||Oct 1, 2001
Chronicles of an Airborne Radio Operator--one of the very last of them, and the trials and tribulations of being stationed near Paris at the age of 20, and flying all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
This memior preserves for history the days when most airplanes could not fly without a crewmember to operate the complicated and bulky radios of the time, and the skill of the men who could communicate in International Morse code. Gone from the face of the earth, replaced by new technology, the flying radiomen are almost forgotten, along with the Air Force of the time, and the aircraft they flew.
The 10th and 11th Squadrons each had 18 aircraft. The 12th Squadron, however, had only 17.
The reason for the 12th being one C-119 short was that the 18th airplane had a two year stopover in Prestwick, Scotland. 53-8140 was it’s name. It was the bird nobody wanted to fly.
Long before I got there, the 60th Troop Carrier Wing flew C-47s, then C-54s during the Airlift, and transitioned to C-82s in the late Forties. They may have had a few C-119 B models, but their first C-119s were most CF models. When the Wing moved to Dreux, it was reequipped with new aircraft, replacing the old C-119 CF models with the newer G models. These shiny new airplanes were ferried from Maryland via Gander, Newfoundland, Sondestrom Fiord in Greenland, to Iceland, Prestwick and onto Dreux.
8140 made it as far as Prestwick where it was damaged in a taxi accident, colliding with a B-26. It was in Prestwick for nearly 2 years, so it must have had heavy damage. It had also been painted somewhere. It was never shiny polished aluminum like the others, and none of the modifications had been done to it. It still had the older markings when it arrived at Dreux; that is the “U.S AIR FORCE” and “TROOP CARRIER” weren’t painted on in the same places as the others. All this made poor 8140 look like a square peg in a round hole. Even the l2th’s blue squadron trim on the nose and the vertical stabilizers was a different color blue. 8140 was a horse of a different color!
The engineer assigned to 8140 was the one with the unpronounceable name—Polish or Hungarian or something—Karl Hricko. His work was cut out for him, but he was happy to be promoted to Flight Mechanic. There were others ahead of him in line to be crew chief, but he got the job, and one hell of a job he did.
So why didn’t anybody want anything to do with 8140?
Because an airplane is like a racehorse. It has to be worked and exercised. It can’t sit idle for long periods of time or things start going wrong with it. It’s illogical, but seems to be true. The general opinion was that 8140 was an airplane looking for a place to crash.
True to form, 8140 always had something wrong with it. It was a flying example of Murphy’s Law. If 8140 had been an automobile, we would have called it a Lemon.
We all thought the engineer with the unpronounceable name was not long for this world. He had to go everywhere that airplane went. It was his airplane and he was, as John Traficante used to say about his own 8145—signed out with it. The rest of us went to great lengths to avoid flying 8140, volunteering for oddball missions, developing mysterious illnesses, going on leave—anything to keep out of 8140. But unpronounceable couldn’t do that. He was stuck with it.
The first time I flew 8140, we made an emergency landing at Chateauroux with very dangerous hydraulic problems. The other aircraft had all undergone a major modification to the hydraulic system to correct that problem, but 8140 missed it. It was in Prestwick. We left unpronounceable in Chad and got other transport back. He spent a lot of time alone with 8140, waiting for repair crews or parts, usually in some unspeakable place in Turkey or Saudi Arabia or North Africa.
I lost a couple of engines in 8140. Nothing serious. One sort of expected to have an engine quit in 8140—one just didn’t know WHEN!
Everyone who flew 8140 had some hair-raising story to tell. One crew had complete electrical failure. They were in perfect weather conditions, so it wasn’t life threatening and they got down OK. Another crew had to crank the landing gear down. It was the hydraulics again.
Circuit breakers would pop at odd times and for no apparent reason. Tires would go flat. Fuel injection plugs would blow out of the cylinderheads—nothing real serious, but annoying and, if it happened at night, looked like an engine fire inside the nacelle cowling. I was flying 8140 one night when an injection plug blew and we made a hurry-up landing at Chateauroux. Not an emergency landing, but we didn’t waste any time getting down. The 3350 engines we had were the same engines that the old B-29s carried. The B-29s were cylinderhead fuel injected; the C-119 was not. We had a carburetor. There was a screw-in plug where the fuel injection would go in the middle of the top of each cylinder. Very occasionally, one of them would blow out like a champagne cork. When that happened, the fuel would be forced out the hole on the compression stroke, and would ignite on the un-insulated spark plug wires. Couldn’t see it in the daytime, but at night the effect was spectacular. Looked like the 4th of July inside the nacelle.
