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Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando
“Killer Whale”

The public got their first peek at the innovative Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando aircraft at the spectacular 1939 New York World's Fair, where it was touted as the latest in high-altitude pressurized aircraft for use by the flying public. However, the aircraft was not formally introduced until 1941 just in time for duty in World War II. So, instead of a glamourous life of flying to exotic locations, the C-46 was a hard-working military transport aircraft, carrying paratroopers and the wounded, but mostly hauling light artillery, fuel, ammunition, spare parts and other war supplies.

A total of 1,430 C-46s were produced many fewer than its more prolific cousin, the C-47. Most were commissioned by United States Army Air Forces and the US Navy/Marine Corps, under the designation R5C. To the flyboys who flew her in both the European and Pacific theatres, she was known variously as "The Whale," the "Curtiss Calamity," the "T-Cat," or simply "Dumbo" after the flying elephant which it was thought to resemble.

The high altitude and heavy lifting capabilities of the twin-engine C-46 proved to be two of its most important characteristics. Its ability to fly more cargo, higher, than the twin-engine transport aircraft operated by the Allies was due to the two original Wright Twin Cyclones being replaced with more powerful 2,000 hp Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engines.

Although the Pratt and Whitneys were thirsty, using fuel at a much higher rate than the C-47 or DC-3, they also provided that legendary heavy-lifting capacity. Even with just one engine, the C-46 could stay aloft (if not too overloaded, which, of course, it often was under "war emergency" provisions). The C-46 had a huge cargo capacity, twice that of the C-47, and large cargo doors for easy loading and unloading. The aircraft could haul up to 40,000 lbs (18,000 kg), but this maximum weight left no margin for error.

The C-46 was made famous in the China-Burma-India Theatre, where those high altitude capabilities were put to the ultimate test, flying cargo over the "Hump" (the Himalayas). The C-46 transported supplies from India and Burma – across the highest mountains on earth – to China, where they were desperately needed by troops operating there. Although a variety of transport planes were flown in the campaign, the C-46 was considered the most capable of handling the long distances and extreme conditions encountered in Asia. These included not only the usually heavy cargo loads and threat of enemy attack, but also maintenance nightmares under notoriously primitive conditions, violent monsoon rains and thunderstorms, blizzard conditions in the mountains, flooded or muddy jungle airfields and the hazards of countless make-shift landing strips in the Pacific islands.

Military service for the C-46 did not end with World War II. It played a key role in many clandestine anti-communist campaigns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including supplying Chiang Kai-shek's troops while battling Mao's Communists, and then again in the Korean Conflict. They were also used by the CIA to support French forces fighting communist insurgencies in French Indochina, which included Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. The CIA ran its own covert "airline" for these secretive operations called Civil Air Transport, or "CAT." In 1959, the controversial airline was renamed Air America. The C-46 also operated in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro's Cuba in 1961. The aircraft served in the early years of the Vietnam War before being officially retired from active combat duty in 1968.

The heavy fuel consumption of the powerful Pratt and Whitney engines meant the C-46 would have a limited role with civilian airlines. Nevertheless, the famous Flying Tigers, as well as Civil Air Transport and World Airways, used them to carry both cargo and passengers. They were highly sought after for use in the South American countries of Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The legendary climb rate and high service ceiling that proved so crucial in flying over the Himalayas now proved invaluable in conquering the towering Andes. Their long-range capabilities were also required for flying over vast stretches of jungle where roads were prohibitively expensive or simply impossible to build.

Although their numbers are in an inevitable decline, 70-year-old C-46s continue to operate in remote locations around the world, including Canada, Alaska, South America and Africa. In the 1990s, Relief Air Transport operated three Canadian registered C-46s out of Kenya. They were there as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan and later were used to transport humanitarian supplies to Zaire and Somalia. Here in Canada, the C-46 has been gainfully employed, in somewhat cooler conditions, by Lamb Air, Air Manitoba, First Nations Transportation and Buffalo Airways, which continues to operate two trusty C-46s to haul cargo in Canada's Arctic region.

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