Big Brother is Flying
If the C-47/R4D Skytrain—the military version of the Douglas DC-3 airliner—was the most successful transport aircraft of the World War II era, its big brother, the C-54/R5D Skymaster, was certainly a runner up. Shortly after the twin-engine DC-3 first flew in late 1935, a Douglas engineering team led by A. E. Raymond and E. F. Burton began work on a larger and simpler variant of the aircraft. The DC-4E ("E" for experimental) flew on 7 June 1938, but they soon realized that an entirely new design was needed.1
Supported by several U.S. airlines, the Douglas design team developed the definitive DC-4—a four-engine aircraft with a tricycle landing gear (the DC-3 was a "tail-dragger," with a tail wheel). Douglas began production of the DC-4 at Santa Monica, California, in 1939. Subsequently, production also took place at a Douglas plant in Chicago. Even before the United States entered World War II, on 28 June 1941, the Army commandeered the DC-4 production line, assigning the designation C-54 to an aircraft already referred to as the Skymaster.2
The aircraft's first flight—in military markings—took place on 26 March 1942. The basic production aircraft was configured to carry up to seven tons of cargo, with outsize doors on the left side. It was, however, convertible to carry 30 passengers or 50 troops. Some were configured as flying ambulances. Besides a greater payload, some C-54 variants had a range some 1,500 statute miles greater than that of the C-47/R4D.
Navy interest in the aircraft was immediate, and the first Navy aircraft-designated R5D-1-flew on 22 February 1943.3 The exact number of Skymasters acquired by the Navy differs according to source; the service probably had 206 of the aircraft. These were duplicates of those flown by the Army Air Forces (AAF) with related designations. The Navy most likely acquired 58 R5D-1 (C-54A), 30 R5D-2 (C-54B), 98 R5D-3 (C-54D), and 20 R5D-4 (C-54E) aircraft; several upgraded -2 and -3 models were redesignated R5D-5. The R5D-2 had additional fuel tanks, pushing its range to more than 3,000 miles, while several aircraft were fitted with relatively plush accommodations to serve as flying flagships for senior Navy officers.
The AAF also flew a few VIP-configured aircraft, the most famous being the Sacred Cow, a modified C-54A for use by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He first flew in it in February 1945 to travel from Malta to Saki airfield in the Crimea for the Yalta Conference. The plane—the first ever assigned to a President on a permanent basis—had an elevator and other features to handle President Roosevelt's wheelchair, conference rooms, and four staterooms. Redesignated VC-54C, the plane was later used by President Harry S. Truman. One C-54B was transferred to Britain for Prime Minister Churchill. General Douglas MacArthur had his personal C-54, named Bataan, and in 1945 a C-54E was presented to French General Charles de Gaulle. (In addition to the single British C-54B that had plush appointments, including—it has been said—an electrically heated toilet seat, the Royal Air Force flew 22 C-54Ds as transports during the war.)
Most U.S. Navy R5Ds were flown by transport (VR) squadrons. However, VRE-1, a large R5D ambulance squadron established in 1944 to evacuate Navy and Marine wounded from Pacific combat areas to Hawaii and the United States, also flew them.
More than 1,000 Skymasters were delivered by the end of the war, with the Navy taking its last R5D in May 1945. After the war the Navy planes continued to serve with the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) as well as with separate fleet VR and Marine transport (VMR) squadrons. Aircraft configured for passengers were given the suffix R (as R5D-3R), and VIP aircraft were designated Z.
With the establishment of the joint Military Air Transport Service (MATS) on 1 January 1948, NATS was disestablished and three Navy VR squadrons were shifted to the new command, which provided long-haul transport for all of the Department of Defense.4 Other Navy R5D squadrons remained with fleet logistic units. Later that year, Air Force and Navy Skymasters began flying the Berlin airlift from bases in the Western powers' German occupation zones. In control of eastern Germany, the Soviet Union had cut off its erstwhile Allies' land access to the former German capital. Using three air corridors, U.S. and British military and civil aircraft carried in food, supplies, and even coal to the western sectors of Berlin.
Navy transport squadrons VR-6 (from Guam) and VR-8 (from Honolulu) provided 22 R5Ds to the effort, joining 319 Air Force C-54s in supplying the besieged city. Thirty-eight Air Force C-54Ms were stripped to serve as aerial coal carriers. Although several aircraft types were employed in the airlift—Operation Vittles—by most criteria the C-54/R5D was the most efficient.
The Soviet land blockade ended in May 1949, but the airlift to Berlin continued to build up a three-month reserve of food. During the actual period of the blockade, U.S. aircraft flew 131,378 round-trips to Berlin and back to Western airfields, the British made 49,733 flights, and civil aircraft 13,378. They carried more than 1.5 million tons of freight into the city between 26 June 1948 and 11 May 1949.
After the blockade ended, U.S. military aircraft continued to fly the air corridors into and from Berlin. Among the Air Force C-54s that did so was at least one configured with clandestine electronic intercept receivers to monitor Soviet communications and radar signals as it flew along the 100-plus-mile-long corridors.
Halfway around the world, in the early 1960s the Air Force flew another electronic intercept aircraft during the early U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. This dedicated EC-54U sought out the location of Viet Cong radio transmitters. It carried electronic intercept and infrared detectors, and cameras. Based at Tan Son Nhut in Saigon, the plane flew 102 sorties in 1962-63 before being replaced by similarly modified EC-97G aircraft, converted from KC-97G tankers. Several Air Force and Navy aircraft were fitted for various research roles.
In addition to the Navy and Marine Corps, the U.S. Coast Guard acquired and flew R5Ds. Fifteen were in Coast Guard service between 1945 and the mid-1960s. They were used for search and rescue (SAR), the international ice patrol, LORAN station calibration, and transport. The Air Force also flew the aircraft in the SAR role—designated SC-54 and later HC-54—with their VIP transports becoming VC-54 and trainer-configured aircraft TC-54. In 1962 the Department of Defense established a joint designation scheme for all military aircraft, and all surviving Navy and Coast Guard R5Ds became C-54s.
By that time a large number of new transport and cargo aircraft were entering U.S. military service, and the C-54s were rapidly discarded. The last Navy Skymaster on the ledger was a C-54Q used by the Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. It was flown until 1974.
Although the R5D/C-54 never achieved the production numbers, variety of configurations, or fame of the R4D/C-47 Skytrain—more commonly called the Gooney Bird or Dakota—the four-engine aircraft had an important role in U.S. military operations for almost three decades. Indeed, its range of almost 4,000 statute miles enabled the Skymaster to carry out missions that were impossible for other transport aircraft.
2. Experimental variants of the aircraft were designated XC-114, XC-115, and XC-116.
3. R indicated transport (T was then used for torpedo planes) and D was for Douglas; the 5 indicated the fifth Navy transport aircraft developed by Douglas.
4. MATS was changed to Military Airlift Command (MAC) on 1 January 1966. That command became inactive on 1 June 1992, with its people, aircraft, and other assets transferred to the newly established Air Mobility Command.