When Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Winston Churchill with an entire airplane, it was much more than an updated transport option.
Of course the gesture reflected an abiding friendship between the two leaders.
Also, the USAAF was preparing the C-54 (42-107451) that would become famous as Roosevelt’s The Sacred Cow. For Churchill to have an identical high standard of modern airplane spoke to their shared objective of defeating the Axis forces.
However it was ultimately a clear demonstration of the immense economic, technical and logistical power America had amassed since Europe went to war.
The Skymaster’s vanguard
Ironically, The Sacred Cow arose from Secret Service concerns about the safety of the C-87A Guess Where II (41-24159) that USAAF Chief Hap Arnold had already delivered for the President. That was despite the thousands of aircrews operating C-87s over the Himalayas, etc, and the Guess Where II being ‘safe enough’ to carry other high-level White House staff… not to mention Eleanor Roosevelt on her extensive Latin America tour in March 1944.
Meanwhile Churchill had made extended trips to the Middle East and Moscow, then Casablanca and the Mediterranean, in his very long range LB-30 Liberator named ‘Commando’ (AL504).
He made three further long, if slightly more comfortable trips during 1943, in an Avro York; then didn’t travel abroad again before the new Skymaster was ready in November 1944.
There is some confusion around how precisely the Skymaster was ‘presented’ to Churchill – a description of events that apparently originated with Churchill himself.
For one thing, the aircraft was returned to the US after the war under the terms of Lend-Lease, so it obviously wasn’t a permanent (or personal) gift from the President to the PM.
What’s more, the USAAF Air Transport Command was desperate to build up its world-spanning C-54 fleet, especially through that first half of 1944. It’s revealing that the RAF didn’t receive any further Skymasters until the spring of 1945, and even those were plucked from the production sequence in ones and twos.
So, rather than being an out-and-out gift, I think it’s safe to infer Roosevelt’s ‘presentation’ of 43-17126 amounted to an expedited delivery for Churchill, in the face of America’s own war needs.
Of course, that was a valuable deed in itself.
(I’ve since learned more about this. I’ll include the details in Part 4.)
While The Sacred Cow was built as a uniquely designated VC-54C – a special hybrid of C-54A fuselage and customised C-54B wings – Churchill’s aircraft was a stock C-54B.
It was being built in the Douglas Santa Monica factory as 43-17126 (msn 18326/D0100) when it was tagged for delivery to the UK.
This aircraft – the 100th production Skymaster – would have the additional honour of being the first C-54 in the RAF, arriving via the North Atlantic Ferry Route in summer 1944 and coming on strength as ‘EW999’.
The last few EW serial numbers seem to been given to one-off aircraft: The single North American A-36 Apache (Mustang dive bomber) delivered to RAF Boscombe Down for testing in March 1943 was assigned EW998, for example.
But in one slight anomaly, EW999 began life with a hyphen in her serial number: ‘EW-999’. No other RAF serial was hyphenated, and the punctuation appears to have been added with the RAF roundels and fin flashes at the Douglas factory in Santa Monica.
There is a small photo of the C-54 after its rollout on the 24 Sqn RAF Association Blog. (Scroll down a little.)
Apparently none of the Douglas workers were told who or what the plane was for. Most likely the photo op was simply to celebrate the completion of their 100th airframe.
The impressively sleek and gleaming Skymaster was still just a raw, cargo-configured shell when it reached Britain.
Obviously, this ugly duckling would need to be transformed into an impressive swan for the nation’s war leader. And, with Churchill’s vague brief that the interior should ‘look British’, the contract to create a flying No.10 Downing Street was awarded to Armstrong-Whitworth Aviation in Coventry.
Along with providing suitable accommodation for the PM and his staff, the refit would include an extensive revision of the radio, electrical, air conditioning and oxygen systems; and installation of an Auxiliary Power Unit to keep everything running on the ground.
The specialised electrical work was subcontracted to General Electric Company (GEC), while the furnishing and sound-proofing was done by renowned aircraft upholsterers (and DH.98 Mosquito parts supplier) L. A. Rumbold & Co of Kilburn.
Luxury, utility, technology
With no template to work from, Rumbolds effectively started from scratch. A layout was designed that began with a conference room directly inside the fuselage entrance, with Churchill’s stateroom in the tail section to the right.
Forward of the conference room, two two-passenger cubicles were arranged along the port side with a galley and another passenger cubicle on the starboard side. Forward of those there was a washroom on either side of the plane, complete with hot and cold running water, lit mirrors and electric razors.
The conference room and main passageway had blue carpet throughout, with matching blue curtains to give the Pullman-style passenger cubicles some privacy.
A bulkhead separated the passenger accommodation from the two fuselage fuel tanks over the main spar, ahead of which were the crew compartment flight, crew toilet, engineer’s compartment and radio operator’s station; with the cockpit in front.
The latest top-secret IFF Mark III (SCR-695-A) transmitter – coyly referred to as a ‘radio’ in contemporary reports – was installed below the crew area, along with two powerful American ADF trasnmitters, the APU and the oxygen tanks.
The APU was an Andover two-cylinder 10HP motor that weighed just 37kg and drove a 5 watt, 28.5V generator. Built by Andover Motors of Elmira, New York, it was the same ‘putt-putt’ that provided auxiliary power on B-29s.
Everything aft of the fuel tanks was carefully sound-proofed by Rumbold’s, who achieved noise levels of just 52dB in the aft stateroom and, much closer to the four R-2000s, a passable 62dB in the passenger compartments.
