THE LEGENDARY DC-4 “The 4”
Douglas Aircraft Company hoped to build on its enormous success with the DC-3 by building the next generation aircraft, which was to be designated the DC-4. This new aircraft was to be a much larger four-prop version intended for long-range passenger travel.
What first emerged off the drafting table was designated the DC-4E, with the "E" standing for experimental. The new aircraft, flight tested in 1939, was a major departure from the DC-3. For instance, it was massive. The double-decker aircraft was roughly three times the size of its predecessor. It had a wingspan of 42.17m (roughly the height of a 14-storey building), a triple tailfin configuration and a tricycle undercarriage.
As is often the case with experimental designs, somebody came along to spoil the fun. The new design proved too far ahead of its time, meaning that it was too complex, too costly to build and too expensive to operate. What emerged after the accountants and engineers had done battle, was a much smaller, much simplified model: the definitive DC-4.
But an even greater battle was looming, one that would transform aircraft design and production for Douglas and every other aircraft manufacturer in America; the United States was about to enter the war that was already raging in Europe. World War II meant that the DC-4 was quickly drafted into military service for the United States Army Air Forces as the C-54 Skymaster. The US Navy also commissioned its own version designated the R5D. The first of these military aircraft, a C-54, flew in 1942, and almost 1,200 C-54/R5Ds served in uniform between 1942 and 1946.
At the end of WWII, the Cold War took centre stage and the C-54 served a vital role in the Berlin Airlift. This was one of the major confrontations between the Soviets and their former European and American allies in post-war Europe. The Red Army cut off food and other supplies to West Berlin and many were starving. The blockade was broken by C-54s flying provisions along a narrow corridor into West Berlin under constant threat from the Soviets. Military service for the C-54s continued right into the 1960s and the beginning of the Vietnam War era.
About 500 DC-4s, along with DC-3s, were decommissioned after WWII and these war surplus aircraft flooded onto the civilian market, where they became popular with charter airlines the world over. If you want to re-enact the romantic days of the DC-4 and get a sense of this legendary flying machine, you might want to check out John Wayne in The High and the Mighty, a film that showcases the DC-4 on a trans-Pacific flight from Hawaii to California.
In later years, modifications were made to the DC-4 for Aviation Trader's Carvair freighter. Canadair customized others, equipping them with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines and pressurized fuselages. The unique fuselage design and tricycle undercarriage of the DC-4 also allowed Douglas to "stretch" it into larger DC-6 and DC-7 models.
Today there are still a few variants of the DC-4 flying passengers for a company in South Africa and they still fly in the wilds of Alaska, proving their legendary endurance and versatility as mainstays of many remote Arctic communities, where ski-equipped DC-4s land on ice-covered lakes and frozen rivers – often in blizzard conditions. Buffalo Airways operates these hardworking and enduring vintage aircraft in Canada's Northwest Territories.