War Innovation: How World War II Created Modern Air Travel

July 29, 2021 Topic: History Region: World Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIUSAAFDouglas C-54Air TravelAir War

War Innovation: How World War II Created Modern Air Travel

By mid-1945 the C-54 had come to symbolize the modern international airline system, a system that linked the entire world and reduced travel times from weeks and months to days and even hours.

Key Point: At the beginning of World War II, the globe seemed huge—covered by thousands of miles of ocean and uninhabited land mass, but by the time it ended everything had been brought closer together, thanks largely to the four-engine transports of the United States Army Air Transport Command, particularly the Douglas C-54 Skymaster.

By mid-1945 the C-54 had come to symbolize the modern international airline system, a system that linked the entire world and reduced travel times from weeks and months to days and even hours.

Designing the C-54 Skymaster

The C-54 was the result of a prewar civilian design that the Douglas Aircraft Company developed as a successor to its highly successful DC-3. The original design, later designated as the DC-4E, featured a pressurized cabin to allow high-altitude operations in relative comfort, but the design was too expensive for the cash-strapped airline industry of the Depression years and was put on hold.

Instead, the company decided to develop and market the basic DC-4, an unpressurized all-metal four-engine monoplane with transoceanic capabilities and a design that would be far less expensive than the pressurized model the company had originally envisioned to compete with Boeing’s Stratoliner. It was not until 1942 that the new airliner was ready for its first flight, and by that time the country was at war.

All the DC-4 production that had been ordered by the airlines was appropriated for military use, and it was not until the end of the war that the four-engine transport finally put on airline paint. In the interim, the C-54 had become the workhorse of the U.S. Army Air Transport Command and was perhaps the most important airplane to come out of the war. It was also one of the most costly, second only to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber in cost per model. Initial purchase costs were more than half a million dollars in 1940, and even though production costs dropped the cost per airplane was still more than a quarter of a million dollars in 1945.

Filling the Need For a Four-Engine Transport

Although little thought had been given to military air transportation in the 1920s and 1930s, by 1940 the War Department was starting to recognize the need for long-range transports, primarily to provide transportation for government officials and important dispatches to the far-flung regions of the world. A new need that developed just before the war was to return Army ferry pilots to the United States from overseas delivery points.

The newly established need for long-range transports became so great that when the Army received its first Consolidated B-24 Liberators 11 were converted into transports even though the type had been developed to fill a requirement for a long-range bomber to replace the Boeing B-17. The converted Liberators were assigned to the recently established Air Corps Ferrying Command to establish a route system over which multiengine aircraft could be delivered to the combat zones. They were also adopted as a means of delivering dispatches and transporting high-level personnel to and from England.

On July 1, 1941, Lt. Col. Caleb Haynes took off from Bolling Field outside Washington, D.C., on the first run of the “Arnold Line,” a transoceanic military airline service. Routes were soon established to other destinations; in one case an Army Liberator flew the new ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, to his assignment in Moscow.

The need for four-engine transports was so great that the War Department ordered large numbers of B-24s converted to the transport role as the C-87 Liberator Express. The Ferrying Command also had its eye on Douglas Aircraft Company’s new DC-4, which the military designated as the C-54, although the command hedged its bets by also ordering the twin-engine Curtiss C-46 Commando.

On March 26, 1942, the first C-54 made its maiden flight. Since it was a basic transport and needed no modification for military use, deliveries to the Army Air Forces began in June. The original DC-4 had been conceived as a passenger-carrying airplane; production aircraft came from the factory with fixed seats and a floor that lacked the reinforcement necessary to transport heavy cargo. Thus, they were initially assigned primarily to transport high-priority passengers and dispatches.

The First Skymasters Enter Service

The first Army C-54s were operated by civilian contract crews employed by Pan American World Airways on a scheduled run south out of Miami to Natal, Brazil. The route was soon expanded to North Africa, and by October C-54s were flying to England by way of Marrakech. Since the early C-54s were configured primarily to carry passengers, the Army requested a new model equipped with foldable metal bucket seats that would allow quick conversion from passengers to cargo, which was starting to become a major military air transport commodity as U.S. forces deployed throughout much of the world.

