Guest Column: Recounting the final flight for a historic group of aviators

Date Published: 
September 5, 2014

In May of 2014, the 1st and 39th Air Transport Squadrons convened for their Diamond Reunion.

This group of aviators flew the then-world’s largest cargo plane, the C-133 Cargomaster, out of Dover Air Force Base during the 1960s. With the youngest crewmember now approaching his 80th birthday and with the group being together for about 60 years, this marked their final get-together. We were able to muster 95 aviators and 84 guests for our final crew meeting.

The 50 C-133 turboprop aircraft manufactured between 1956 and 1961 by Douglas were based at Dover AFB and Travis AFB and became the nation’s mainstay for large military cargo hauling during the Vietnam War.

Many retired military from the DAFB squadrons live in the Kent and Sussex counties, including relatives and progeny of those who gave their last for the country during the ’60s turmoil. Our first flights to South East Asia began in 1962, with one central question upon our return, “Where is Saigon?” Little did they know at that time what the future held!

Given modern aeronautics, we now jokingly refer to ourselves as “iron men in wooden ships,” as our planes and missions were dangerous — a fact attested to by the 20 percent loss ratio during a ditching off Okinawa. Our continuous ongoing and out pouring of concern for one another for well over 50 years poses an interesting but central question: “Why?”

It seems the reasons revolve about two concepts: one important to the nation, and the other important to those who serve the nation in uniform.

The former, importance to the nation, is the common-sense observation that escapes many of our citizens and the political bodies of the country: that military organizations exist to win wars. Unfortunately, what we have learned from history and endured throughout our lives is that peace is a far more complex affair than war — so complex that peace often seems beyond humanity’s reach.

The latter — importance to the veterans — is traced to antiquity. Aristotle conceived it, and the Greeks called it “philia.” It is broadly defined as “brotherly love,” and it is the glue of the military ethos, then and now. It is that bond formed among disparate individuals who may have nothing in common but facing the dangerous unknowns of military duty and have performed personal acts to help one another that were inherently good.

We were not heroes; we were just ordinary citizens from all walks of American life dedicated to the preservation and the good will of our beloved country. We continue to stand proudly, knowing that we did our duty by honoring our country without rancor during one of its most troubled and dangerous decades.

What more could we have done? We accomplished our mission. Thus, that evening at our final reunion we rejoiced in the peace of such knowledge and for a short time we were once again young and enjoying the time together that is always so fleeting.

It has been a long and majestic flight for those of us associated with the Cargomaster, often interrupted by tragic events, leading to the loss of many of our crews. But we always maintained a love for that bird, as we loved our families and our nation, and that has continued for well over 50 years.

But, all good things come to an end, and it did for us this spring. As we sadly said our final goodbyes, we could still imagine ourselves as young crewmembers flying thousands of hours, completing worldwide missions, with each relying upon the professionalism of the other to return safely to our families.

We have remained steadfastly proud that peace was our nation’s tenet and that we were integral in mission support of our country’s fundamental belief in worldwide democracy leading to individual freedoms.

I do encourage those with an interest in older aircraft to visit the DAFB Museum that is situated in a hanger listed on the National Register, where a C-133 is on display, along with many other historic aircraft. It is free and a delightful family outing that allows visitors to walk on the tarmac and sit in the cockpits to dream the dream of all who like flying.

Here is a link to the full history of the C-133:

Lt. Col. Richard L. Spencer, USAF, Ret., was part of the 39th ATS, MATS, at Dover Air Force Base from 1962 to 1965.