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Zero Zero: Flying the C-124

I was so impressed with it I copied it to the blog.
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Zero/Zero: Flying the C-124

 A friend of mine sent me this story about flying a C-124 recently. I was so impressed with it I copied it to the blog.

by Charles Svoboda

Zero Zero: Flying a C-124


It happened sometime in 1965, in Germany . I was a copilot, so I knew, everything there was to know about flying, and I was frustrated by pilots like my aircraft commander. He was one of those by-the-numbers types, no class, no imagination, no “feel” for flying. You have to be able to feel an airplane. So what if your altitude is a little off, or the glideslope indicator is off a hair? If it feels okay then it is okay. That’s what I believed.

 Every time he let me make an approach, even in VFR conditions, he demanded perfection. Not the slightest deviation was permitted. “If you can’t do it when there is no pressure, you surely can’t do it when the pucker factor increases,” he would say. When he shot an approach, it was as if all the instruments were frozen – perfection, but no class.

Then came that routine flight from the Azores to Germany.  The weather was okay; we had 45,000 pounds of fuel and enough cargo to bring the weight of our C-124 Globemaster up to 180,000 pounds, 5,000 pounds below the max allowable. It would be an easy, routine flight all the way.

 Halfway to the European mainland, the weather started getting bad. I kept getting updates by high frequency radio. Our destination, a fighter base, went zero/zero. Our two alternates followed shortly thereafter. All of France was down. We held for two hours, and the weather got worse. Somewhere I heard a fighter pilot declare an emergency because of minimum fuel. He shot two approaches and saw nothing. On the third try, he flamed out and had to eject

 We made a precision radar approach; there was nothing but fuzzy fog at minimums. The sun was setting. Now I started to sweat a little. I turned on the instrument lights. When I looked out to where the wings should be, I couldn’t even see the C-124 navigation lights 85 feet from my eyes. I could barely make out a dull glow from the exhaust stacks of the closest engine, and then only on climb power.

When we reduced power to maximum endurance, that friendly glow faded. The pilot asked the engineer where we stood on fuel. The reply was, “I don’t know— we’re so low that the book says the gauges are unreliable below this point.” The navigator became a little frantic. We didn’t carry parachutes on regular MAC flights, so we couldn’t follow the fighter pilot’s example. We would land or crash with the C-124.

 The pilot then asked me which of the two nearby fighter bases had the widest runway. I looked it up and we declared an emergency as we headed for that field.

 The pilot then began his briefing. “This will be for real. No missed approach. We’ll make an ILS and get precision radar to keep us honest. Copilot, we’ll use half flaps. That’ll put the approach speed a little higher, but the pitch angle will be almost level, requiring less attitude change in the flare.”

 Why hadn’t I thought of that? Where was my “feel” and “class” now? The briefing continued, “I’ll lock on the gauges. You get ready to take over and complete the landing if you see the runway – that way there will be less room for trouble with me trying to transition from instruments to visual with only a second or two before touchdown.”

 Hey, he’s even going to take advantage of his copilot, I thought. He’s not so stupid, after all. “Until we get the runway, you call off every 100 feet above touchdown; until we get down to 100 feet, use the pressure altimeter. Then switch to the radar altimeter for the last 100 feet, and call off every 25 feet. Keep me honest on the airspeed, also. Engineer, when we touch down, I’ll cut the mixtures with the master control lever, and you cut all of the mags. Are there any questions? Let’s go!”

 All of a sudden, this unfeeling, by the numbers robot was making a lot of sense. Maybe he really was a pilot and maybe I had something more to learn about flying. We made a short procedure turn to save gas. Radar helped us to get to the outer marker. Half a mile away, we performed the Before Landing Checklist; gear down, flaps 20 degrees. The course deviation indicator was locked in the middle, with the glide slope indicator beginning its trip down from the top of the case.

 When the GSI centered, the pilot called for a small power reduction, lowered the nose of the C-124 slightly, and all of the instruments, except the altimeter, froze.

 My Lord, that man had a feel for the C-124! He thought something, and the airplane, all 135,000 pounds of it, did what he thought. “Five hundred feet,” I called out, “400 feet … 300 feet … 200 feet, MATS minimums … 100 feet, Air Force minimums; I’m switching to the radar altimeter … 75 feet nothing in sight …. 50 feet, still nothing … 25 feet, airspeed 100 knots.”

 The nose of the C-124 rotated just a couple of degrees, and the airspeed started down. The pilot then casually said, “Hang on, we’re landing.” “Airspeed 90 knots….10 feet, here we go!” The pilot reached up and cut the mixtures with the master control lever, without taking his eyes off the instruments. He told the engineer to cut all the mags to reduce the chance of fire.

