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My dad told me a number of stories about flying in an aircraft during World War II, in which the aircrews could transport their gear by driving a jeep up a ramp into the plane. That plane, the Curtiss C-46 Commando, played a pivotal role in World War II, as well as Korea and Viet Nam. During the course of this blog, we’ll follow the service of the Commando in a number of tasks for which it was uniquely suited.
Development of the C-46 began in 1937 by Curtiss-Wright as the CW-20 airliner. The CW-20 was initially developed through private funding for the purpose of competing with the four-engine Douglas DC-4 and the Boeing Stratoliner by offering a pressurized cabin. However, the CW-20 cabin provided an edge in pressurization over the previous two aircraft due to a figure-eight or double-bubble fuselage, which enabled it to better withstand the pressure differential at high altitudes. This was accomplished by having the sides of the fuselage creased at the level of the floor, not only separating the two sections, but sharing the stress of each, rather than merely supporting itself. This concept allowed the main spar of the wing to pass through the bottom section, which was designed for cargo without disturbing the upper passenger compartment. The emphasis in the design of the CW-20 was one of simplicity coupled with economy, which dictated a twin-engine concept as opposed to a four-engine one.
After an intensive series of wind tunnel tests, the CW-20 in its final form had a streamlined fuselage with the cockpit area blended as a glazed dome. In spite of its aerodynamic appearance, the aircraft had a large capacity for its day and could comfortably seat thirty-four passengers. The engines featured a unique nacelle tunnel cowl, in which air was ducted in and expelled through the bottom of the cowl, reducing turbulent airflow and induced drag across the upper wing surface. Though Curtiss-Wright approached a number of airlines to sign contracts for the CW-20, only 25 letters of intent were received. However, CW management decided there was enough potential to begin production. The initial configuration of the CW-20 included twin vertical tail surfaces with the aircraft powered by two 1,700 hp. Wright Cyclone engines. After a successful test flight in March 1940, the aircraft was fitted with a large single tail to improve performance at low speeds. As a result of tests later that year, General Henry “Hap” Arnold became interested in the potential of the twenty as a military transport and ordered 46 CW-20As in September 1940. This order was later increased to 200 planes. Now designated the C-46, the aircraft received enlarged cargo doors, a more durable load floor and a convertible cabin, which allowed ease of change in carrying freight and troops. Perhaps the most important modification was the upgrade to the 2,000 hp. Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines, giving the C-46 the ability to fly on a single engine for extended periods.
By December 7, 1941 only two of the proposed two-hundred aircraft of the 1940 order had been delivered to the USAAF. The Commando was well suited to operations in the Pacific Theater, due to its heavier payload, longer range, faster cruising speed and higher altitude over the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. The surface area of the Commando’s wing was also greater than either the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress or the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, the largest USAAF bombers in service at the time. With a service ceiling of nearly 28,000 ft., the C-46 was the prime mover in flying cargo over the Himalaya Mountains to troops and bases in China in desperate need. This effort gained importance during the early phases of B-29 operations from China launched against the Japanese home islands. While other transports had been employed in the area, the C-46 proved the most versatile and durable aircraft, in overcoming adverse weather conditions, heavy cargo loads, mountain terrain and poorly equipped runways, which remained a constant challenge. During the course of its service in the China, Burma, India and Pacific areas, the Commando experienced a number of mechanical problems, primarily with the Curtiss-Electric pitch control mechanism on the propellers. However, once the pitch control mechanism had been removed the incidence of mechanical problems began to decrease. The US Marines found the C-46 (R5C) useful in both flying supplies to island bases and evacuating wounded personnel from unimproved runways.
Though the Commando played a vital role in the CBI and Pacific areas, it was not deployed in significant numbers to Europe until March 1945, when it complemented existing C-47 Skytrain transports during Operation Varsity, the airborne effort in support of Allied forces crossing the Rhine. Though the C-46s sustained a twenty-five per cent loss rate, this was largely due to delayed upgrades of self-sealing fuel tanks with the aircraft particularly vulnerable during low altitude air drops. While the plane overall had been successful during World War II, after undergoing a number of modifications, its airline service after the war became limited due to both higher fuel and maintenance costs over the C-47/DC-3. However, a number of surplus C-46s were used by small airlines, such as the Flying Tigers and World Airways to carry both cargo and passengers over mountainous and jungle areas of South America, where vehicle transport would be impractical. C-46s were flown in support of Israel’s war for independence in 1948, flying both cargo and bombing missions. Commandos flew resupply missions for Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces in the civil war against Mao’s Communist forces in China. In the early 1950s, C-46s flew clandestine missions in both Korea and French Indo-China, dropping both agents and supplies behind enemy lines. The CIA formed its own airline for these operations, Civil Air Transport, later renamed Air America. The C-46 also flew supplies in support of the Bay Of Pigs invasion in 1961, as well as counterinsurgency operations in Viet Nam until being replaced in that role by the C-130 in 1968.
