In common with its more
prolific contemporary, the Douglas C-47, the Curtiss C-46 Commando was
derived from a design initially developed for the civil market. Work on
the Curtiss CW-20 began in 1937 when Chief Engineer George A. Page was
instructed to develop a 24-34 passenger commercial airliner with a
gross weight of 36,000 lbs (16329 kg) and powered by two l,600 hp (1193
kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines. The cabin was to be
pressurised for above-the-weather operations and was to be capable of
accommodating 20 sleeping berths. The latter, arranged across the width
of the aircraft, dictated a wide cabin while, to overcome the drag that
would have been induced by a completely circular fuselage of adequate
diameter, the fuselage was designed as two segments intersecting at a
common chord which effectively became the floor line. As a result the
cabin was particularly capacious and, in addition to the 2,300 cubic ft
(65.13 cubic m) of space in the upper segment, there was a usable
volume of 455 cubic ft (12.88 cubic m) below the floor.
The prototype was built
at St Louis, Missouri and powered by two 1,600 hp (1193 kW) Wright
Cyclone 586-C14-BA2 engines rather than the planned Double Wasps, was
first flown by Eddie Allen on 26 March 1940. Fairing plates were
introduced to smooth out the join between the two fuselage segments and
a twin-finned tail unit was fitted. The latter was replaced
subsequently by a large single fin, presumably to correct low-speed
asymmetric handling problems, and the machine was redesignated CW-20A.
It was later purchased by the US Army to become the sole Curtiss C-55,
and was sold to BOAC in November 1941. In the 24-seat configuration
with long-range tanks it was used on long-haul routes and to link Malta
with Gibraltar in 1942. It was broken up at Filton, Bristol in October
This Curtiss C-46A-60-CK on a dusty parking ramp at Payne Field, Cairo
1945. Photo by Fred E. Bamberger Jr
The deterioration of
the situation in Europe resulted in increasing awareness of the
inevitability of US entry into the war, and in September 1940 large
orders were placed for fighters, bombers and transports, including 200
of a military version of the CW-20, which was designated C-46. The
first 25 aircraft, built at Buffalo, New York, differed in detail from
the CW-20, having fewer cabin windows and dispensing with the
fuselage-join fairing plates. These had offered little aerodynamic
advantage, while conferring a weight penalty of 275 lbs (125 kg) and
adding to the manufacturing process. Cabin pressurisation was not
included and the engines were replaced by 2,000 hp (1491 kW) Pratt &
This initial production
version was followed by the C-46A which had double cargo doors, a
strengthened floor and a hydraulic cargo-loading winch; 40 folding
seats were fitted. The engines were 2,000 hp (1492 kW) R-2800-51s,
early aircraft having three-bladed Hamilton propellers which were
superseded by four-bladed Curtiss electrically-operated propellers.
Production reached 1,041 at Buffalo and 10 at St Louis before
production was transferred to a government-owned factory at Louisville,
Kentucky where 439 were manufactured before the programme was returned
to St Louis. Higgins Aircraft Inc. (A Division of Higgins Industries
Inc.) of New Orleans completed two of a contract for 500 C-46As before
the order was cancelled on 17 August 1944. The company owned by Andrew
J. Higgins had a worldwide reputation in the building of boats prior to
the government contract to construct aircraft.
The first aircraft
built after the return to St Louis was the sole XC-46B with
water-injected 2,100 hp (1566 kW) R-2800-34W engines and a more
conventional 'stepped' windscreen. Meanwhile, at Buffalo, Curtiss had
begun production of 1,410 C-46Ds, equivalent to C-46As but with a
revised nose and doors for paratroop operations, and equipped to carry
50 men. Also produced at Buffalo were 234 C-46Fs, with R-2800-75
engines and blunt wing-tips, and a single C-46G with R-2800-34W engines
and which was later to become the XC-113, a test-bed for the Curtiss
TG-100 turboprop engine. The C-46G had a single cargo door, as did the
St Louis-built C-46E which also featured the stepped windscreen of the
XC-46B, and R-2800-75 engines driving three-blade Hamilton propellers.