Designated as the C-54A, the new version did not become available for military testing until February 1943. The first operational airplanes entered service a month later. A second modification, the C-54B, was equipped with canvas seats instead of the metal buckets of the earlier version in a weight-saving move; the easily stowable seats also allowed transportation of large crates and other items of cargo, including aircraft engines and small vehicles. The B model also featured additional fuel capacity to increase range and entered service in the spring of 1944.

Between April and June 1942 the military air transportation system underwent a major overhaul as existing air transportation units were turned into troop-carrying organizations and a new Air Transport Command was established, using the headquarters for the prewar Air Corps Ferrying Command. The mission of the new ATC included ferrying of aircraft to combat units overseas as well as all air transportation not within the domain of troop carrier units.

By 1943 substantial numbers of C-54s were starting to come into the ATC inventory, and the new four-engine transports soon became favored by the pilots and crew members who  flew them. The Douglas transports were very reliable—only three would be lost at sea during the entire war, and one of those was an intentional ditching. They were also a pleasure to fly and, unlike the C-87s and C-46s, very popular with their crews.

While the Liberator had a reputation for causing a pilot to really work when flying it, the Skymaster was surprisingly light on the controls and, even though it was equipped with a reliable autopilot, pilots enjoyed taking the controls on long flights. The C-54 also featured a steerable nosewheel, a feature that allowed pilots far more control of their airplanes while taxiing and in the early stages of the takeoff roll before the rudder became effective.

Takeoffs in a C-54 were a lot safer than in a C-87 due to the increased directional control. The C-54 developed a reputation for being able to handle a sizable load of ice, and World War II lore among ATC flyers is that it was superior in this regard to the B-17 and B-24. The C-54 quickly became a favorite of the crews who flew it, and many believed it was superior to the C-87.

The best feature of the C-54, and it was also true of the Liberator and other airplanes, was that by exercising fuel management techniques pilots could increase the airplane’s range substantially. During the first years of ATC operations, there were no standardized procedures and each pilot operated by his own set of rules. Experience soon showed that pilots who operated using varying power settings were able to fly much farther than those who simply shoved the power to the firewall and left it there.

The Skymaster’s Limitations

The C-54 had one drawback—and it was a major one. Although the airplane was easy to fly and reliable, its high-altitude performance was limited. The maximum allowable ceiling was only 22,000 feet, 78 percent of the Liberator’s. Since the C-54 was not pressurized and loads often included passengers, pilots operated at much lower altitudes, and the normal cruising altitudes of 10,000 to 15,000 feet presented little problem on flights over the oceans and deserts of the world.

Mountains, however, were another issue. By 1943 the towering Himalayas were a frequent sight for ATC crews on their way to and from airfields in eastern India. In December 1942 ATC assumed the role of ferrying supplies from airfields in India to China, a mission that required operations at high altitudes over the eastern reaches of the Himalayas in order to avoid interception by Japanese fighters. The high altitudes required for the Hump fliers precluded the assignment of the C-54 to operations into China at the time.

The new Skymaster had another drawback.  Since it had been designed for airline use where it would receive regular maintenance, the C-54 suffered greatly from mechanical problems when it was operated under austere conditions such as those existing on the India-China ferry.

Skymasters in Myitkyina

Initial C-54 operations were in support of the war in Europe, as the first airplanes went to work ferrying personnel and dispatches from Miami to Natal.  It was not until mid-1943 that the C-54s made their appearance over the Pacific. The first C-54 to operate over the Pacific was an airplane that had been drawn off of the Atlantic route for a special airlift of B-24 stabilizers to Australia in response to an urgent requirement. A second C-54 was assigned to the Pacific Wing a few days later and, as more Skymasters were delivered, the numbers on Pacific routes increased.