While the Commando experienced a number of mechanical problems during its service, such as fuel system and fluid leaks, these were primarily solved by maintenance in the field. Though the C-46 required about 50% more maintenance hours over the C-47, the Commando was both a larger and a more capable aircraft, performing a variety of missions for our nation at a critical time.
In 1939 Trans World Airlines was becoming a major competitor with Pan American Airlines for the emerging overseas route service. While TWA contracted with Lockheed to develop an aircraft to rival the performance and capacity of the Boeing Stratoliner, a major stockholder of TWA requested Lockheed to build an even greater plane-one which would ultimately define both an airline and an era of aviation.
Though Lockheed had been working on the L-044 Excalibur since 1937, Howard Hughes, the majority stockholder of Trans World, requested Lockheed develop an even more capable aircraft with a forty passenger capacity and a range of 3,500 miles. The new design, the L-049 Constellation, was a radical departure from previous airliners. The tripletail configuration kept the aircraft’s height low enough to fit in existing hangars. The wing layout was similar to another Lockheed plane, the P-38 Lightning. The L-049 featured such innovations as hydraulically boosted controls and a de-icing system used on wing and tail surfaces and mounted tricycle landing gear. The Constellation had an impressive performance for its day, being able to attain a maximum speed of 375 mph. with a cruising speed of 340 mph. – faster than many fighters of the era, with a service ceiling of 24,000 ft.
While intended for use as an airliner, the L-049s which entered service for TWA in January 1943 were quickly converted to military transports with the USAAF ordering 202 aircraft. The military designation, C-69, was used primarily as a long-range troop transport. Though the C-69 was successful in its role, only 22 aircraft were produced during the war. A number remained in service with the USAF into the 1960s, ferrying relocating military personnel. Lockheed even had plans to develop the L-049 as a long-range bomber (XB-30), but the design was never pursued.
Following World War II the Constellation began its heyday. USAAF C-69 transports were completed as civil airliners with TWA accepting its first aircraft in October 1945, initiating its first transatlantic flight from Washington DC to Paris in December of that year. During the late 1940s, the Constellation was upgraded several times to increase fuel capacity and speed. Finally, in early 1951 the Super Constellation was introduced. The Super Connie was extended 18.4 ft. over the L-1049 (L-049). to expand passenger capacity to ninety- two seats with a cruising speed of 305 mph. and a range of 5,150 miles. With auxiliary wing-tip fuel tanks, the Super Constellation could fly non-stop between New York and Los Angeles. Some pilots used to shorter runs began to complain about long days. An early problem with the 1049 Model was excessive exhaust gas flaming-sometimes past the trailing wing edge. Once the exhaust problem was corrected, the Super Connie became a highly successful airliner.
In 1955 the Constellation underwent additional updates. Though still called the Super Constellation, the Model 1649 aircraft was first designated the Super Star Constellation, finally evolving into the Starliner name by Lockheed. The Starliner was the most extensive modification of any Constellation models. The Starliner had features such as fully reclining seats for long flights, a more precise cabin temperature control, and ventilation, as well as state of the art noise insulation. The Starliner had outside improvements which included a longer and narrower wing, nearly doubling the capacity of the original Connie with twice the range at maximum payload-enabling it to reach any major European air hub non-stop from US airports. The Model 1649 also has the distinction of being the fastest piston-engined airliner flown at ranges of over 4,000 miles.
The Constellation served a number of military roles, in addition to a troop transport. In 1948 the USAF placed an order for ten Constellation transport aircraft (C-121). Several of these were deployed in support of the Berlin Airlift later that year. Six of the planes were later reconfigured to VIP transports (VC-121), one of which was used by Dwight Eisenhower as NATO Chief Of Staff. Eisenhower was so impressed with the plane, he named it Columbine. When he became President he was assigned another VC-121, which he named Columbine II. In the early 1950s, the US Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps ordered C-121s mounted with radar domes on top to provide long-range radar for surface ships, as well as surveillance radar for command and control of aircraft. In the early 1960s, EC-121s briefly performed an anti-submarine role for the US Navy.
