A look back at Old Shaky, the famous Douglas C-124 Cargomaster II

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This story originally appeared on Flyingmag.com.

By Kimberly Johnson

In terms of aircraft, the Douglas C-124 Cargomaster II was a major guide for the US Air Force in the years after the Berlin Airlift, when US and British air forces began transporting food and fuel to a blockaded West Germany after World War II .

In 1950, the cargo plane that was supposed to support the Korean War as an airlift rolled off the production line. Capable of transporting 200 soldiers and their equipment along with fully assembled tanks, field guns and trucks, the aircraft was a marvel on the tarmac due to its clamshell doors that opened wide under the nose to reveal cargo above to load a hydraulic ramp and see from another world.

“It’s an interesting time that the Air Force is fairly new,” said Michael Hankins, curator of US Air Force history at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. “The Berlin Airlift was the first major conflict,” he said. “It’s not a shooting war, but it’s the first major potentially hostile world event involving the Air Force.”

Coming out of the Berlin Airlift, one got the feeling that the military was operating older aircraft like the C-47 Skytrains and the four-engine C-54 Skymaster transport planes – both effectively in the Airlift.

“But there’s this kind of recognition that we need something bigger and more modern that can carry more stuff and can carry certain types of things and have certain types of capabilities,” Hankins said.

Enter the C-124, an airframe that’s been in production for five years and that some historians have dubbed a “low-budget stopgap” in the quest to develop more effective cargo aircraft.

“Back then, it was like the largest transport plane available” that could carry the heaviest loads, Hankins said. While its size is a step forward for the Air Force, its bulk created logistical barriers. It could not drop loads via parachutes and had to land to unload. Its weight relegated it to select runways.

“In Korea, for example, it couldn’t fly to a lot of tactical airfields where it needed to go,” Hankins said. It would have to land at one of the few major airports with a really thick concrete runway. Then the cargo would have to be unloaded and reloaded onto smaller planes or onto a railway line for further transport.

The C-124 had a tendency to shake severely even under calm skies, earning it the nickname Old Shaky.

“It was also very noisy and creaked and groaned a lot,” Hankins said.

They were also reasonably reliable, so the Luftwaffe used them for heavy lift transport during the Korean War circa 1952. But there were gas leaks and a series of engine fires, and some had defective generators on their engines.

In June 1953, an engine fire brought down a C-124 at Tachikawa, Japan minutes after takeoff, killing all 129 on board and becoming the worst air disaster in history at the time.

“It’s one of those planes that shows up at a strange transitional period as the Air Force goes from one generation of aircraft to a later very effective generation of aircraft,” Hankins said. “They have a very mixed fleet of different aircraft trying to solve different problems. And so the C-124 is very good at certain things, for example it has a tremendous lifting capacity that no other aircraft could handle. But it had all these other limitations,” he said.

“And,” he added, “these accidents kept happening.”

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