After a lifetime of flying, with experiences ranging from a novice airman to aa pilot examiner for an aviation training organization, there’s almost nothing that Gene Fish hasn’t seen.
Ol’ Shakey: Memories of a Flight Engineer contains some of Gene’s most memorable experiences, including his stint in a Douglas Globemaster C-124, nicknamed Ol’ Shakey.
Ol’ Shakey is an aircraft that has a habit of keeping flight engineers on their feet with its quirky malfunctions. In his book, Gene takes us through an exhilarating story of what began as a standard flight, later escalated into what flight crew members refer to as a simulator session.
Will he be able to take care of the problem, or will there be another statistic to add to the marker designating a lost airplane—and a lost crew?
Flight Engineer Basics
Through the mid-fifties to early sixties, slipping into a flight deck crew position was one of the most difficult undertakings for the Air Force enlisted man. This was especially true since many old-timers from WWII and Korea were happy to sit out as many years as the Air Force would allow, collect their flight pay, and fly only when absolutely necessary. But in the spring of 1964, America began its big buildup in Southeast Asia. Remember that, the unpleasantness in Viet Nam? Suddenly an urgent need existed for flight engineers, loadmasters, and aerial gunners.
Military Air Transport Service, or MATS, moved cargo and people, and needed more flight crews to support the mission; thus a worldwide call went out seeking volunteers. Everyone who possessed the necessary skills, passed the screening tests—and applied—was directed to report for training at one of the operational bases scattered around the United States assigned to one of the Numbered Air Forces: the 21st Air Force on the East Coast, the 22nd Air Force on the West Coast.
MATS bases in the 21st AF were Charleston AFB, South Carolina, Dover AFB, Delaware, and Robbins AFB, Georgia. The 22nd AF had Travis AFB, California, and McChord AFB, Washington. There were also several aerial terminals scattered throughout the United States, but all flight crews were assigned to one of the six main bases.
MATS squadrons in the 1960s flew Douglas C-133 Cargomaster, Lockhead C-130 Hercules, and Douglas C-124 Globemaster II. The C-130- and C-133 were powered by turbopropeller engines; the C-124, “Ol’Shakey,” boasted the largest aircraft reciprocating engine ever built.
The C-124 was the oldest and least glamorous of them all, and dated back to 1949. Unlike the C-133 and C-130, the C-124 was not pressurized. For this reason, typical missions were flown at nine thousand feet in “Indian country” most of the time. Indian country is that altitude where the light airplanes, such as the Piper Comanche, Cherokee, Apache, Aztec, and others could be found. Higher altitudes were possible, but the crew was required to wear oxygen masks above 10,000 feet and no one enjoyed sucking oxygen through a tube!
In 1962 some genius at Air Force personnel decided there was no need for 1,500 fully qualified pilots, navigators, and various ground officers. I was caught up in the massive reduction in force (RIF). Giving the choice of leaving and becoming a civilian, or remaining in the Air Force in the enlisted grades, I chose to remain in. Because of my earlier training in maintenance, I was assigned as a Production Scheduler at Laughlin AFB.
Laughlin AFB was a pilot-training base located near Del Rio, Texas. The squadron to which I was assigned, like most of the other squadrons on the base, was commanded by a second lieutenant who had been eliminated from the pilot-training program, and was awaiting assignment to a suitable ground job.