By the end of the 1950s, the Constellation became an aviation icon. It was in service with more than a dozen airlines, quickly becoming the flagship of Trans World Airlines. The Connie was in service with both the US military and several other government agencies, with duties ranging from tracking smugglers to hurricanes. Though expensive to build due to its tapered fuselage, the Constellation was a graceful aircraft. While being rapidly phased out by the major airlines in 1961 in favor of newer jetliners such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, the Connie was still in use with a number of regional airlines with 856 examples built. Howard Hughes gamble in 1939 had paid off in a big way.
When one considers prominent German-Americans, names such as Eisenhower, Nimitz, Kaiser and Kissinger come to mind. However, another German-American, not often cited, may leave perhaps a greater legacy.
William E. Boeing was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1881 to Wilhelm Boing from Hagen-Hohenlimburg Germany and Marie M. Ortmann from Vienna, Austria. The senior Boeing was a mining engineer, who became wealthy as a result of holdings of timber lands and mineral rights near Lake Superior. After study abroad in Switzerland, Boing added an e to his name, to make it sound more Anglo. He then entered Yale, but left before graduating to join the family timber business in 1903. Buying a large tract of forest on the Pacific side of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington, Boeing began building boats as well as acquiring several lumber operations.
During a business trip to Seattle in 1909, Boeing saw his first plane and soon developed a keen interest in aviation. Within a few months, Boeing was taking flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Plant in Los Angeles and had ordered a Martin TA Hydoraeroplane. Martin even sent one of his test pilots up to Seattle to give Boeing lessons on site. When the test pilot crashed the aircraft during a test flight, he informed Boeing replacement parts would not be available for months. The problem frustrated Boeing, who had just received his pilot’s certificate. After studying both the plane and the parts distribution at Martin, Boeing approached a friend of his, Commander George Conrad Westervelt, USN. When Boeing suggested to Westervelt that they could build their own plane in less time, Westervelt agreed and they formed their own aircraft company – B&W. Their first aircraft, the B&W seaplane was an instant success with Boeing purchasing an old boat factory on the Duwamish River outside Seattle.
When the United States entered World War I, Boeing and Westervelt received a government contract for fifty of the B&W seaplanes, with Boeing changing the name of fledgling company to Pacific Aero Products Company. By the end of the war, Boeing began to emphasize commercial aircraft, in addition to providing a government sponsored air mail service.
The air mail service was a result of the commercial aviation market flooded with surplus World War I aircraft, which were relatively inexpensive compared with the cost of new models. Boeing had to diversify at this point, selling furniture, and a series of flat-bottomed boats called sea sleds. Within a few years, Boeing began to realize a profit from the overhaul of government aircraft and the sale of a few new models. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Boeing would become a major producer of fighter planes for the Army Air Corps.
In 1925 federal law allowed public bid for air mail contracts. Boeing received the contract, but needed a fleet of twenty six planes to serve the Chicago to San Francisco route by July 1, 1927. As a guarantee, Boeing drew $500,000 of his own money to serve as a bond for the effort. These aircraft were composed of Boeing’s latest design, the Model 40, which had an open cockpit for the pilot with an enclosed cabin for two additional passengers. The mail service proved to be an unexpected market coup for Boeing, allowing him to haul passengers for a fee and start a new airline, Boeing Air Transport. It wasn’t long before Boeing cornered the market in both aviation sectors.
In 1929 Boeing acquired Pacific Air Transport, merging it with both the Boeing Airplane Co. and Boeing Air Transport. The new company was named United Aircraft And Transport Company. Later the same year, United purchased both the Pratt&Whitney engine and Hamilton Standard Propeller companies, as well as Chance Vaught Aircraft. To expand its airline service, Boeing acquired National Air Transport the following year.
By 1934 Boeing’s success began to draw the attention of the federal government. In June of that year the Air Mail Act was passed by Congress, by which aircraft manufacturers had to divest themselves of any airline services. As a result of this split, Boeing’s holdings were formed into three companies: United Aircraft Corporation, which manufactured aircraft in the eastern United States (now United Technologies Company), Boeing Airplane Company, manufacturing aircraft in the western United States and United Airlines, which served the air routes.