Only 17 were built of a contract for 550 which was cancelled after VE-Day.
The CW-20 would have
been only a marginal commercial proposition in cargo configuration as,
although by comparison with the Douglas DC-3 it offered twice the cabin
volume, a 25 per cent increase in fuel capacity and a 45 per cent
increase in gross weight, these favourable features were offset by 50
per cent greater fuel consumption and the fact that, at a gross weight
of 40,000 lbs (18144 kg) the cabin could not be filled unless cargo
density was less than 4.5 lb/cubic ft (16.02 kg/cubic m), a relatively
In service use,
however, the C-46 was cleared to operate at a military overload weight
of 50,675 lbs (22986 kg), allowing almost 6,000 lbs (2722 kg) more
payload to be carried, and the cabin capacity became a considerable
asset. The first of the US Army's C-46s was rolled out at Buffalo in
May 1942 and delivered on 12 July. Some of the earliest deliveries were
to Air Transport Command's Caribbean Wing (Eastern Air Lines' Military
Transport Division, formed on 1 September 1942). This used some of the
first aircraft from the line to build up operational expertise, flying
a military service from Miami to Middleton, Pennsylvania, commencing on
1 October, and then from Miami to Natal, Brazil, from February 1943. As
the transfer of men and equipment to North Africa built up, C-46s were
introduced to the South Atlantic ferry route, from Natal to Accra, Gold
Coast, via Ascension Island, until sufficient Douglas C-54s became
available in 1944.
Some of the early
training was also carried out by the airlines, notably Northwest and
Western, and USAAF schools included No. 2 OTU at Homestead, Florida and
No. 3 OTU, initially at Rosecrans, St Joseph, Missouri, soon
transferred to Reno, Nevada, where the local terrain was more similar
to that which very many C-46 crews were to experience with the
India-China Wing, flying over the 'Hump'. These operations took place
in arduous conditions, involving take-offs from primitive airfields,
climbing in the vicinity of the base to more than 20,000 ft (6095 m)
often on instruments in icing and turbulence, to cross mountain ranges
that lay across the track while carrying hazardous cargoes, including
fuel and ammunition.Burma
The Curtiss C-46
Commando is best known as the mainstay of the massive air transport
supply effort undertaken from the Assam region of India to supply
friendly forces in south-west China. Flying the 'Hump', as this
treacherous crossing of the Himalayan mountains became known, was a
task fraught with peril for the men and C-46s of Colonel Edward H.
Alexander's India-China Wing of ATC (Air Transport Command). The
aircraft were loaded and flown under the most primitive conditions,
their fuel pumped by hand from drums, the Assam airfields largely
unpaved and transformed into quagmire by monsoons which poured down
half the year. On the 500 mile (805 km) Assam-Chunking route, C-46s had
to haul cargo over ridgelines looming at 12,000 to 14,000 ft (3660 to
4265 m), even though ice began to form on the wings at 10,000 ft (3050
m). In August 1942, using a few C-47s, the USAAF had been able to
transport only 170,000 lbs (77110 kg) of cargo over the India-China
route but by December 1943, with many C-46s now starting to take over
the route as well, the figure rose to 25.18 million lbs (11.42 million
kg). Short on spare parts, flying in unbearable wet and cold with
minimal navigation aids, taking off at maximum overload weight, the
C-46 crews were a lifeline to Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese forces and
General Claire Chennault's 14th Air Force at a time when the Japanese
were active all around. During one of these flights Captain Wally A.
Gayda shot down at close range a Japanese fighter, apparently a
Nakajima Ki-43, by firing a Browning automatic rifle through his C-46
front cabin window and killing the pilot.
Span: 108 ft. 0 in.
Length: 76 ft. 4 in.
Height: 22 ft. 0 in.
Weight: 51,000 lbs. max.
Engines: Two Pratt & Whitney R-2800s of 2,000 hp ea.
Serial Number: 44-78018
Maximum speed: 245 mph.
Cruising speed: 175 mph.
Range: 1,200 miles
Service Ceiling: 27,600 ft.