The Airlifter known as Aluminum Overcast Might Have Been a Million Rivets Flying In Close Formation, But They Hauled It All Whenever Called.
The last of 448 Douglas C-124 Globemaster II airlifters rolled off the assembly line in 1955. These versatile and reliable transport aircraft served for 24 Cold War years and carried all manner of cargo around the world. “Old Shakey” was the prevalent nickname for the airplane but Aluminum Overcast and Boneshaker were used to refer to the C-124 as well. The Globemaster II was developed from the original Globemaster, the C-74 developed by Douglas as a heavy transport during World War II. Here’s a video about Old Shakey uploaded by the Air Mobility Command’s YouTube page TheAMCMuseum. Enjoy and then read on!
Singularly Unique Development of the Original Globemaster
The C-124 was first flown in December of 1949 after roughly two years of development work on the C-74. The initial C-124A variants began service with the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) in 1950. The design of the aircraft was influenced to some degree by the Berlin Airlift and as such the C-124 was capable of carrying considerably larger cargo without disassembly than other available airlifters. C-124As were powered by a quartet of Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major 28-cylinder radial engines. The cargo hold was accessible via a pair of clamshell doors located under the cockpit and forward of the nose landing gear as well as a cargo elevator located under the aft fuselage. With wings spanning 174 feet and standing nearly 50 feet tall, Old Shakey would never be confused with any other airlifter.
Flexible Cargo Cavern
Inside the cargo hold there were two decks of available floor space though the upper deck was often folded up against the fuselage sides. Just one look at the exterior profile of the fuselage reveals the huge amount of available space inside the hold. The airlifter could lift all manner of military equipment. Once inside the Globemaster II, equipment could be moved in the cargo hold via a pair of internal 8,000 pound hoists. 200 fully-equipped troops in double-deck mode or 127 litter patients could ride inside the cavernous space. There wasn’t much that wouldn’t fit inside Old Shakey in those days and the airlifter could tote a little more than 34 tons of cargo.
Around the World Taking Days to Get There
The first real test of the C-124 was the Korean War. C-124As were used to support United Nations troops in the region. Globemaster IIs also supported the cold-weather research being conducted by the scientists at Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica. Old Shakey visited every continent and most of the countries on them. Whether it was humanitarian aid, heavy cargo, support for the Suez, Lebanon, or Taiwan Straits Crises in the 1950s, the Congo Airlift or the Berlin Airlift in the 1960s, or just the regular MATS routes like The Snow Goose, The Benefactor, or The Dateliner, C-124s plied the skies continuously- and at a cruising speed of 230 miles per hour, I do mean continuously.
Serving in SAC
Globemaster IIs served in MATS carrying primarily garden-variety cargo- some of it critical and some just not so much. But C-124s also carried Strategic Air Command (SAC) cargo- most of which would go boom and quite a few that would go high-order boom. Fifty C-124s worked for SAC between 1950 and 1962. They carried not only those special weapons but vehicles used to deliver them- specifically the SM-75A / PGM-17 Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) along with others. A secondary duty for SAC-gained Old Shakeys was carriage of SAC personnel between installations and preparation for the many exercises and inspections that took place in those days. But SAC, just like every other C-124 user, had to use a “kickstand” to keep the tails in the air and not sitting on the ramps thanks to the plane’s short-coupled landing gear.
Building a Better Boneshaker
C-124s developed over time with the ultimate Boneshaker model becoming the C-124C. Newer and more powerful engines, more fuel capacity, and a nose-mounted APS-42 weather radar radome that looked like nothing as much as a thimble stuck on the nose of the veteran airlifter differentiated it from the earlier C-124A variant. But the things that most casual observers mis-identify on the C-124C are those devices attached to the wingtips. What they’re not is tip tanks. They’re actually Janitrol combustion heaters used to heat the voluminous cargo hold and de-ice the wings and tail surfaces. The earlier A-model aircraft were modified to bring them to C-model specification.
MATS, MAC, and to War in Vietnam
In service with MATS and after 1966 Military Airlift Command (MAC) C-124s supported the war in Vietnam. The cargo-hauling capabilities of the C-124 along with the follow-on turbine-powered Douglas C-133 were heavily utilized to support the war in Southeast Asia even during the initial availability of the next generation of jet-powered airlifters like Lockheed’s C-141 Starlifter and C-5 Galaxy. Nothing else in the inventory could transport the outsized equipment needed in-theater until the C-5 came along. Once the next-generation airlifters became available in numbers Old Shakey went to work for the Air Force Reserve (AFRES) and later the Air National Guard (ANG) and by 1970 there were no more C-124s serving with front-line active MAC units.
Epitaph for Old Shakey
Although the prototype YC-124B was built to investigate the viability of a turbine-powered Old Smoothie tanker by replacing the Wasp Major radial engines with General Electric T-34 turbines (the same engines used on the C-133), there really were no efforts aimed at prolonging the service life of the Globemaster II. They had a great run and their replacements with turbine (Lockheed C-130) and jet (C-141 Starlifter and C-5 Galaxy) power were capable of carrying on the work so ably done by Old Shakey. The last C-124Cs in service were retired by the 165th Tactical Airlift Group, Georgia ANG during September of 1974. Several of these grand old workhorses are enshrined in museums today.