The big Curtiss C-46 Commando transport of World War II was a milestone in air transport. With a wingspan greater than that of a four-engine B-17, the C-46 used a pair of R-2800 radial engines to get it aloft at a gross weight of 56,000 pounds. It was the largest twin-engine aircraft in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
Military Commandos hauled troops and carried vehicles and light aircraft, loaded through a large aperture in the left side of the fuselage.
The C-46 in popular literature has been viewed as a maintenance-prone airlifter when compared with the smaller Douglas C-47. And yet the Commando’s weight-lifting and altitude performance made it the star of the ongoing Allied airlift over the Himalayas in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.
Peace in 1945 cut short the production of C-46s after more than 3,000 were built. The War Assets Administration (WAA) worked with the Air Force to make C-46s available to civilian operators.
Type Certificates 789 and 808 were among those issued for civilianized C-46s.
Curtiss-Wright had the type certificate for rebuilding the C-46E variant, recognizable for its use of a stepped windscreen that gave this model the moniker of dolphin-nosed C-46.
Slick Airways held another type certificate, and United Services for Air had type certificates for reworking C-46A, D, and F models of the Commando.
Surplus Commandos initially were offered by the government at prices around $10,000 to $15,000. By October 1947, that had been cut to only $5,000 in an effort to move more C-46s into the private sector.
The available pool of the aircraft in government storage at that time was numbered at 627 Commandos. The largest holding was at Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. The C-46s could be purchased for 15% down with the balance due in 36 monthly payments.
The government also offered a flat $300 monthly lease on C-46s to private operators. Historian Joseph P. Juptner said about 100 such leases were made with civilian companies from 1947 to 1949, including to Pan American, Eastern, National, and Delta airlines. The leased C-46s were returned to the government by 1953.
In April 1948, the Air Force withdrew hundreds of C-46s from public sale. Some speculated this reflected a smaller-than-hoped-for market for the big transports; others opined it meant the Air Force had other uses for the aircraft.
Meanwhile, United Services for Air (USAir) had an enterprise at Niagara Falls, New York, that converted Commandos and offered them for $23,595 under the name Cargoliner. USAir said considerable re-engineering was needed to make a civilianized C-46 that met the requirements of the type certificate. Most of the conversions were used as cargo haulers; some could be airliners, with rows of windows added.
USAir manufactured C-46 parts as needed, and this contributed substantially to the company’s bottom line in the late 1940s. The company even became a vendor of C-46 parts to the Air Force, which kept some of the transports in service.
So lucrative was the C-46 for USAir that it established a second facility in Buffalo, New York, and a third operation in West Palm Beach, Florida, strategically located to service C-46s operated in Central and South America.
At one point in 1948, USAir had a pool of 25 surplus C-46s to upgrade and civilianize. The company figured more than 300 C-46s were still available at a variety of surplus airfield locations. USAir offered a pool program, in which individual purchasers could join a pool of buyers for at least five C-46s, with economies realized when all the aircraft in the pool were scheduled to go through the refurbishing line at one time.
Post-war users showed a preference for flying smaller surplus Douglas C-47s, converted to DC-3 airliner standards, as passenger aircraft while the bigger C-46s excelled as freighters, but there were crossovers of both types in freight and passenger service. Passenger C-46 conversions were officially limited to 62 passengers when modified. Three emergency exits, in addition to the main entry door, were required.
More than two dozen civilian C-46s in U.S. registration crashed between the late 1940s and 1980s. Factors included weather, maintenance, and pilot error.
One mishap that caught the public eye was the Oct. 29, 1960, Ohio takeoff crash of a C-46 on a charter flight carrying the Cal Poly Mustangs college football team. Twenty-two of the 48 people onboard died, including 16 football players and two others associated with the team. Mishap investigators said the crash was influenced by a one-ton overload, a premature liftoff, partial loss of power on one engine, and weather conditions at the time of takeoff.
A second C-46 arrived to take the deceased back to California. The tragedy made national headlines.
As heart-rending as the mishap was, the old veteran C-46 Commando deserves a better epitaph.
Commandos continued to haul freight across the United States for more than two decades, their numbers dwindling with age. And still a few may be seen and heard, far north of the Lower 48 states, where freight needs to move.
Until about eight years ago, the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force flew a silver C-46 nicknamed “China Doll” to air shows. Time and the cost of avgas burning at 160 to 180 gallons per hour caught up with China Doll, and the CAF Wing had to make the decision to keep it on the ground for static tours at its base in Camarillo, according to group public information officer Pat Brown.
The city of Monroe, North Carolina, owns a restored C-46 called “Tinker Belle” that attends aviation events.
Many museums around the country include a C-46 in their static displays, a permanent tribute to a transitory time.
(Many of the photos used in this article were generously provided by Gerald L. Balzer)