This year’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh had thousands of historic aircraft, each of them with their own story to tell. Among those planes at EAA’s record-breaking 70th anniversary was a surprising number of rare airworthy aircraft. One of them was this 1956 Fairchild C-123K Provider, affectionately known as the “Thunderpig.” This aircraft isn’t just a piece of history, it’s the only one of its kind still flying in the whole world. It’s also a flying memorial for our nation’s Vietnam veterans.
Even though EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2023 was about a month ago, I keep finding myself flipping through the hundreds of pictures I took that week. Spending a week at the world’s greatest airshow reignited my mission to get my own private pilot license with the hope of landing at Wittman Regional Airport two years from now. This year was AirVenture’s biggest yet, with 677,000 people coming in from almost 100 countries to enjoy all things aviation. Equally incredible was the setlist of aircraft that touched down at Wittman.
Those planes included the one of the only surviving Lockheed Constellations in the world. Another rare bird is this, the Fairchild C-123K Provider named Thunderpig. It is the only airworthy C-123 in the entire world.
A Glider Becomes A Troop Transport
As the National Museum of the United States Air Force writes, the C-123 started life from a glider design. The aircraft was developed by New Jersey-based Chase Aircraft Company, which opened in 1943 to construct assault gliders and other military aircraft. The president and chief designer at Chase would be Russian immigrant Michael Stroukoff. Following World War II, the United States Army Air Forces began looking for a large and versatile assault glider to replace the gliders that were then in the roster. In 1946, Chase Aircraft scored a contract to build two large metal gliders. These would become known as the XCG-18A and XCG-20.
As a glider, the XCG-20 was advanced for its day, featuring an auxiliary power unit, an upswept empennage with an integrated loading ramp, and a reinforced nose. Unfortunately for Chase Aircraft, by 1949, the Air Force had determined that gliders were obsolete. The first XCG-20 prototype, now designated XG-20, hadn’t even taken its first flight. Meanwhile, the second XG-20 did make its first flight in 1950 and went on public display.
Chase Aircraft took the first XG-20 back to the drawing board. Thankfully, the XG-20 was already overbuilt. It was designed with a maximum take off weight of 70,000 pounds, more than tow planes of the era could even haul. The first prototype was fitted with a pair of 2,200 HP Pratt & Whitney R-2800-23 radials, creating the XC-123.
Meanwhile, the other prototype was given a pretty wild setup. It was fitted with four General Electric J47-GE-11 turbojets, engines that normally found homes in aircraft like the Boeing B-47 bomber.
This means the base XCG-20 design was used to make a glider, a piston aircraft, and a jet aircraft! The XC-123A would not go into production, but the Air Force was impressed enough with the XC-123 to place an order, creating the C-123B.
Unfortunately for Chase, it didn’t have the capacity to fulfill a large order of aircraft. In 1951, Kaiser-Frazer purchased a 49 percent stake in Chase Aircraft. Under contract with Fairchild Aircraft, Kaiser-Frazer would be able to build 300 C-123B at the Kaiser Willow Run facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kaiser-Frazer had a contract to construct the Fairchild C-119 and in 1953, Kaiser-Frazer would purchase a controlling interest in Chase Aircraft.
However, this wouldn’t last long as as Michigan Tech’s Military History of the Upper Great Lakes writes, Kaiser-Frazer’s aircraft cost more than the ones that came out of Fairchild without subcontracting. Thus, Kaiser lost its contracts and Fairchild would go on to build the C-123, producing just over 300 units.
C-123s would go on to serve a number of roles with the Air Force. In addition to a large cargo hold, the C-123 also had the ability to carry 60 fully-equipped troops. Among its number of strengths was also being able to operate from short and unprepared fields. Further padding its resume is the fact that a C-123 could haul 24,000 pounds, carry 50 injured troops, and fly up to 1,825 miles without stopping. The aircraft is perhaps best known for its service in Vietnam, and I’ll let the United States Air Force explain:
The C-123’s most important service, however, was during the Southeast Asia War. In January 1962, the first of many Providers were sent to South Vietnam to start the Ranch Hand defoliant program. Shortly after, a squadron of standard C-123Bs arrived to provide mobility to the South Vietnamese Army. By the fall of 1964, there were four USAF C-123B squadrons in Vietnam flying airlift and airdrop missions.
Providers constantly flew troops and supplies to small, dirt airstrips at isolated bases in South Vietnam. Their relatively large cargo hold and excellent short field performance made them essential to holding these widely-scattered bases. The CIA’s Air America also operated about 35 C-123s in Laos.
C-123s sometimes flew other types of missions. Standard Providers flew night flare-dropping missions to expose enemy attacks. Specially-modified C-123s flew night operations with floodlights, radar, and night-vision equipment.
If you were wondering what the Ranch Hand defoliant program was, it was an herbicidal warfare program designed to deprive the Viet Cong of food and vegetation to cover in. Indeed, C-123s were used to deploy Agent Orange, a dioxin-contaminated herbicide that Vietnam reported had resulted in 400,000 deaths, millions of cases of cancer, and a total exposure of 4.8 million people.
The impact of Agent Orange was felt at home as well. When those C-123s returned from Vietnam, they were contaminated, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
[Health and Medicine Division] released its report, Post-Vietnam Dioxin Exposure in Agent Orange-Contaminated C-123 Aircraft, Jan. 9, 2015. According to the report, from 1972 to 1982, approximately 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force Reserve personnel trained and worked on C-123 aircraft that previously had been used to spray herbicides, including Agent Orange, in Vietnam. Those aircraft were used for military airlift, medical transport, and cargo transport operations in the United States and internationally.