 CONTACT! I could barely feel it. As smooth a landing as I have ever known, and I couldn’t even tell if we were on the runway, because we could only see the occasional blur of a light streaking by. “Copilot, verify hydraulic boost is on, I’ll need it for brakes and steering.” I complied. “Hydraulic boost pump is on, pressure is up.” The brakes came on slowly—we didn’t want to skid this big beast now. I looked over at the pilot. He was still on the instruments, steering to keep the course deviation indicator in the center, and that is exactly where it stayed.

 “Airspeed, 50 knots.” We might make it yet. “Airspeed, 25 knots.” We’ll make it if we don’t run off a cliff. Then I heard a strange sound. I could hear the whir of the gyros, the buzz of the inverters, and a low frequency thumping. Nothing else. The thumping was my pulse, and I couldn’t hear anyone breathing. We had made it! We were standing still!

 The aircraft commander was still all pilot. “After-landing checklist, get all those motors, radar and un-necessary radios off while we still have batteries. Copilot, tell them that we have arrived, to send a follow me truck out to the runway because we can’t even see the edges.” I left the VHF on and thanked GCA for the approach.

 The guys in the tower didn’t believe we were there. They had walked outside and couldn’t hear or see anything. We assured them that we were there, somewhere on the localizer centerline, with about half a mile showing on the DME. We waited about 20 minutes for the truck. Not being in our customary hurry, just getting our breath back and letting our pulses diminish to a reasonable rate.

 Then I felt it. The cockpit shuddered as if the C-124 nose gear had run over a bump. I told the loadmaster to go out the crew entrance to see what happened. He dropped the door (which is immediately in front of the nose gear), and it hit something with a loud, metallic bang. He came on the interphone and said “Sir, you’ll never believe this. The follow-me truck couldn’t see us and ran smack into our nose tire with his bumper, but he bounced off, and nothing is hurt.”

 The pilot then told the tower that we were parking the bird right where it was and that we would come in via the truck. It took a few minutes to get our clothing and to button up the C-124. I climbed out and saw the nose tires straddling the runway centerline. A few feet away was the truck with its embarrassed driver.

 Total damage—one dent in the hood of the follow me truck where the hatch had opened onto it. Then I remembered the story from Fate Is the Hunter. When Gann was an airline copilot making a simple night range approach, his captain kept lighting matches in front of his eyes. It scarred and infuriated Gann. When they landed, the captain said that Gann was ready to upgrade to captain. If he could handle a night-range approach with all of that harassment, then he could handle anything.

 At last I understood what true professionalism is. Being a pilot isn’t all seat-of-the-pants flying and glory. It’s self- discipline, practice, study, analysis and preparation. It’s precision. If you can’t keep the gauges where you want them with everything free and easy, how can you keep them there when everything goes wrong?


Subject: Aviation History

For those interested, here are the specs for the C-124:

General characteristics

  • Crew: five
  • Length: 130 ft 5 in (39.76 m)
  • Wingspan: 174 ft 112 in (53.09 m)
  • Height: 48 ft 312 in (14.72 m)
  • Wing area: 2,506 ft² (232.9 m²)
  • Empty weight: 101,165 lb (45,984 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 185,000 lb (84,090 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 194,500 lb (98,409 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Pratt & Whitney R-4360-63A “Wasp Major” radial engines, 3,800 hp (2,834 kW) each


  • Maximum speed: 304 mph (264 kn, 489 km/h) at 20,800 ft (6,340 m)
  • Cruise speed: 230 mph (200 kn, 370 km/h)
  • Range: 6,820 mi (5,930 nmi, 10,975 km)
  • Service ceiling: 21,800 ft (6,645 m)
  • Rate of climb: 760 ft/min (3.9 m/s)


  • Chris Palmer says:

    Awesome article! Man, this kind of stuff is hard to believe. Keep up the great work!

  • Tom Davidson says:

    On 24 Dec 1956, I caught a ride on a MATs C124 from Goose Bay Labrador with a destination of Dover Delaware. I was trying to get home for Christmas after serving a year with AACS….I was the only passenger with a load of cargo. After climb out, the loadmaster told me that I could go up front and sit on the bench behind the with crew. They gave me headsets and I could hear the conversations between crew and Air Traffic Control. As we approached the US, the crew started receiving weather reports that the Eastern Seaboard over to Wright Patterson was socked in. Attempts to find an alternate to Dover could not be found. The Crew kept trying but continued on course to Dover. Then the facts hit me…”This crew is from Dover, it is Christmas eve and they are going home. Dover reporting, below minimums. As we turned final on GCA, from where I was sitting, nothing but a white windscreen. The conversation in the cockpit, just like the Zero, Zero story. I had a 180 view from my bench over the pilot and co-pilot and was sweeping faster than the precision radar. About 4 seconds before I felt tires on concrete, there was a green flash over the pilots left shoulder. I was the green green grass of Dover off the left side of the runway

    Eleven years later, I found myself with the 1st Mobile Communications, hauling Mobile GCAs in and out of SEA on C124s. Two Aircrafts, the C133 and C124 were the only Aircraft capable of transporting the Mobile GCA with the carriage and wheels still attached. Remove the carriage and wheels and it would fit in a C130.

