Our Michigan Air National Guard 127th Tactical Air Command Reconnaissance Group stood in ranks at Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s tarmac. Two Douglas C-124 Globemaster transports loomed above us. It was early morning and we were to fly to Gulfport, Mississippi for two weeks active duty. The Alabama Air National Guard’s airplanes had flown in the day before. Each of us carried a duffel bag over a shoulder, while huge, clam-shell doors on the front of each plane gaped open with ramps leading into cavernous interiors. None of us had been inside anything this huge. Wafts of stale oil and aircraft fuel swirled about.
What appeared to be a twelve-year-old pilot strutted about inspecting the airplane, while a co-pilot, who must have had a rough night, made notes on a tightly-clutched clipboard. What they expected to find that trained expert mechanics hadn’t already taken care of was beyond us. Senior Master Sergeant called us to attention as the pilot approached. The latter turned to us, squeaking, “Ya’ll doan smoke on ma plane,” he announced, “‘cause this one leaks awl a little. Ok, Ya’ll get aboard now.” I supposed the “awl” currently leaking was engine oil and not aviation fuel that shimmied in little pools on the tarmac.
We began shuffling single-file up steel-grate ramps designed for military trucks, eyes adjusting to a dim interior lit by naked light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Two levels of wall-mounted multi-tiered seats were arranged like the inside of an ancient Roman slave-galley. Roman galleys had wooden oars. This one came with U.S. Air Force webbed belts, neither conducive to peace of mind. Instead of friendly attendants’ greetings, we were handed vomit bags and told to hurry up, find canvas slings, and strap in on canvas-webbed seats lining the walls.
The ride had to be somewhat safe, didn’t it? After all, the government couldn’t afford to lose a couple hundred troops every day shuffling around the country in these things. Our Senior Master Sergeant had told us a previous reconnoitering flight to Gulfport had lowered its landing gear too early, almost splashing into the Gulf of Mexico. So, only hours before, I purchased a fortune’s-worth of optional flight insurance before reporting to the flight line. My parents would be millionaires beyond their wildest dreams if this leaky, overweight behemoth went down somewhere.
One by one, all four engines coughed and fired, finally settling into a steady, ungodly loud roar. We couldn’t see out except for tiny portholes every few yards. Our plane was packed with khaki-clad airmen, and a few took their vomit bags out as we lurched and banged our way along the tarmac, both pilots apparently unfamiliar with Detroit’s airport and which runway to use. If we continued much longer, we could be over the state line and into Ohio with only 970 miles to go.
Finally positioned for take-off, we sat for ages while the Alabama pilot apparently re-learned where the controls were. Everything seemed to check out and the turbo-props began howling. As tension grew, the brakes were released and we rumbled down 22L for much longer than necessary before finally lifting off. Unlike most airplanes once airborne and attaining cruising altitude, takeoff noise didn’t lessen, and we began laboring southwest over Michigan while more vomit bags were brought out. The C-124 yawed side to side in sickening arcs as if over-correcting neophytes were controlling the thing with rubber bands. Somebody forgot to set the temperature or open air vents and it became unbearably hot. We hadn’t been on course more than a few minutes before people were throwing up morning breakfasts. The smell was overpowering and dribbles from seats above slid down aluminum bulkheads. I closed my eyes, breathing through my mouth, thinking of other things.
The rear of our cavernous cargo-hold held a single, exposed toilet. Several men struggling to avoid vomiting stood around waiting to use it. We hit a rough patch of air and the uncovered contents cascaded over those waiting, a scene straight out of Dante. My forehead was hot, not unexpected in these circumstances. “Motion-sickness is all in the mind” I told myself. “It’s all a mental game. Don’t throw up like others.” A guy to my right suddenly pulled out his bag and vomited, a final straw. I could feel I was about to lose it and hastily retrieved my own bag.
All of a sudden, there was a tremendous bang outside followed by louder engine roaring. “Hey guys,” someone near a porthole shouted, “The left engine blew up! The prop is frozen. We’re going down!” he added, unnecessarily. An inboard port engine, one of the four Pratt and Whitney R4360 3,800 horsepower turbo-fans, had seized without warning. The plane began drifting to the left as two right engines pulled 30 tons of fully-laden aircraft sideways. No one had time to think about the pilot reacting; we were momentarily out of control, my parents now multi-millionaires. A quick glance out the nearest porthole revealed the engine streaming a thin line of smoke, propeller frozen in place, blades flat against the wind causing a tremendous amount of drag, a combination most twelve-year-olds don’t train for.
For agonizing seconds, there was no change in engine note from the other turbo-props but, if another ceased functioning, there was nothing to prevent spiraling to our deaths at cruising power. Not a happy thought at the moment. At 12,000 feet, we had about 120 seconds to say our prayers. Both pilots fought the controls, increasing power to the remaining port engine, throttling back the starboard engines, adjusting trim tabs, stabilizer, and rudder, frantically changing remaining propellers. Old Shaky shook all the more as the pilots kicked the tail rudder hard right, offsetting a left yaw. At least, this is what they should have been doing. What did we know? We weren’t pilots; they were.
The C-124 seemed to stabilize, before sinking ever so slowly toward the flowering spring-time Michigan countryside, thankfully under control. At least we weren’t upside down in a screaming death-dive. Everything had happened in less time than it takes to read about. I no longer had the slightest inclination to vomit because, apparently, it’s a human condition that people about to die have no time for throwing up. My inner self-concluded I was going to fall 12,000 feet straight down in a ball of fire inside 30 tons of airplane with 150 others, so why bother. I stared at a now useless vomit bag and rolled it up.
Word finally passed that we would make an emergency landing at the Indianapolis Airport. We began descending and eventually slid to a smooth stop before the clam-shell doors were thrown open, allowing everyone to climb out as fast as possible. Fortunately, there were no further histrionics from the C-124 but, sitting a hundred yards away on the runway grass, I no longer worried, because our transport was clearly done for the day. Perhaps it would still self-immolate, but at least we wouldn’t be on it to suffer the consequences.
I felt sorry for the twelve-year-old staring up at his blown engine, a dozen emergency fire trucks ranged around the smoking hulk. He had done a good job getting us down in one piece. After several hours, we boarded another C-124, this time from the Tennessee Air Guard. I never understood whether my flight insurance policy applied to the second C-124 flight or not, but I didn’t want to find out.