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MASTER OF THE SKIES



In late 1935 United Air Lines began discussions with Douglas Airplane Company to produce a four engine airliner with twice the passenger capacity of the recently developed twin engine

DC-3. This four engine plane would later serve as both an airliner in peacetime, as well as an iconic transport in wartime. During this blog, we'll trace the career of that plane, the Douglas

C-54 Skymaster.


By 1936 several other airlines had shown interest in the aircraft, including American, Eastern, Pan American and TWA to the extent they jointly funded the project with United. Designated the Douglas Commercial Model Number 4 (DC-4), the new aircraft was spacious and could support 42 day passengers and 30 night passengers with full sleeping accommodations along with a private bridal suite. Additional passenger comforts were provided in the form of hair curlers, electric shavers, washrooms, toilets and wardrobes. The DC-4 had several state of the art features for its time, such as an auxiliary power system, power-boosted controls, triple fins and rudders, as well as air conditioning. The DC-4E (experimental) conducted its first test flight in June 1938, which was successful with the aircraft gaining an Approved Type Certificate in May 1939. By this time both Pan American and TWA had doubts about the aircraft due to its relatively complex control systems and ordered the Boeing 307 Stratoliner instead. United received a test plane from Douglas later that year and it was found to have excellent performance though its complex operation caused maintenance problems due to the time and expense involved. Because of this, United returned the aircraft to Douglas to make necessary modifications to satisfy airline requirements. Douglas learned from the failure of the DC-4E and began to produce a modified aircraft in 1939, which was cheaper, easier to maintain, lighter and more simple to operate. While the plane still had the DC-4 designation, it was an entirely new aircraft, designed as a four engine low wing monoplane with a retractable tricycle landing gear, single vertical tail assembly (the DC-4E had a triple tail) with a smaller wing and twenty five per cent less weight than the DC-4E. This aircraft was supported by United, Eastern and American airlines and could accommodate 40 day passengers or 28 by night.


Though orders were placed by the airlines for sixty one airliners by early 1941, none of these were delivered due to a change in defense priorities in 1940. These planes were produced at the direction of the War Department in June 1941, with the aircraft assigned the military designation of C-54 Skymaster. The USAAF not only managed production of the Skymaster, but also ordered all C-54's for military use, regardless of service. The first production run of twenty four C-54's was completed in early 1942 with the first flight conducted on February 14, 1942. Ironically, no prototype was designated for the first flight. The new Skymasters had a crew of six, consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio-operator and two relief crew. The first C-54 crews were Pan American flight crews under contract to the USAAF. This arrangement worked well, since Pan Am served a Miami to Natal Brazil route before the war. By late 1942 additional routes to both North Africa and England were flown by C-54's. In the spring of 1942, the military air transport service underwent several major changes, in which existing air transportation units were converted into troop-carrying units with a new Air Transport Command established, utilizing the headquarters of the prewar Air Corps Ferrying Command. The new ATC mission consisted of transporting personnel to combat areas, though not in the form of troop units, as well as ferrying aircraft overseas.


C-54's began delivery in quantity to the USAAF in 1943. Both pilots and crew were impressed with both the performance and smooth handling of the aircraft. Though other transports of the time, such as the Consolidated C-87 and the Curtiss C-46 were known for being heavy at the controls, the Skymaster was surprisingly light. Even though it had a reliable autopilot, pilots often preferred to take the controls on long flights. The C-54 also had the advantage of a steerable nosewheel, which allowed pilots more control of their plane while taxiing and the early stages of takeoff, before the plane came under rudder control. Perhaps the best feature of the Skymaster, true of other aircraft as well, was its fuel management. By operating the plane with varying power settings, a pilot could substantially increase its range-an important factor in overseas operations. The Skymaster was also a durable plane, with only three lost during the entire war ( one by intentional ditching). While the C-54 was an easy aircraft to fly, its major issue was high altitude performance. The Skymaster only had a service ceiling of 22,000 ft., which was about 6,000 ft. less than the C-87. This factor kept the C-54 out of service in the China-Burma-India theater for much of the war, prior to the capture of Myitkyina airfield in Burma in 1944. Though not the predominant transport in the CBI area, the Skymaster became well known in other theaters. General Douglas MacArthur replaced the B-17 he had been using as his designated aircraft with a C-54, naming it Bataan, in honor of the men who had fallen to the Japanese after he was ordered to Australia in 1942. President Franklin Roosevelt had a specially built C-54C , which he used as a presidential support aircraft. The plane included a number of unique features, such as an elevator to accommodate the president's wheelchair. Dubbed the Sacred Cow by the media, the only time Roosevelt used the aircraft was to fly to the Soviet Union for the Yalta Conference in February 1945.


With the end of the war in 1945, there was an abundance of C-54's, with USAAF aircraft requirements met by new production. A surplus of 300 aircraft were absorbed by the major airlines at $250,000 per copy-half of the 1940 price. The Skymasters were an idea choice for overseas air routes, due to their range, passenger capacity and ease of modification. However, the Skymaster would revert to its military role in 1948 due to the Berlin blockade, in which the Soviets cut off all supplies and services to the western zones of the city in an effort to force the western allies out . General William Tunner, who led a transport command in the China-Burma-India theater in World War II, was chosen to command an airlift to supply the isolated city. Tunner pressed every C-54 in the USAF inventory into service to supply the city with both food and coal. Dubbed Operation Vittles, the airlift provided a modest 5,000 tons per day during the first few months, increasing to over 8,000 tons per day for the remainder of the blockade, which ended in May 1949. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Skymasters were at the forefront of the war effort, serving as medical evacuation planes. These aircraft were specifically modified to fly wounded military personnel to evacuation hospitals in Japan, and could carry nearly 50 stretchers per aircraft. The C-54 was highly successful in this role, although it could not operate from temporary airfields formed with metal marsden mats due to its weight. Skymasters continued to serve into the 1960's, with a few aircraft serving during the Viet Nam war. Both the C-54 and its civil derivatives, the DC-4, DC-5, DC-6 and DC-7 were capable aircraft and a joy to fly.






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