  • Graham Rees says:

    Outstanding story. Thanks for sharing.

  • Goflying.net says:

    Wow! Great article. It certainly confirms why pilots need to be accurate at all times in what they do.

  • John Pelchat says:

    Great story. I remember the impression it made me when I first read it as an “I Learned About Flying From That” column in Flying magazine back in the 70’s. I have thought of the tale several times since then.

    Thank you very much for sharing.


  • Terry Adair says:

    I remember the C-124. I spent almost 4 years, at Donaldson AFB, Greenville SC 1956-60, in the 15th Troop Carrier Squadron(Heavy). The 15th had 12, C-124 Aircraft. During my time with the 15th, we went TDY to Rhein Main AB, Frankford Germany 3 different times – 6 months, 3 months and 1 month. Flew across, over and back 3 different times, stopping at the Azores (halfway each crossing). I worked in flight operations, scheduling flight crews and planes. I would have re-upped, but they only offered me $300 bucks to re-enlist. I got out when I was 21 years old.

  • Paul Gilbert says:

    I felt like I was the engineer on board as I had a flight just about like that into Donaldson AFB South Carolina. Member 63 rd Troop Carrier Wg.

    • John. Sherburne says:

      I was stationed at Tachikawa from 57 to 59 with the 22nd troop carrier wing. Had a fellow scanner who’s name was Paul P. Gilbert. Any thoughts. A/ 1st class. John Sherburne

  • MSGT Dallas O. Collins says:

    My 20 years in the AF was one for the books I started on the C119 in 53, as a student LM but before I could qualify to real crew member, (qualified) the 119 was transfered to the Air National Guard. My next flying was the C124 at the 3rd ATS in Charleston AFB for a little over 6 years, then the C124 was being phased out and I was promoted to the C141. I was reassigned to an Army base (Ft Eutis Va) for three years flying the desk, on a special Army/AF assignment. After that assignment I was transferred to Vietnam flying the C47 for one year, transferred to Travis AFB back to the C141. I immediately volunteered for the C5A coming to Travis. I was initial cadre for LM on the C5A when it arrived at Travis AFB Ca. I rounded out my AF career making me (technically) a crew member on five separate aircraft. It was a GOOD Ride.

  • Puzzled says:

    So why did they cut the mixtures during the landing? Wouldn’t that kill the engines and eliminate the ability to change to flat pitch on the props or reverse thrust it the plane could do that? Not to mention removing any chance of doing a go-around or taxiing off the runway after landing.

  • Mike Richman says:

    Great stories. As an Air Traffic Controller (1962-1966) at Whiteman AFB (Home of the B-2 bomber now) and my last year at Little Rock AFB (B-58’s, KC-135 and F102’s) things were quiet except for one night a Cessna pilot called with his family of five stating they were cut off from flying to Kansas City by a line of
    thunderstorms and wanted to land at Whiteman. My supervisor (who never worked local control) told me that they couldn’t land at a military base. I countered with “they could land if they declared an emergency.” Which he declared and landing safely we had a nice article in the base newspaper about the “Save.”
    Another time a flight of ten T-33 trainers came to the base with first-time solo pilots, some hardly speaking English. Jet fighters when landing were required to fly over the threshhold and circle right or left and then land. The head pilot landed first and turned towards the tower which is the wrong way. All of the others turned right. The correct way is fly away from the tower’s location. This was the most aircraft that I ever controlled at one time, even when I worked at the 2nd busiest airport in the U.S.
    for the FAA.
    With the instructor standing over my shoulder shouting commands to me to relay to the pilots I had all the planes land safely with up to three on the runway at the same time (A violations of having only one plane
    at a time on the runway.)

  • This is not a comment, as such, but an effort to make contact with the blog master. While googling C-124 to find a good picture, I blundered onto your Disciples of Flight site from July 2014, and eureka! the perfect picture! My husband flew #21035 from Dover AFB to Dhahran from 1954 to 1960. The round trip took ten days, then he had two days at home and did it again, flying 300 days a year. (It’s a wonder we had children.)
    I was so eager to contact you to express my appreciation for the stories that I haven’t even read them yet! But I have copied the text into a word processing document to preserve among my file of Air Force memoirs and will read it carefully very soon.
    I am still keen on aviation, and am still an active member of the Civil Air Patrol at age 91. I can’t fly any more, of course, because I have a pacemaker, but I can ride along as the observer. And a friend who owns a beautifully restored PT-17 lets me fly it with him; what fun!
    Didn’t mean to be so verbose. If I can be of any help with observations about Dover AFB during the period we were there, please let me know.
    Thanks, Libby Haynes

  • Cass says:

    My dad has been repeating this story for years, but I could never find the actual story until tonight. Thanks for sharing!

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