HMD found that Reservists who served as flight crew (pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and loadmaster), ground maintenance crew, and aero-medical personnel had regular contact with the aircraft, and would have experienced some exposure to chemicals from herbicide residue. The report determined that it is possible that this exposure contributed to some adverse health effects.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force used C-123 aircraft to spray Agent Orange to clear jungles that provided enemy cover in Vietnam. At the end of the spraying campaign in 1971, the remaining C-123 planes were reassigned to reserve units in the U.S. for routine cargo and medical evacuation missions spanning the next 10 years.
Not all C-123s were turned into the UC-123B and UC-123K sprayer aircraft. Many C-123s carried troops while some were outfitted for surveillance duties. A number of C-123s were turned into HC-123B search and rescue aircraft for the United States Coast Guard.
As time went on, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules would prove to be a suitable replacement and C-123s were removed from service. One of the last C-123 operators in America was the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Tactical Airlift Wing at Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio, which held onto four UC-123K until 1986. Those aircraft finished out their careers by dropping insecticide in campaigns meant to stop the spread of disease.
Constructed in 1956, Thunderpig was originally a C-123B with serial number 54-664. In 1967, the aircraft would be converted to C-123K configuration, then converted into a UC-123K defoliant aircraft in 1969.
Despite being converted into a variant that would have participated in Ranch Hand, Thunderpig stayed in America, where it was used primarily as a training aircraft. Thunderpig has a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radials making 2,500 HP each plus two General Electric J85-GE-17 turbojets making 2,850 pounds of thrust each.
These powerplants and the aircraft’s construction allow Thunderpig to cruise at 186 mph, top out at 253 mph, and fly a range of 1,340 miles. The aircraft measures in at just over 76 feet long, 34 feet tall, and it weighs 31,000 pounds empty. When Thunderpig was built in 1956, it went on to serve with the 513th Troop Carrier (Assault Group – Tactical Air Command) at Stewart AFB in Tennessee. A year later, Thunderpig went to the Middletown Air Material Air Area at Olmstead AFB in Pennsylvania. From 1956 to 1981, the aircraft would be passed from air base to air base, getting used mostly as a training aircraft. Check out this list of everywhere it’s been:
The nickname “Thunderpig” comes from the 911th Airlift Wing when the aircraft was based at Greater Pittsburgh Airport. In June 1981, Thunderpig’s military service came to a close when it was sent into storage at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In 1985, the aircraft was designated as surplus and stricken from Air Force inventory.
Thunderpig’s story picked up again when it was purchased by warbird collector David Tallichet. In 1994, the Air Heritage Museum was approached about the aircraft. That April, Virgil Wyke, Bill Cambell, Matt Haydack, Russ Wood, and Bob Morelli from Air Heritage descended into Tucson to take a look at the aircraft. On April 10, 1994, a second crew arrived in Tucson to assist in inspecting the aircraft. The volunteers concluded that the aircraft could be brought back online in as little as two weeks.
Thunderpig took its first flight as a civilian aircraft on May 6 of that year before finally leaving Tucson a day later. The aircraft made it to Midland, Texas where it blew a tire on landing and required about 7 hours of work to remove from the runway. Over the next few days, the volunteers would battle horrible weather to fix a hydraulic leak and replace the blown tire. Finally, Thunderpig touched down at its new home in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania on May 14, 1994.
Since then, Thunderpig has been fully restored. While there are a handful of C-123s on static display, Thunderpig is the only example still flying today. And while Thunderpig didn’t serve in Vietnam, the crew at the Air Heritage Museum work to keep it flying as a memorial to the veterans who gave all they had in the Vietnam War. The plane also does some film work, appearing in TV shows and movies, including American Made with Tom Cruise.
When Sheryl and I saw Thunderpig at AirVenture, we saw a number of veterans admire the aircraft and do what appeared to be paying respects to their fallen friends and comrades. It was a sobering experience watching the many people Thunderpig touched during the show. This wasn’t just an old plane, but a flying reminder of events that still mean so much to many Americans. It was sort of like going to a war memorial, but there were no names etched in stone.
Thunderpig also made a pretty grand exit. On Sunday, I watched as the aircraft started its engines.
On each engine start, the plane became enveloped under a massive cloud of smoke. While the cloud dissipated, the smoke persisted. Even during take off the beast had a steady stream of smoke behind it. Then, Thunderpig lifted gently into the sky, performed a graceful turn, and slowly disappeared over the trees.
That night, I found myself thinking about when I first saw Thunderpig parked in Boeing Plaza. Its paint stood proud in the glow of a Wisconsin summer sunset. Under its wings, you could hear stories about other C-123s, the war, and more. EAA AirVenture Oshkosh taught me a number of things this year. One of them is that for many people, an old aircraft may not be a fun piece of history, but sometimes, they are a serious reminder of the past. That’s what Thunderpig appeared to be. It wasn’t just the last flying Fairchild C-123 Provider, but a trigger for memories and more. Here’s to Thunderpig, hopefully it can serve as a memorial for years to come.
(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
- Mercury Meteor, Bianchi Motociclo Tattico MT 61, Alfa Romeo 164S: Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness
- The Last Pontiac GTO Is Criminally Underrated: GM Hit Or Miss
- The Chevy Monza Mirage Proved That Riveting A Bunch Of Plastic To A Crap Car Just Makes It A Crap Car With A Bunch Of Plastic Riveted To It: Glorious Garbage
- This New Fiberglass Camper Has Some Great Ideas Wrapped In Questionable Branding