The Douglas C-47/R4D Skytrain, or Dakota, as the British labeled it, was the outstanding U.S. cargo-troop aircraft of World War II—and beyond. The “runner-up” was unquestionably the Curtiss C-46 Commando, flown by the Marine Corps as the R5C.1 Significantly, the R5C had a higher speed, greater range, and carried significantly more cargo or troops than the C-47/R4D.
The C-46/R5C began life as the Curtiss-Wright CW-40, designed by George A. Page Jr. as a luxury airliner, referred to in public-relations blurbs as a pressurized “sub-stratosphere transport.” At the time, it was the world’s largest twin-engine transport. Although several airlines expressed interest in the CW-40, no orders were forthcoming, probably in part because of the fighting at the time in the Far East and in Europe.
The twin-engine, twin-tail CW-40 first flew on 26 March 1940, with legendary test pilot Edmund “Eddie” Allen at the controls. He also had been at the controls for the first flights of the Lockheed Constellation and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, and had piloted Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd’s Ford Trimotor on flights to the South Pole in 1928–30.
The U.S. Army Air Corps—changed to Army Air Forces (AAF) in June 1941—took an immediate interest in the aircraft. The CW-40 prototype, modified with a single tail fin, was designated C-55 for military trials. Orders from the Army quickly followed with the label C-46. The name “Commando” was soon assigned. (The CW-20 prototype was taken into service by the AAF, but after three months was sold to the British Overseas Airway Corporation, which flew it until October 1943; the aircraft was then scrapped.)
The Army procured a total of 3,180 of the planes built by Curtiss at several plants, and two more C-46s were built by Higgins Boat Company of New Orleans (with orders for several hundred from Higgins being canceled).2 These aircraft were delivered from 1942 to 1945, with the Navy acquiring 160 C-46s from the Army’s production run, all of which went to the Marine Corps. Designated R5C-1, the first Marine aircraft flew on 19 March 1943, and Marine Utility Squadron (VMJ) 3 received the first aircraft. The final Marine delivery was in July 1945.
The twin-engine, tail-wheel aircraft had a large roomy fuselage, with a reinforced floor for handling up to 15,000 pounds of cargo (more than twice the load of a C-47) and folding seats along the cabin sides to accommodate 40 combat-equipped troops. There were large double cargo doors on the left side. In AAF service the C-46 could be used to drop paratroopers and for towing one or two gliders.
Early planes suffered problems; according to aviation historian Peter Bowers:
While the early Service models had a high degree of mechanical problems, these could not be laid to faulty design. The new aeroplanes were rushed into heavy duty with minimum maintenance in harsh environments that were unforeseen by the designers, particularly the “Hump” run from India to China. Subsequent improvements made the C-46 one of the most reliable military aircraft of the Second World War.3
Minor modifications and more powerful engines led to Air Force models reaching the designation C-46H, with several hundred advanced variants being canceled at the end of the war. The designation XC-113 was assigned to the single C-46G that was fitted with a General Electric TG-100 turboprop engine in place of its right-side piston engine (retaining the piston engine on the left side). That aircraft handled so poorly on the ground that it was never flown, thus the C-46 never “entered the jet age.” (Some C-47s were fitted with turboprop engines.)
During World War II most Army and Marine aircraft served in the China-India-Burma and South Pacific theaters, respectively. The C-46/R5C range—about twice that of the C-47—made them extremely useful in those areas. The Marines used their aircraft mainly for flying cargo into forward areas and evacuating casualities. Hollywood superstar Tyrone Power, as a Marine first lieutenant, flew R5Cs in forward areas.
The U.S. Air Force (established in 1947) flew C-46s in the Korean War and, briefly, in the Vietnam War; in 1962 surviving Air Force aircraft were assigned to the newly formed 1st Air Commando Group. The Marines flew the R5C until 1956, while the last Air Force C-46s were retired in 1968.
After World War II nearly 20 other nations operated the C-46 in their air forces, while a few flew in commercial roles, mostly as cargo aircraft. (The C-47 and similar commercial DC-3 captured the world’s short-run passenger trade in the pre-jet era.) Of particular interest were the ten C-46s acquired by Israeli supporters in the United States during 1947. With the first aircraft arriving in Palestine in early May 1948—days before the establishment of the State of Israel—these planes flew as cargo, troop transport, and bomber aircraft during the 1948–49 war for Israeli independence. In the bomber role the bombs were kicked out of the cargo doors! Several of these planes were engaged in shuttle flights between Czechoslovakia and Israel carrying knocked-down fighter aircraft and other weapons for Israeli forces (Operation Bolak).
Another unusual mission for the aircraft occurred in 1957–58, when the Taiwan-based Civil Air Transport airline—a CIA front operation—used C-46s to supply arms and supplies to Sulawesi rebels fighting the Indonesian government of Sukarno. The aircraft lacked the range for round-trip missions and, with minimal if any markings, refueled at Saigon in South Vietnam as well as at bases in the Philippines (Operation Haik).4
The C-46/R5C was a highly capable aircraft. But it ran “second best” among the Allied cargo-transport aircraft of the World War II era.
Curtiss C-46A/R5C-1 Commando
Type: Cargo and troop carrier
Crew: 4 plus 40 troops or 33 litters
Gross weight: 45,000 pounds
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney R-2800-51 piston radial;
2,000 horsepower each
Length: 76 feet, 4 inches
Wingspan: 108 feet
Wing area: 1,360 square feet
Height: 21 feet, 9 inches
Max. speed: 270 mph at 15,000 feet
Range: 3,000+ miles at 173 mph
Ceiling: 24,500 feet
2. This compared to the production of 10,245 C-47/R4D transport aircraft; the third-largest production run during the war was the four-engine C-54/R5D Skymaster, with 1,089 produced.
3. Bowers, Curtiss Aircraft, 451.
4. Photos of these CAT-CIA aircraft employed in clandestine missions show only a small registration number on the tail fin—often painted on a detachable plate.