A week after the Air Mail Act was passed Boeing resigned as chairman and sold his stock in the firm. However, shortly after his resignation, William Boeing received the coveted Daniel Guggenheim Medal for achievement in the field of aviation. During World War II, he came out of retirement to act as an advisor to the company to meet the demands of combat aircraft development. The company he started in 1916 went on to develop such influential aircraft as the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-29 Superfortress, B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress. Boeing produced an equally impressive series of airliners, starting with the Stratoliner in 1939, the world’s pressurized airliner, the jet powered 707, 727, 737, and the Boeing 747, the world’s first Jumbo Jet. A recent first for Boeing was the successful development and production of the 787 Dreamliner, the first jetliner in service made of carbon-fiber materials. Boeing is now involved in the space technology sector, in addition to the production of aircraft. Not bad for someone who made the decision to build his own plane in 1916.
This article is the last of a series about the heroes of aviation.
The recent discovery of an aluminum panel on Nikumaroro atoll in the South Pacific has renewed interest in the search for the Lockheed Electra flown by the aviatrix Amelia Earhart. During this blog, we will follow the development of the Electra, as well as its civil and military roles.
In spite of the Great Depression, the early 1930s was a time of expanded air traffic, in both the passenger and cargo categories. Lockheed developed the Electra to compete with the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC 2. The Electra was the first all metal plane built by Lockheed and complied with a 1934 federal requirement that all aircraft carrying mail had to be powered by more than one engine, due to a series of crashes with single engine planes. It was also Lockheed’s first major move toward becoming a key manufacturer of transport aircraft. The Electra was a cantilever low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction, with retractable tailwheel landing gear and a tail unit incorporating twin fins and rudders. The prototype was first flown in 1934, with the Model 10 entering service later that year. By the late 1930s the Electra was flown by eight major airlines, resulting in a production run of 148 aircraft.
However, it began to decline in both the cargo and passenger roles by the beginning of World War II, due to the introduction of larger aircraft types such as the Boeing Stratoliner. The Electra was relatively easy to fly and could be modified for a variety of tasks. A modified Electra was used to conduct wing de-icing tests with a system that utilized hot gasses from the engine exhausts. Sidney Cotton, an Australian executive who used an Electra Model 12 for business trips, modified the plane to carry cameras, taking clandestine photographs of German and Italian military installations over a three month period just before the beginning of World War II. Perhaps the two most famous flights of the Electra were that of Amelia Earhart, in her attempted around the world flight in 1937 and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 meeting in Munich with Adolf Hitler.
While civil interest in the Electra began to decline, the military potential of the plane increased. Lockheed, in an effort to promote foreign sales, sent cutaway drawings of the plane in 1937 to various publications, displaying the aircraft as both a civilian airliner and a converted military bomber. The following year, the British purchased a modified version of the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra airliner to supplement its Avro Anson maritime patrol aircraft, the Lockheed planes designated as the Hudson Mk I. The aircraft quickly entered production with 78 aircraft available to the RAF by the start of the war in September 1939. The RAF received an additional 410 planes via the Lend Lease program. The Hudson was originally armed with two fixed Browning machine guns in the nose along with two .30 cal. machine guns in a dorsal turret. As the war progressed, the Hudson’s armament increased with the addition of two waist guns and a single ventral gun.
Operationally, the Hudson achieved a number of firsts. It was the first aircraft deployed from the British Isles to shoot down an enemy aircraft in October 1939. A Hudson was the first US plane to sink a German U boat (U 656) and the first Canadian aircraft to do the same (U 754), both in 1942. In 1941, an attack by an RAF Hudson based in Iceland forced U 570 to surface, causing the submarine’s crew to display a white flag and surrender – the aircraft being the first to capture a warship. In the Pacific, the Hudson was equally effective, with an RAAF Hudson being the first to make an attack on the Japanese Troopship Awazisan Maru off the Malayian coast, an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Saburo Sakai and other Japanese aces have praised both the durability and maneuverability of the Hudson in protracted aerial combat.
While outclassed by larger bombers later in the war, the Hudson was available at a time when it was most needed. Although difficult to take off and land, it was easy to fly. It was a versatile aircraft, performing a variety of missions ranging from antisubmarine patrols to transporting agents behind enemy lines, as well as a trainer aircraft for bomber pilots. The Hudson was noted by its pilots for exceptional agility for a twin-engine plane. Perhaps the most enduring tribute to the Hudson was it spawned the development of two other successful Lockheed aircraft, the Ventura and the P-38 Lightning.