The galley was installed by GEC and was capable of presenting as enviable menu for up to 20 people. It featured an insulated two-compartment hot cupboard, a refrigerator and a boiler that could provide up to two gallons of hot water. Cooking was accomplished on a combined stove-top/griller, that cleverly deployed one hot plate for both heating and grilling (broiling).
Meals would then be served on a specially made 12-place setting of lightweight bone china bearing a unique Skymaster emblem.
Around the galley, each of the passenger compartments featured two seats and a small table, with oxygen masks and controls that stowed in the sidewall. They also had a ceiling light, a wall-mounted desk lamp, a compact electric fan and a call-bell for the steward.
Each compartment could be quickly converted into “Second Class” sleeping berths for the members of Churchill’s entourage.
A 24V Hoover vacuum cleaner was carried on board, to keep everything clean.
The Owner’s quarters
The main conference room occupied the whole width of the fuselage and featured a large walnut table with eight sliding, swivelling chairs around it. These chairs were covered in blue leather, while the table was 11 feet long by three wide, with legs that looked five inches thick. In fact the entire table was made from walnut veneer so that it looked solid, but actually weighed less than if it had been made in the normal tube-and-plastic standard for aircraft furnishing.
The room also boasted a fully stocked cocktail cabinet, and a serving hatch in the galley bulkhead. The ceiling and upper walls were lined with leather (which must have done wonders for the sound proofing) with walnut veneer panels below. Two ‘emergency bunks’, or cots, really, were stowed against the starboard wall.
The stateroom suite in the rear of the aircraft provided Churchill with a divan bed, a pair of swivelling armchairs and a large writing desk with bookshelves. A second berth could be installed over the desk, but was never used. The bulkhead between the stateroom and the conference room contained a wardrobe with a full-length mirror in the door, plus a combined dressing table/bedside table.
The room was lit by ceiling lamps, two Anglepoise lamps for reading and working, and a third lamp fitted into the wall above the divan.
A fan, clock and oxygen equipment were all mounted on the starboard wall. The ceiling and walls were also lined with beige leather and trimmed with sycamore. There was a grey wool carpet underfoot. The sheets alone cost 24 guineas (₤25-4-0) a set, plus there was a turquoise bedcover and curtains to match.
Churchill’s ensuite washroom in the after fuselage was larger than the passenger ones forward, but similarly equipped with hot and cold running water and an electric razor.
Hot and cold essentials
Fresh water for the plane was drawn from a 20 gallon tank installed in the galley ceiling, and filtered before consumption. The water was also piped to the galley’s boiler, plus storage heaters fore and aft to provide hot water in the bathrooms.
The oxygen system had been enhanced with three extra low-pressure cylinders with regulators for day and night use in the passenger compartments, conference room and stateroom – as mentioned. In all, there was enough oxygen aboard EW999 to cater supply a crew of six and ten passengers for four hours at 20,000 feet.
The other significant upgrade was to the C-54’s heating and ventilation system. The aircraft had been delivered to its G.I. Janitrol heater mounted in the forward roof space and a single duct running aft.
Armstrong’s upgraded the installation by running dual ducts along each side of the aircraft at floor level, the port one ending at the main entrance and the starboard duct extending into the stateroom. Fans were installed to blow cool air through these ducts when the aircraft was on the ground, while the Janitrol blew hot air when temperatures dropped.
The original ceiling trunk was then re-purposed as an extraction duct for removing stale air (and cigar smoke).
Height and weight
Because the Skymaster’s floor was 3 metres above the ground, the new additions also included a cumbersome stairway that was always carried in the hold. Stressed to 4G, the stairway was so ‘robust’ it needed ropes and pulley blocks to deploy.
When finished, the entire fit-out weighed a total of 6,390 lb (2,898 kg) including the furnishings and special equipment. Catering equipment and emergency gear comprising two full sets of supplies and dinghies added another 990 lb (449 kg), to give the special Skymaster a basic empty weight of 44,680 lb (20,266 kg).
Official Maximum Take-Off Weight was given as 73,000 lb (33,112 kg).
Fuel and oil for a 4,000 mile range added 24,030 lb (10,900 kg), and an allowance of 1,380 lb (626 kg) for the crew and their equipment gave the aircraft capacity to carry 2,900 lb (1,315 kg) of VIP passengers and their luggage at maximum range.
A sacred ship for ‘The Old Man’
The refurbishment almost takes longer to describe than it did to complete. By early November 1944, the completed Skymaster had been delivered in natural metal finish to RAF Northolt, home of No.24 Squadron and its VVIP flight.
Fittingly, the completed Skymaster was formally named after one of three sacred trireme warships of ancient Athens, possibly the Paralos, which were kept in a state of constant readiness for important communication missions.
However, for security reasons, no-one ever used this official name.
The aircraft was just referred to as a ‘special transport’ to preserve wartime secrecy. It’s operators, the VVIP flight of No.24 Squadron RAF simply called it ‘The Old Man’s Plane’ and Churchill was universally referred to as “The Owner’ – likely a carry-over from the world of luxury private yachts.
Regardless, the parallel with Paralos was highly appropriate – as we’ll see in the next instalment of this unique aircraft’s story.
By the way – images for this story have been incredibly hard to find.
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Sources and references:
Anglo-American Skymaster, Flight magazine, November 1945