And the radios! The radios were—well, I never knew what to expect when I climbed up the ladder to preflight the radio equipment. In the air, one or more of them were inoperative all the time, usually the one I really needed at that moment. Of course, the next time I tried it, it would work just fine. And only certain headsets would work at certain jackboxes. If they got switched, I had to walk around the airplane, and plug in to see which one went where. Safety wired electrical plugs would fall out of them, and the next time, couldn’t be blasted out. Once the VHF receiver wouldn’t cycle, and then after the “sharp rap” recommended in the manual, wouldn’t stop cycling. It got to be rather comical. What the hell was going to happen next?
On one trip, the co-pilot’s seat broke and we had to prop him up for the rest of the trip with the honey bucket from the John wedged in between his seatback and the drift meter. He couldn’t fly that way. His feet wouldn’t reach the rudder pedals. He just sort of sat there and looked anxious the rest of the trip.
Another time, the gasoline heaters shot craps and the crew nearly froze before they got down. Of course, the next crew couldn’t shut the heaters down.
All this in an airplane that was almost new and had a thousand less hours then the others. The 2 years of idleness had to be the reason.
Unpronounceable never gave up, though. He just kept banging away until slowly, painfully, 8140’s problems went away and all the modifications were made. He was still 8140’s crew chief when I rotated back to the States and as far as I know, 8140 never did find that place to crash.
Many of the C-119s based in Europe were sold to the Third World, and the Italians got 8140. I’ll just bet that airplane has them scratching their collective heads and talking to themselves.
I thought 8140 never did find that place to crash—but I was WRONG. In a recent letter from Bob Wilder, GCA operator at Chateauroux in France in 1962, he tells of 8140 and it’s Italian crew trying to takeoff from there one morning in foggy, misty conditions. 8140 lost power on takeoff, and ran through the barrier at the end of the runway, near the GCA shack. All three landing gear collapsed and 8140 was on its belly, tangled in the barrier. The crew was unhurt, so the aircraft was jacked up, the gear lowered and it was towed to a maintenance area. The Italian crew braced the landing gear with 2x4 lumber, and after some minor sheet metal work on the damaged belly the next day, flew it back to Pisa with the gear down, landing there safely according to Wilder. As the damage was minor, probably the Italians repaired 8140 and continued to fly her.
This writer once made a white-knuckle emergency night landing at Chateauroux in 8140 back in 1958, and it is my opinion that 8140 had already picked Chad as its place to crash, but had to wait a long time to do it.
BookPleasures, Sandra Graham
Review for Departure Message
Author: Charles L. Lunsford
Genre: Historical Memoir
Although war stories abound, from the middle ages to present day Iraq, inevitably, the heroes are always the helicopter and fighter pilots, the ground soldiers, and the renowned ‘Green Beret’, ‘Navy Seals, or the ever popular ‘A few good men’ the Marines. Charles Lunsford in this exceptional novel Departure Message pays fitting tribute to the men-behind-the-scenes, the radio operators of the 50’s.
These unsung heroes were proud men of the American Air Force who put themselves in harm’s way as a daily routine; facing not only unseen enemy forces, but also, the dangers of soaring high above the earth through nature’s fickle fallacies. Few metals of honor adorned the chests of these brave men; love of their job and their country sustained them throughout the beginning and end of the era of the air borne radio operator.
Departure Message follows the true adventures of a young radio operator assigned to an elite group of cargo and combat troupe carriers, the Fairchild C-119, the infamous “Flying Boxcars”. Lunsford vividly brings his readers to the edge of their seats as he recounts the hair-raising adventures of the flying mishaps that threaten the lives of all the crew members on numerous missions. He makes you want to grab the arms of your chair and pull back to help the pilot make it over the mountains ahead—realism born of living it. Then he makes you laugh out loud at the antics carried out by young soldiers with time on their hands and pre-mission jitters compelling them to ‘do something, anything’ to shorten the waiting time.
Although my husband and sons and brothers all served in and met the enemy of Korea and Viet Nam from the air and direct hand-to-hand combat, they were all lucky enough to come home. They never talked about their service experiences and I felt disinclined to have them elaborate on their remembrances of times best forgotten. Therefore it was a great honor to me to be allowed to read and review this wonderful story and feel the excitement and enthusiasm of this young soldier as he begins his career as a green and hopeful recruit until he musters out as a mature and well-rounded individual who has served his country well.
