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Last Provider Flying

By Frederick A. Johnsen

July 30, 2016 - The last flying Fairchild C-123 Provider transport packs a lot of memories as it visits AirVenture 2016. Powered by a brace of R-2800 radial engines, the C-123K at AirVenture was later fitted with two J85 jets for power boosts as needed. Painted in Southeast Asia camouflage colors, this C-123 evokes that era with gritty, utilitarian authenticity.

Crewmember Pat Hempen said the C-123 can stir strong emotions from those who see it at an air show. At Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, he interacted with a Vietnamese woman who stepped on board, and sat down, crying. Hempen learned that a C-123 had whisked her to safety as her village was being overrun during the war there. Many other villagers died; the woman aboard the C-123 eventually became a U.S. citizen. “She probably sat in here for four hours,” Hempen recalled. It’s not unusual for Vietnam-era warbirds to have a cathartic effect on veterans. 

This C-123 picked up the nickname Thunder Pig at its home, Air Heritage in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.  Air Heritage ferried the C-123 from Arizona in 1994, cleaning out a coyote den from its fuselage during a 60-day refurbishing process to get the machine airworthy. The R-2800 engines proved serviceable after their time in storage. “They pickled them pretty well,” said Don Mansfield, the C-123’s flight engineer.

Thunder Pig retains the nacelles that housed the auxiliary J85 jet engines, but flies today only on the primary piston engines, consuming 200 gph. A quirk of the C-123 design is its origin as a glider before adoption as a powered transport. Crewmember Dale Bonner likes to tell people that story. As a glider, the airframe had no need for gas tanks. When piston engines were added to the design, the nacelles housed tanks carrying 700 gallons each. Subsequent underwing tanks added an additional 700-gallon capacity on each wing.

The classic airlift vibe comes through with Thunder Pig. It’s an intangible air of relaxed earnestness; a calm urgency that has saved lives in everything from battlefield resupply to civilian evacuations.

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