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C-54 Skymaster / R5D

The C-54 Skymaster was the first transoceanic four-engine transport to see service with the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). It originated with the prototype of the Douglas DC-4 commercial design of 1939, which was adapted for military use. The plane first flew in February 1942 under the designation C-54, before introduction of the civilian version. Wartime production totaled 953 aircraft, the largest transport to be mass-produced during World War II. The Army Air Forces bought a total of 952, while the U.S. Navy purchased an additional 211 as the R5D. Eventually, the USAAF and, later, the United States Air Force (USAF) would take delivery of some 1,164 of these aircraft in seven different variants, produced from 1942 to 1947. The Navy version was called the R5D.

The Skymaster was nearly 94 feet long and just over 27 feet high, with a wingspan of 117 feet, six inches. Powered by four Pratt and Whitney R-2000-7 engines of 1,290 to 1,450 horsepower, depending on the model, the C-54 could cruise at about 240 mph with a maximum speed of 275 mph. Ceiling varied from 22,000 to 30,000 feet (in later models). As a long-haul transport, the C-54 had a range of 3,900 miles and a useful carrying capacity of 28,000 pounds of cargo or 49 personnel, in addition to a crew of six-nearly twice the load of the USAAF's primary tactical transport, the C-47.

An unpressurized airliner, the C-54 military type appeared in many variants. Early models carried only twenty-six passengers, but the manufacturer quickly introduced stretched versions to carry between forty and eighty people. The C-54B, for example, typically seated fifty medical evacuees or twenty-six stretcher cases. The C-54A represented a heavy-lift type, equipped with an oversized cargo door and capable of loading fourteen thousand pounds or more, including vehicles like trucks and road-building equipment. Later versions of the C-54 carried more than twice the payload and could fly missions of more than forty-four hundred miles at a cruising speed of 220 mph; the airplane boasted a top speed of about 285 mph.

Although overshadowed in the popular imagination by the more numerous C-47s, the Skymasters did yeoman's service in World War II and Korea. A number of executive modifications appeared, though none so well known as the "Sacred Cow," equipped for the personal use of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In June 1948, the Soviet Union decided to test the will of the other three Allied Nations by initiating the Berlin blockade. The blockade prevented any surface transportation into or out of Berlin. Berlin was located in East Germany. This meant that all supplies for the sectors of Berlin controlled by Britain, France, and the United States had to travel through East Germany, which was controlled by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union decided to block the supplies going into Berlin so that the Allies would leave Berlin.

The answer to the blockade was the Berlin Airlift. Air power would be used to fly over the roadblocks and into the city of Berlin. At the start, there were only 105 C-47 aircraft for the effort, each capable of carrying three and one-half tons of cargo. The first C-54 arrived at Rhein-Main on the morning of 01 July 1948 and the first Skymaster cleared for Tempelhof just over ten hours later. By July 2, seventeen of the big birds had reached Rhein-Main. Soon there were 54 C-54 aircraft that were able to carry 10 tons of cargo. With the arrival of the Skymasters, the average daily delivery rate began to climb, tripling from the just over 500 tons per day at the end of June. The figures for 31 July 1948 demonstrated the relative efficiency of the C-54 over the C-47: 122 C-54 sorties had delivered 1,072 tons, while 200 C-47 sorties had delivered 647 tons. As additional C-54s arrived, the C-47s returned to their home bases, leaving their crews behind.

Within five months, the effort had grown to 319 C-54 aircraft (the C-47s had been phased out) and 150 British planes of various sizes. The decision on 22 July 1948 to commit MATS drew deeply on scarce American airlift assets. The United States had a total of 866 C-54s and their variants, both military and civilian. Most were with MATS, which had 214 Air Force C-54s and 54 Navy R5Ds, a total of 268. The air force troop carrier groups had an additional 168. Beyond these, the air force had another forty or so and the Navy another eighty in various commands doing miscellaneous duties. Outside of the military, scheduled civilian airlines had 267 C-54s, 41 leased from the air force, while nonscheduled airlines had another 44. From these, and subtracting those already in Germany, air force planners calculated that 393 C-54s could be made available to the airlift in an extreme emergency. The first of these squadrons begin arriving on July 30, and all had reached Germany by mid- August, giving the airlift a total of 126 C-54s.

