It might seem odd to quote the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin on the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894 - ’Citius, Altius, Fortius’- (Faster, Higher, Stronger), but that’s exactly what the Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando was, when compared to its main competitor, the C-47 Skytrain. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation Inc. had seen the commercial success of the Douglas DC3, and the technical success of the pressurized Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner, and thought to combine these two concepts.
The result was Curtiss-Wright CW-20, a 36 seat airliner with a pressurized ‘double-bubble’ fuselage (rather like the Boeing C-97 which was to follow). Designed in 1937, the prototype first flew on 26th March, 1940, powered by 2 x Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone engines of 1,700 hp.
The United States Army Air Corps was sufficiently impressed to order an unpressurized transport version, powered by Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radials, as the C-46. The first production versions – delivered in May, 1942 – could carry 50 troops or 33 stretchers, and were crewed by two pilots and a flight engineer. Due to their range and speed advantage over the C-47, the C-46 Commando was a ‘natural’ for the Pacific theater of operations, and the U.S. Marine Corps took 160 as the R5C-1 (equivalent to the C-46A). Able to carry up to 10,000 lb, the C-46 played an important rôle in the China-Burma-India theater, and along with C-54, C-109, and C-47 aircraft formed the vital link for freight across the ‘Hump’ – the Himalayas – between Assam, India and Kunming, China.
Service in Europe was delayed, the C-46 not appearing until early 1945, just in time for the assault by airborne forces across the Rhine, ‘Operation Varsity’ on 24th March, 1945. This was a disaster for the small C-46 force, with 22 out of 72 being lost to fierce German anti-aircraft fire. Their survival rate was dramatically lowered due to the fact that, unlike the many hundreds of C-47 aircraft taking part in this large daylight operation, they had not been fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks!
Post-war plans for Curtiss-Wright to produce a civil airliner version of the C-46 were scrapped, but significant numbers of the more than 3,000 built were converted for use as freighters, including an upgraded version by Riddle Airlines Inc., called the C-46R. The only British CW-20 was the prototype NX19436, which was impressed by the USAAC as the C-55 then transferred to Great Britain as G-AGDI. Unfortunately, after hard use by B.O.A.C., it was scrapped in October, 1943. Post-war clandestine operations, sponsored by the CIA, included the Bay of Pigs, Cuba and flights by Civil Air Transport (later, Air America) in Indochina.
There are still a handful of C-46 aircraft plying their trade in out-of-the-way corners of the world, such as Alaska, the north of Canada and Bolivia. Indeed, the popular ‘Ice Pilots, NWT’ TV series on History Television, features the adventures of the two C-46 freighters (one C-46A and one C-46D) of the Canadian freight airline Buffalo Airways. The Commemorative Air Force (formerly, Confederate Air Force) also has two C-46F aircraft, both in flying condition.
Here we can see the National Air and Space Museum’s C-46F, NA800FA, (formerly N67996, N614Z, CF-ZQX). It is on long-term loan to the Glenn H Curtiss Museum of Hammondsport, New York, where David Lee and I photographed it, during what has now become known as ‘The Infamous Ice Roadtrip’. As you can see, the weather was brutal, and shortly afterward this was taken we scampered inside the nice, warm museum facility. It is possible that the NASM doesn’t particularly want this C-46F in Washington, D.C., given its background. After a military career (’44-78772′) and various Canadian and American civilian owners, it was seized by U.S. Federal Marshals during a gun-running operation! Following storage at Holmstead Air Force Base and the National Warplane Museum at Geneseo, NY, NASM approved a long-term loan to the Curtiss Museum at Hammondsport, which is not exactly a large metropolis. It could be that the way it was acquired is a little embarrassing!
Despite been a ‘fuel-hog’ and spares now being in short supply, the C-46 has its enthusiasts; it is still giving valuable service in remote outposts, to this very day.