the road for two weeks and this last leg was non-stop from Saigon – fourteen hours.”
“Tough! Tomorrow’s our Saturday parade which we hold on the ramp at 9 AM and I want your airplane off that ramp by 8 AM!” said the lieutenant. “The Admiral’s reviewing the Station and he is very insistent that it’s all ship shape. Everyone in Dress Whites with big medals.”
The AC was the same rank as the Navy jg but he came from an Air Force family and knew the rules. The Duty Officer had the authority to insist on the minimum Crew Rest and he was insistent.
Five O’clock the next morning, the crew was alerted and as the Navy chow hall didn’t open until six, no one had breakfast. But the AC made sure that there was coffee and sandwiches from the Terminal gedunk. They were airborne at eight o’clock grinding their way toward Yokota Air Base in Japan and the ramp was clear for the parade at nine.
Shaky had some unlovable characteristics: the engines were known ‘corncobs’; each one had twenty-eight cylinders and fifty-six spark plugs, not to mention fifty-six valves and enough internal ‘monkey motion’ to puzzle even the most skilled mechanic. This was a very complex piece of machinery skillfully managed by the Master Sergeant Flight Engineer. He knew those engines better than his lady’s contour.
Thirty minutes from takeoff at Agana, they had barely reached their 8,000 feet cruise altitude.
Voices on the intercom:
“Pilot, Flight Engineer.”
“Yes, what’s up?”
“I think we swallowed a valve on Number three engine. O.K. to feather it?”
“Feather three,” said the pilot.
The Flight Engineer feathered (shut down) the engine and advanced the power on the other three engines to maintain their altitude until they were cleared to descend.
“Agana Center, this is MATS 10042 declaring an emergency requesting a lower altitude and immediate return to Agana.”
“Roger MATS 10042, you are cleared to descend and cruise 2,000 feet. Contact Agana Approach Control when in range.”
Shaky began its descent slowly drifting down into the morning tropical rain shower. The crew was not concerned – three-engined flight was never unusual in this bird.
“Pilot, Load Master.”
“We’ve got an oil leak from number two engine.”
“Flight Engineer, Pilot. How’s our oil quantity on Number 2?”
“Going down slowly. O.K. to reduce power?”
“Sure, keep me advised.”
“Agana Approach, MATS 10042, requesting approach to Agana. We have an emergency. Number Three is shut down and Number Two has an oil leak. We may have to consider a two engine landing.”
“Roger MATS 10024 you’re cleared for the approach, contact Agana Tower on final.”
The airplane was now on final approach.
“RPM 2400, Gear down, Flaps 30, Landing Checklist.”
“Agana Tower, MATS 10042 request landing, we have an emergency.”
“MATS 10042, you are NOT cleared to land. We have a parade on the ramp. You’ll have to hold until it’s over in 40 minutes.”
“Negative, Agana. This is an emergency. I’m on final, at 500 feet, with my gear and flaps in landing configuration. We gotta land this bird.”
MATS 10042, negative, negative. You’ll have to go-around. Contact Anderson Air Force Base Tower and request landing instructions.”
By this time the Shaky is at 300 feet, the Flight Engineer is not happy with the state of his oil leak and is thinking that if that engine quits, they are in a world of hurt. The ramp below that is adjacent to the runway is filled with Navy officers and men in their best whites with the Admiral and his staff on the reviewing stand. They can all see the C-124 ready to land its noisy engines drowning out the Navy Band playing “Anchors Aweigh.”
Gritting his teeth, the Aircraft Commander decides to ‘go around’. He calls for maximum power on the two good remaining engines, as much power that is available on the oil-leaking engine and slowly drifts over the parade.
A fine mist of engine oil drifts down on the Admiral and his sailors and covers them in black spots which does not make any of them look at all ship shape. The parade dissolves as they scatter for shelter.
Agana Tower capitulates.
“MATS 10042, you are cleared to land. Please report to the Duty Officer upon landing.”
A very red-faced and angry Admiral is on the ramp as the C-124 parks and the crew exits.
“Who is in command of this airplane?”
The AC steps forward, salutes the two star admiral.
“Lieutenant Twining, sir.”
The Admiral lets go with a verbal blast that would sink an aircraft carrier, but pauses as the AC’s name penetrates his anger.
“What was your name again, Lieutenant?”
“Dick Twining, sir.”
The connection with the current Armed Forces Chief of Staff filters through his salt-encrusted brain.
“Humph.” The admiral turns on his heels and marches off, his oil soaked whites looking very spotty.
“Let’s get some Crew Rest. How ‘bout 16 hours?” says Dick.
It sure helps to have fathers in high places.
In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed Twining Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.