Maintaining the C-54s presented serious problems. First, since the few Skymasters that had operated in Europe prior to the airlift were assigned to MATS, USAFE lacked the means to support them. Supplies and parts for the aircraft were not part of the USAFE supply system; maintenance facilities capable of handling them were in short supply; and few mechanics had experience with the big birds. Second, the squadrons deployed from the United States brought only a limited number of mechanics and few parts with them; most ground personnel and stocks of supplies arrived by ship, taking several weeks to reach Europe. Conditions on the airlift compounded these problems. The Skymaster had been designed and built to fly passengers over long distances, a mission that featured few takeoffs and landings and long hours at a standard cruising speed. Now, Tunner called upon them to make a large number of short flights carrying extremely heavy loads. Frequent takeoffs under maximum power strained engines and wore out parts; repeated landings stressed tires, brakes, and the C-54's fragile nose gear. The airlift placed a tremendous burden on engines and airframes and ate up spark plugs, brakes, and tires at an incredible rate. The pounding caused by the frequent landings loosened bolts and rivets and fractured metal pieces.

The best evidence of the progress made in developing a strong maintenance capability came between April and July 1949 when the airlift averaged better than 190,000 tons of cargo per month, some 60,000 tons per month more than during the previous four months, although the number of aircraft assigned to Operation Vittles remained virtually unchanged.

Children gathered near the Templehof Airport in Berlin to watch the C-54s landing at three-minute intervals. One particular C-54 on approach would wiggle its wings and small white parachutes carrying candy bars and chewing gum would pop out of the aircraft to the delight of the children. The pilot of this aircraft was Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen of Garland, Utah. Known by many nicknames, such as the Candy Bomber, The Chocolate Flier (Der Schokoladen-flieger) and Uncle Wiggly-Wings (Onkel Wackelflugel), Halvorsen became symbolic of the humanitarian nature of the airlift. Before the end of the Airlift, other pilots and crews joined in and dropped a total of 23 tons of candy to the children of Berlin.

During the winter, the problem got worse. The airlift now had to include heating fuel (mostly coal) as well as other cold weather supplies. Amazingly, the Berliners made it through the winter with the supplies. By April 1949, life was a little better as the airlift had grown to the point that 12,940 tons were delivered by 1,398 flights in one day. This record-setting effort was nearly three times what was estimated for Berlin's daily survival. In May 1949, almost one year after they began, the Russians conceded that they could not isolate Berlin. They lifted the blockade. Berlin Airlift Device is a gold color metal miniature of a C-54 type aircraft of 3/8 inch (.95cm) wingspan. The device is awarded to indicate 90 days consecutive service between 26 Jun 1948 and 30 Sep 1949. It is worn on the service and suspension ribbons of the Army of Occupation Medal.

Major lessons learned from the Berlin Airlift included the need for more airlifters larger than the C-54 (which helped procure the C-124 in 1950), that joint and combined operations could be highly successful, and that airlift could carry people and cargo anywhere in the world, under any conditions.

The end of the Skymasters's useful life was fast approaching. By November 1952, they would reach 14,400 hours, passing their "second line life." Flying them beyond that date could be done only with excessive operational risks. New aircraft on the horizon-but not yet in the inventory-would have to begin reaching Germany in 1950 to continue the airlift beyond 1952. The "48 Group Program" then in effect for Fiscal Year (FY) 1949 included the delivery of fifty, four-engine Boeing C-97 "Stratofreighters" between July 1949 and March 1950, and if Congress approved the air force's proposed "57 Group Program," a further fifty-four C-97s would be purchased. More significantly, the "48 Group Program" also authorized the purchase of giant Douglas C-124 Globemaster Ils, a development of the C-74.

Three World War II-era transport planes served in Korea: the C-46 Commando, the C-47 Skytrain, and the C-54 Skymaster. The three were designed to carry troops or equipment, and the C-47 and C-54 also had provisions to carry cargo under the fuselage. The Skytrain and the Skymaster could both carry paratroops, but the Commando proved inadequate for this mission because its tail often fouled the parachutes. All three aircraft filled an airlift role in Korea, supplying everything from aircraft engines, ammunition, medical supplies, rations, and fresh fruit. In the winter of 1950, C-54 aircraft were used to airlift over 900 Korean orphans from Kimpo during Operation CHRISTMAS KIDLIFT.

