US Air Force VC-123, The White Whale
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US Air Force #56-4375 VC-123 Fairchild Provider aircraft history
General background information and history about the C-123 can be found at the following web site:
Manufactured at Fairchild Aircraft factory in Hagerstown, Maryland
 Available to USAF on September 26, 1957
 Accepted by USAF on October 30, 1957
Delivered to USAF on November 6, 1957
Assigned to the 346th Troop Carrier Squadron (Assault), Sewart AFB, Tennessee in August 1958.
The 346th TCS then relocated to Pope AFB, North Carolina.
In December 1958 it was at St Augustine, Florida at the Fairchild-Hiller plant for modifications.
In August 1959 the airplane was photographed at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, West Germany.
In June 1960 it was at the Middletown Air Material Area, Olmstead AFB, Pennsylvania for depot level maintenance.
The 464th Troop Carrier Wing (Assault) was formed when Air Force Reserve C-123s at Pope and at bases in Tennessee and Alabama were called to active duty in response to events in the Caribbean. In mid December 1961 the 464th TCW began to deploy to South East Asia as part of Operation Mule Train.
The route was Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, then Clark AB, The Philippines. Crews would rest, and aircraft maintained before going on to Tan Son Nhut, South Vietnam. (pages 62 & 63) One C-123 mission which was especially prominent in Vietnam, although it involved only one plane, was that of VIP support for MACV.

 A special VC-123 was assigned to MACV to transport General Westmoreland and his staff. The airplane was painted with a white top and unpainted belly, which was shined to a mirror finish. The interior of the airplane was configured with special VIP seating. Because of the overall white finish, the airplane was known as “The White Whale”. Whenever it appeared at a base in South Vietnam, everyone knew who was aboard (pages 64 & 65, Air Classics Magazine, July 1988, Sam McGowen).

While the White Whale has been known to be General Westmoreland’s personal VIP transport, in reality she was assigned as the transport for the Commander Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (COM MACV), serving General Paul Harkins from 8 Feb 62 to 20 June 64, General Westmoreland from 20 June 64 to 10 April 68, and General Creighton Abrams from 10 April 68 to 29 June 70. It’s rumored that General Abrams did not like the White Whale as it was too noisy, which may account for her being re-assigned from TSN to the Bone yard in April 1970.

Upon arrival at Tan Son Nhut, the airplane was assigned to the 2nd Advanced Echelon (ADVON), and was re-designated as a VC-123 for MACV use, In its VIP role it served not only for MACV, but also for the US Ambassador to South Vietnam, and the US Secretary of State Dean Rusk & Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during their visits to South Vietnam. The airplane also is known to transported members of Bob Hope’s cast during the 1964 Christmas show tour, Robert and Ted Kennedy, Cardinal Spellman from New York, Brigadier General (and actor) Jimmy Stewart, US Air Force Reserve and an unknown number of US Senators and Congressmen.

When not on VIP missions, the aircraft would also perform other tasks such as pay missions to radar sites along the Thailand/Laos border, and traveled to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Clark AB Philippines to name a few missions. It was assigned to the 405th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Clark AB for most of 1963, and then re-assigned to the 2nd ADVON (later Air Division) at Tan Son Nhut as a VC-123. At some point it was re-assigned to the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Detachment 1 at Tan Son Nhut. In the spring of 1969 the VIP interior was removed, and the airplane was flown to Warner-Robins Air Force Base, Georgia to have jet pods installed. Upon returning to South Vietnam she was re-designated a VC-123K.

Detachment 1, 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Republic of Vietnam


The 460th Tac Recon Wing had at least two squadrons of RF-4C Phantom II assigned.  The 460th TRW also had a Detachment 1, which comprised of 23 aircraft, 7 different airframes.


RB-57E (Canberra), four assigned: These were “Patricia Lynn” missions, flying nighttime missions with chlorophyll sensors.  The planes were painted black.  The Commander of Det 1 was always a RB-57E pilot.


VC-118 (DC-6), one assigned: This aircraft was dedicated to US Embassy support


VC-54 (DC-4), one assigned: Intertheather support


C-47 (DC-3), two assigned: one passenger, one cargo


U-3A (Cessna 310) four assigned: recon product support delivery, mainly RVN Delta


T-39A (Saberliner), ten assigned: “Scatback” recon product support & RVN + Thailand VIP support


VC-123 (Provider), one assigned: aircraft dedicated to Commander, Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV)

On April 16, 1970 the airplane was transferred to the MASDC (bone yard) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, for short term storage until November 21, 1970 when it was returned to service with the 24th Special Operations Wing, Howard AFB, Panama. Howard AFB was also the Headquarters for US Southern Command at the time, so she probably remained in VIP service for use by the Commander, Southern Command, a US Army 4 star. At some point during her assignment in Panama the highly polished sides of the fuselage were painted grey. In addition an “O” prefix was added to her tail number. The “O” prefix was meant to show an airplane was more than 10 years old, however crews began referring to such marked airplanes as being marked “obsolete”. Eventually the “O” prefix was dropped by the USAF.