We all have much to learn from history and Charles Lunsford has done a fantastic job of making some of that history come to life for us with his elaborate descriptions of countries that most of us will never have the honor of visiting and a way of life that we would otherwise have never known. So we must read and depend on gentleman like Mr. Lunsford to take us there in our hearts and senses.
Thank you Charles for taking me along on this trip; I will never forget it—or you.
God bless you and all the men who served by your side all those years ago.
Reviewer: Sandra E. Graham, author Amos Jakey and Nicolina Published by American Book Publishing.
London Morning Paper
Rarely have I encountered a book that has left me in dread of reaching the end. To escape within its pages to a more amiable world of droning engines and hit of Glenn Miller became a refuge few books are able to offer.
A Classic suspense author or even a best seller couldn't write this book better, his penmanship grabs you where few writers are able to reach. He describes his desire to fly like so many of us in those tender years of youth. His first day in the Air Force certainly evokes certain passions again. The general underlying chaos of military service and the camaraderie missed in today's cutthroat world is amply highlighted on.
Charles Lunsford is one of the last of a breed that provided flying with a link to the past. He was a Radio Operator and a Pilot's best friend in the sky until his replacement by silicone chips, making a Captain's job today even more solitary. Charles was an aircrew member in the unglamorous world of Combat Cargo in the 1950s. Air Traffic Control was then not a microphone and a frequency, but rather the arcane environment of dots and dashes and keen observance. His job was with the 12th Troop Carrier Squadron, 60th Troop Carrier Wing, based at Dreux, Normandy. Serving in the Air Force of the prop-wash days, he was positioned on the flight deck of an aircraft seldom mentioned anymore, the venerable C-119. Loaded with the classic equipment of aviation and communication, better known as the "Flying Boxcar". Because of its special design, it was able to encompass nearly every item the Army had on the ground. With a career of 25 years it last appeared in Vietnam known as AC-119K "Stingers" with offense capacity. Charles lived in the twilight zone of military aviation that carried Radio Operators, while getting to know Europe, Africa and the Middle East by its' runways, colorful currency and unflattering weather.
Charles had an office and home on the flight deck. It was from this vantage point he was able to observe then a more placid world at his feet. The mixture of humour and panic will insist this book travel with you, like Charles did with his pilots. And when you reach the end, shut the engines down, switch off the lights and clean up the cockpit for the last time, Charles will have given you a great journey.
James Van Etten, Editor
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Reader Reviews for "Departure Message"
|Reviewed by Gary Stephens
|Drawing on his own detailed memories, those of friends with whom he served, and the journal that he kept of his military service, Charles Lunsford has crafted an always engaging and oft times riveting account of his years as an Air Force airborne radio operator in 1950s Europe.
In “Departure Message,” Mr. Lunsford takes us from his New Mexico boyhood home to Air Force basic training, then technical training in Mississippi, and onward to his flying assignment in Dreux, France. It is from the small Dreux airbase that we travel with him to Germany, Italy, North Africa, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia with flight events—some of them hair raising, locales, cultures, and people described in a natural storytelling style that gives us the sense of being a fellow crewmember rather than mere reader.
Almost all American men who came of age from World War II until the end of the Vietnam War served in our armed forces. In wartime, it was a necessity. In those inter-war years, it was expected and encouraged by our society; a rite of passage through which parents could not take them and for which no school could substitute. They would test and stretch the limits of their abilities; have their curiosity and interest awakened to world events, and experience places and cultures that most others would only read about. They would learn the invaluable life lesson that the boss would not always be the smartest person in the room (or aircraft) and that the least ranking among them might be the one who at some point would hold their lives in his hands. And all along the way they would meet people of disparate backgrounds and circumstances, some of whom would become lifelong friends. All of this and so much more perfectly spice the vignettes and stories of Charles Lunsford’s excellent service memoir.
I didn’t so much read “Departure Message” as I devoured it, resenting having to put it down to eat and sleep. I found myself nodding my head and smiling at the recognition of similar experiences and enjoying the return of some of my own dusty memories, unbidden but welcome. And when I came to the end, I both loved and hated that final page. I loved it as I loved all the pages of this book and I hated it, well, I hated it simply because there it was … the last page.
There is a quote I sometimes see appended to emails. It is, “If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. And if you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier.”
Thank you, Chuck. And thank and God Bless all who serve.
Author of "Epiphany"