IVY was a two-detonation atmospheric nuclear weapon test series conducted during October and November of 1952 at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshal1 Islands. One of the two events was designated MIKE and was the first thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb. A C-54G (No. 45-575) aircraft and its crew were borrowed from MATS to substitute for the RB-50 as a platform a camera crew of 5 men from Lookout Mountain Laboratory (LML). The aircraft was assigned a shot-time position of 50 nmi (93 km) northeast of Elugelab [aka Eluklab] at 10,000 feet (3.05 komn) a northwesterly heading. Following initial pictures of the MIKE detonation and cloud, it was to photograph the MIKE crater as soon as possible following the shot. About 1 hour after the shot, the plane began its photographic runs. On the third run, it encountered heavy fallout at 2,500 feet (750 meters) and was forced to leave the area and rtoe turn Kwajalein for decontamination. Upon landing at Kwajalein, it was found that debris had pitted the windshield, four propellers were chipped, and decals were scrubbed off the nose and leading edges of the wings. All LML film was ruined by radiation exposure.

The C-54 Skymaster and its civilian counterpart, the DC-4, served as transitional aircraft to the post-World War II standard of four-engine, high-tonnage intercontinental transports. Like the C-47, dozens of C-54 transports soldiered on into the postwar era at Air Force and allied bases on every continent.

Two Navy MATS squadrons -- VR-6 and VR-8 -- carried the banner of naval aviation in the 20th century miracle of air transport, the Berlin Airlift. In their first two months of operations the two Navy squadrons flew 31,621.1 tons of supplies into Berlin in 3036.5 sorties. VR-6, stationed in Guam, suddenly was torn loose from its coral foundations, and VR-8 traded the sunny skies of Honolulu for the cold fogs of Berlin. At the beginning the Navy received considerable kidding from their Air Force colleagues for their peculiar nautical terminology. The Air Force soon learned, however, that the runway is the deck, left is port and right starboard, that a latrine is a head, and a C-54 is an R5D. VR-8's record was particularly enviable. On 16 December the squadron flew 51 sorties to set an Airlift record for number of trips flown by an individual squadron during a 24-hour period.

The Coast Guard acquired fifteen Douglas R5D's, the Navy's version of the famous DC-4 (the Army Air Force's/Air Force's designation was C-54). This aircraft was the backbone of the effort to save Berlin during the Soviet blockade of that city between 1948 and 1949. Apparently one of the R5D's acquired by the Coast Guard from the Air Force still had coal dust in the cabin area.

The first six aircraft were acquired in 1945 and were used for transport duties, logistical support, search and rescue operations, duty with the International Ice Patrol, electronic tests (LORAN testing--these were EC-54U aircraft), and photographic mapping flights (RC-54V aircraft). Nine were acquired from the Navy while the other six were acquired from the Air Force. They remained in service up to 1962 although one R5D stayed on the Coast Guard's inventory until 1965.

These aircraft were stationed at air stations Elizabeth City, Barbers Point, and San Francisco. At least three were detailed to the International Ice Patrol and flew out of Argentia. These aircraft replaced the Boeing PB-1's that had pioneered the use of aircraft to survey the iceberg fields, supplementing the use of cutters that had sailed on the Patrol since its inception in 1912. The R5D's first patrol began during the 1958 ice season. These aircraft took part in a number of experiments, including the use of Thermite bombs to melt icebergs.

A 1,000-pound thermite bomb enclosing a cluster of small bomblets, each capable of burning at a temperature of 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit, road under the wing of a Coast Guard UF-2G amphibian plane toward an iceberg target in the foggy Grand Banks region of Newfoundland. The temperature of one bomblet equals half the sun's surface temperature. This bomb was one of twenty cluster bomb of thermite and petroleum types air-dropped on selected icebergs during heat destruction tests made by the International Ice Patrol force in June, at the height of the 1959 heavy ice season. Above the bomb carrier is a large passenger type Coast Guard R5D plane, one of three used on regular ice observation flights out of Argentia, Nfld.

The more modern R5Ds this year replaced old World War II B-17 bomber type planer with plexiglass noses where ice observation instruments and carries a crew of about seven. Ice is observed from many windows. Averaging 6 to 8 hour ice observation flights, the R5D patrols an area of about 14,000 square miles in the Grand Banks region.

They also led the way with a new high visibility paint scheme, consisting of fluorescent orange, white and black, that was adopted by the Coast Guard in the 1950's. The R5D plane wore one of the new paint schemes currently being tested for easy air visibility by the U.S. Coast Guard on its various planes. In place of the dull silver gray and orange trim formerly used, the new dress is made of glowing fluorescent colors--orange nose, wing tips, tail and body strip with black edgings, and main body in brilliant white.

The R5D's were last used on the International Ice Patrol during the 1962 season and were then replaced with the new Lockheed HC-130 B Hercules aircraft.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:28:45 ZULU