It remained with the 24th Special Operations Wing until 1973, when she was then transferred to the 302nd Tactical Airlift Wing, 356th Tactical Airlift Squadron, Air Force Reserve at Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio and re-designated a UC-123K. She also received the standard tactical green & brown paint scheme. After the Vietnam war the 302nd Tactical Airlift Wing at Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio operated a small fleet of UC-123Ks that were among the last Providers in operational service. Known as the Special Spray Flight, these aircraft were used to control insect-borne diseases. Missions to Alaska, South America and Guam were among the humanitarian duties performed by this Air Force Reserve unit. The “U” designation means “Utility”, and while some aircraft belonging to the 302nd were converted into spray aircraft, there is no record of the White Whale being converted to spray configuration. During most of her time with the 356th TAS the VIP compartment remained, but the rear seats had been removed. The VIP compartment limited its cargo capacity, and it was subsequently removed sometime in 1978. She is known to have made at least one overseas trip to Mildenhall AFB, UK in 1978. She was retired to MASDC (now AMARC) as CP0059 on September 9, 1981.

In 1982 the US sold two C-123’s to El Salvador. One of these was destroyed on the ground in during an attack by rebel forces on March 21, 1984. A few days later The White Whale was selected from the MASDC inventory and she was then sold to El Salvador and flown south on March 29, 1984. She was renamed as FAES 122 (the 122nd aircraft in the El Salvador Air Force). While in El Salvador she flew cargo and troops in support of their civil war by the Escuadron de Transporte, and was taken out of service in 1994. She is currently in storage at Ilopango Air Base near San Salvador.

How did she get the name “The White Whale”?
Major Jerry Thomas, USAF Ret, served as pilot from June 63 to 64, and called her “Moby Dick”, based on the way she flew like a lumbering whale. He has provided photos with Moby Dick on the nose, and she remained so when he departed Tan Son Nhut in early July 1964. The next photo taken on December 26th, 1964 shows the new name and nose art “The White Whale”, for which she will be forever known as.

There are several other possibilities on how the “White Whale” moniker came about. One story involves a C-123 assigned to Stewart AFB NY, which was painted gloss white with orange wingtips and tail, which was common for aircraft flying DEW line support. This airplane was known as “The White Whale” at Stewart, so perhaps someone from Stewart rotated through Tan Son Nhut and shared the story with the VC-123 crew. Also during this timeframe there was a popular band called “The Turtles”, who recorded on the White Whale record label, which used a white whale as their logo.
General Westmoreland and the flying jeep
As the White Whale served as General Westmoreland’s VIP transport for 4 years, she was also known as Westmoreland’s Jungle Taxi, and it was rumored that General Westmoreland has his jeep loaded in the back, so he would have transportation wherever he went. While it sounds plausible, as the Commander of all US forces in Vietnam there is photographic evidence to support that there was no shortage of folks or vehicles on hand to meet the General wherever he went in county. MSgt Richard Benedict, who was the flight engineer relayed a story during his tour which may have started the rumor. The White Whale was schedule to fly to Clark AB, Philippines for maintenance, and the ground crew knew that transportation at Clark for TDY personnel was limited at best. An unknown ground crew member was able to “liberate” a jeep from the Army motor pool at Tan Son Nhut. The ground crew removed the rear airline seats, and loaded the jeep into the White Whale and took the jeep to Clark and then back to Tan Son Nhut. As the TDY was projected to be 15 days, and it turned out to be 33 days, having the jeep made the trip bearable while at Clark.

VIP Configuration
 While enroute to Southeast Asia as part of Operation Mule train 56-4375 stopped at the Middleboro Air Material Depot, which is now Willow Grove Air Reserve Base, outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. While the exact type of work done at this depot is not known, it is possible that this is where the VIP interior was installed. The Lockheed Company also had a facility at Middleboro that performed civilian aircraft interior installations and modifications.

It is also unknown at what time or location the top of the aircraft was painted white, but there is photographic evidence of two other C-123s with a painted white top. The first, 54-0569 assigned to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska in July 1969 and 57-6289 assigned to MATS. However The White While is also the only known C-123 to have the mirror polished fuselage sides, and it is also interesting to note that throughout her service in Southeast Asia she was the only C-123 not painted a tactical green camouflage.

There are several things that made The White Whale a VIP aircraft. The VIP interior, exterior paint scheme, and having a male flight attendant (also called a “hot cupper”) assigned. As you entered the crew door at the left front of the plane there was a bulkhead which ran the full width, with an access door in the center. The VIP compartment was small, and somewhat soundproof, but not much. On the left hand side was a table with four airplane type chairs, two facing forward and two facing aft. On the other side were two or three chairs facing forward. There was an access door at the rear of the VIP compartment, and there was a small galley on the right side between the rear VIP compartment bulkhead and the right main landing gear housing. The galley was basically a sink and electric coffee maker. There could be up to about 20 airline type seats configured in the rear of the airplane, all facing forward. On the rear cargo ramp were two sets of bunk beds for crew rest. The male flight attendant’s duty uniform was black pants, white shirt, with black bow tie.
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