Navigating the C-124 Globemaster
In the Cockpit of America’s First Strategic Heavy-Lift Aircraft
Billy D. Higgins
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 219 pages
Book Review published on: September 18, 2020
Much of our population, and the readers of Military Review, take the “jet age” for granted. The technology that ushered in gas turbine engines, both turbojets and turboprops, emerged just prior to World War II, became operational in the closing years of that war, and subsequently saw rapid maturation and adoption (both in the military and commercial environments). Several of the heavy lifters have come and gone already; the C-141 Starlifter is an excellent example. The C-130 Hercules soldiers on, in a much modified and vastly matured form, compared to its first flight protype of 1954. We take turbine engine reliability, flight above the weather, and in-flight refueling almost for granted. Yet, it was not always that way. It was not all that long ago that the U.S. military relied on the C-124 Globemaster, a behemoth with four big round reciprocating piston engines, sporting twenty-eight cylinders each. Reflect on that for a moment—that is 112 cylinders per aircraft, and 224 spark plugs for a complete spark plug change. The C-124 first flew in 1949, entered operational service in 1950, and was finally retired in 1974. Although the C-130 entered service not long after the C-124, it had neither the cargo volume nor the range of the C-124. Even when the C-141 entered service in 1965, it could not carry the outsized cargo Globemaster the C-124 could carry. The Globemaster remained the only aircraft that could airlift large, oversized cargo until the C-5A entered service in 1969.
Billy Higgins has done a wonderful job of recording and illuminating what life was like with “Old Shaky”—as crews often referred to the C-124—in Navigating the C-124 Globemaster: In the Cockpit of America’s First Strategic Heavy-Lift Aircraft. His focus is on the airplanes, their crews, and their missions. The narrative includes historical context, his personal journey through training and operations, the development and maturation of the aircraft, details of navigation long before GPS emerged, a variety of missions, and aircraft mishaps. One does not have to be a military history buff or an airplane guru to appreciate and even enjoy the narrative. It is informative and often entertaining.
Each reader is likely to have a personal favorite section of the book. For me, there were three: the descriptions of what would now be considered low-altitude operations, learning and using celestial navigation, and the emergence of radio navigation aids such as LORAN. The C-124 had a theoretical service ceiling of almost twenty-two thousand feet, but it was not pressurized, so it simply could not fly very high, especially when heavily loaded; nine thousand feet was a typical en route mission altitude. That meant crews could not fly over the weather when it got nasty; they had to go around it, divert to an alternate destination, or fly through it. Higgins poignantly documents cases when crews tried to penetrate violent weather and were unsuccessful.
Celestial navigation is almost a lost art today, but it was “the way” to navigate until very recently. Higgins’s description of navigation training and application of that training in an operational environment is informative and fascinating. His active duty time in the Air Force coincided with phasing out the C-124 from the active component and transitioning it to the Reserves and Air National Guard, so his story is really an “end of an era” tale. However, when he left active duty, he went to the Tennessee Air National Guard, which continued to operate C-124s until they were retired there as well, in 1974. Although Higgins’s book could have been a swan song for the Globemaster II, he avoided that, covering the aircraft’s roots, its early use in Korea, its employment during the anticolonial wars in Africa, its missions to Antarctica and Greenland, and its invaluable service in Vietnam.
This is a recommended read for anyone even remotely interested in Cold War history, aviation history, or who simply enjoys an entertaining autobiography from a Cold War warrior. This is the third book for Higgins, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas¬–Fort Smith. It is well worth seeking out and enjoying the journey through its pages.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas