The RAF Skymasters
Researching Churchill’s Skymaster turned up a fair amount of interest – and just as much misinformation – about the entire fleet of RAF Dougkas C-54s.
So, while I don’t have ready access to the records that could give us all a truly granular history of the C-54 in British service, I’ll give you what I can. This should help end some confusion, scotch some rumours, and hopefully act as a lightning rod for extra details from those who happen to know.
A jumbo for its day
The C-54 began life in an attempt by United Airlines to upgrade their fleet of Boeing 247s to something that would completely eclipse the popular DC-3 being flown by competing carriers. After a series of internal meetings, United approach Douglas with their aspirations in 1936.
Ultimately a cadre of five airlines backed the DC-4E’s (‘E’ for Experimental) development and the outcome was revolutionary – to the point where Douglas was asked to dial back their new airliner’s innovation and complexity.
With the design simplified, and Bankrolled by firm orders from United Air Lines and American Airlines, a DC-4 production line was tooled up.
But as American industry was mobilized for war production, Douglas was told to stop building the DC-4 line in favour of bombers and fighters. Donald Douglas felt sure a high-capacity transport would be needed in this new conflict and resisted.
He was right: When a massive German airlift overthrew Crete in July 1940, the Pentagon started clamouring for his big, fast design.
From DC-4 to C-54
The first aircraft – now impressed by the USAAF as C-54 #41-20137 (msn 3050) – first flew at Santa Monica on St. Valentine’s Day 1942.
Apart from the DC-4E, there was no prototype C-54 / DC-4: The first aircraft was the first aircraft – and the first 24 off the line were only modified into properly militarised transports after they’d been built.
With the increasingly global war, demand for the long-legged transport ballooned and Douglas built a second factory for it at Orchard Place outside Chicago (now the site of O’Hare International). Ground clearing began in July 1942, and the first C-54 took off from the new field in July 1943.
In all, 515 C-54s would be built at Santa Monica (with ‘DO’ subtype numbers) and a further 655 in Chicago (with ‘DC’ numbers).
The first Skymaster to join the RAF was Churchill’s special VVIP transport – a stock C-54B-1-DO built on the Douglas Santa Monica line as 43-17126 (msn 18326/D0100).
The acquisition was assigned the non-sequential RAF serial EW999, which was applied at the Santa Monica plant as ‘EW-999’ along with RAF roundels and fin flashes. Apart from those markings, it was dispatched across the Atlantic in June 1944 as a completely unfurnished shell.
As we’ve seen in Part 1 of this series, the aircraft would be luxuriously fitted out for its new Owner when it arrived in England, and would be at his service from that November.
Churchill became fond of saying FDR had ‘presented’ him with his special Skymaster. As I mentioned in Part 1, this probably amounted to nothing more than securing one over the USAAF’s insatiable demand.
Certainly the aircraft was classified as Lend-Lease materiel rather than a gift.
A successor for Ascalon
In fact, it was Churchill’s regular flight crew who first identified the C-54 as a perfect match for their master’s needs, back in mid-1943.
At that point he was travelling in Avro York LV633 Ascalon, but it was clear to the crew that the York didn’t have enough range to guarantee safe Atlantic crossings, in particular. (As it turned out, Churchill never flew to North America in the Skymaster anyway.)
Ascalon’s crew made their recommendations to Churchill’s Aide de Camp, RN Commander C.R. ‘Tommy’ Thomson, who formally floated the idea in October 1943. In early 1944, Bill Fraser (then Ascalon’s co-pilot) drew up an interior layout based on the York’s fit-out and this was quickly approved by Downing Street.
Churchill’s personal intervention was offered by Commander Thompson but didn’t seem to be needed. Around April 1944, a bid was made through normal Lend-Lease channels via the RAF Delegation in Washington, DC to General ‘Hap’ Arnold’s office and it was agreed the first of ten RAF Skymasters already on order would be diverted for Churchill’s use.
The PM started saying Roosevelt had given him the aircraft shortly after this.
I’m not sure when the British first requested their Skymasters, but clearly a fleet of ten was already in the pipeline when the request for EW999 was put through.
Those aircraft all had contract numbers dating from the 1942 budget year and would all be built at Orchard Field. (I suspect it was always the US plan to supply British Skymasters from the new plant.) But even then, RAF deliveries were plucked out of USAAF production orders in ones and twos – reflecting the high demand for C-54s to support American logistics.
The fact that Churchill’s Skymaster was numbered 43-17126, built in Santa Monica, and delivered 8 months before any of the others all indicate that someone had indeed pulled strings on his behalf. There’s also the point that ten ‘line’ aircraft were still delivered, although the original agreement was just to give Churchill the first one on the order.
The truth is probably that Churchill brought it up during one of his frequent phone calls with the US President, who organised a more expedient delivery than Orchard Place could have managed.
One of a kind
EW999 would also be the only C-54B delivered to the RAF. The balance would all be C-54Ds with extra fuel tankage built into the wings. The C54D also had more efficient P&W R-2000-11 Twin Wasp engines instead of the B model’s R-2000-7s. Both had a normal maximum output of 1,350 HP, but the -11 delivered it at lower manifold pressure.
Regardless, there were universally referred to as the ‘Skymaster I’ in RAF service.
Seeds of confusion
The first C-54D didn’t arrive until February 1945. Meanwhile the seeds of the second major point of confusion had been laid…
The RAF assigned 23 serial numbers for Lend-Lease C-54s – KL977 to KL999. Numerous sources now simply assume the RAF operated all of them.
But in the end, only 10 (as per that original order, you’ll note) ever joined the RAF – serials KL977 to KL986.
42-72484 is listed as KL987 in Joe Baugher’s database (and derived sources), but the sequence indicates that the entry is simply transposed and should read KL978.
The Imperial War Museum also identifies KL990 in a handful of photos. However a closer look at one identical image from the San Diego Air & Space Museum archive (#01_00091394) make a pretty good case that airplane is in fact KL980 with an unlucky sheen across the serial number.
A twelfth RAF Skymaster?
Finally, orders may have been cut for the actual KL987 (42-72680) to be delivered to the RAF then returned under Reverse Lend-Lease, to join the USN as an R5D, BuNo 92001.
In fact, that particular Skymaster (msn 19785/DC516) was handed over to the USAAF on June 20th, 1945 and subsequently crashed on approach to Santa Maria Airport on the Azores on July 3rd, 1945 killing all four of her crew.
Accident records assign the aircraft to 2FRG (2 Ferry Group?) of Air Transport Command, with Capt. David L Satz as pilot. There’s no indication it was being delivered to Britain at the time – it could just as easily have been on its way to the CBI theatre for the USAAF.
On the other hand, RAF Skymasters KL985 and KL986 both arrived in Britain on July 6th, 1945, making me wonder if it was, perhaps, a three-ship ferry flight after all.
Swords into ploughshares
Despite their efficiency and valuable work, not to mention the high esteem in which they were held by air and ground crews, Lend-Lease stipulated that all ten Skymasters had to be returned to the USA after hostilities.
Clearly, the sudden capitulation of Japan had upended a lot of long term war planning.
So the aircraft were dutifully ferried back across the Atlantic by their crews during February and early March 1946 (with three late exceptions, see below). From now on, the RAF Transport Command would have to make do with their swords-into-ploughshares stopgaps like the Avro Lancastrian and Handley-Page Hastings.
Back into U.S. hands
While EW999 was already being picked apart in Nanking, China, the other ten RAF Skymasters were overhauled by the USAAF and, with the exception of ex-KL983, transferred to the US Navy as R5D-3s.
Their sequential Bureau Numbers, from 91994 to 92003 shows this was done as a single transaction.
The fact that 92001 sits in the middle of this block gives further credence to the idea that #42-72680 was on her way to become KL987 before its tragic loss in the Azores.
Now, here’s a brief run down on each of those other aircraft…
C-54D-1-DC (msn 10547 / DC278)
This was the first Skymaster to reach British shores after EW999) arriving on February 21st, 1945. It was however, the second aircraft assigned to a squadron, following KL978 to No.246 at Northolt for test-flying duties.
Both aircraft then went to No.232 Sqn. at Palam, India in April, 1945 and KL977 stayed there until it was returned to the US just under a year later.
In July 1946 the aircraft was assigned to the US Navy as an R5D-3 with Bu.No. 91994.
I have to assume this aircraft was retired with other USN C-54Qs in the late 1960s and placed in storage. Around 1975, it was purchased by Aero Union Corporation of Chico, CA and converted to a tanker for fire fighting. First registered N62296, this was later changed to N76AU. The aircraft continued flying with Aero Union as ‘Tanker 162’ until 2000 when it was placed in storage at Kingman, Arizona.
On October 30th, 2001 it was re-registered as N3054V by Aero Flite Inc of Kingman, then sold to Brooks Fuel of Fairbanks, Alaska in 2007.
After several years of hauling fuel oil out of Fairbanks, the Skymaster was sold to Alaska Air Fuel Inc at Palmer, AK and was re-issued its airworthiness certificate as late as December 2014. (They don’t build ‘em like that any more!)
As far as I know, the aircraft is still in Palmer, although the registration was due to expire at the end of October 2019 and it now appears to be getting picked for parts.
So if you’re looking for a genuine ex-RAF Skymaster I…
C-54D-1-DC (msn 10589 / DC320)
Built by the Douglas Chicago factory and delivered to Britain on March 17th, 1945, KL978 was actually the first of these ten Skymasters to officially enter RAF service – initially going to 246 Squadron at Northolt for test flying.
The aircraft was then assigned to No. 232 Sqn at Palam, India in April, before being reassigned to No.1332 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Riccal in Yorkshire during August. The sudden Japanese surrender in August meant ongoing Skymaster conversion wasn’t really required, and KL978 went back to No.232 on November 15th
On its return to the USA the aircraft was re-entered on USAAF strength in May 1946, before being belatedly transferred to the USN as an R5D-3 sometime in 1947, as Bu.No. 92003.
She served the USN until around 1968 when, now designated a C-54Q, the Skymaster was sold to Spain and entered the Spanish Ejército del Aire on April 16th, 1969.
It was eventually withdrawn from use and scrapped in Spain.
C-54D-1-DC (msn 10635 / DC366)
Delivered into RAF hands on September 3rd, 1945, KL979 joined 246 Squadron’s VVIP outfit, ‘C’ flight, at RAF Holmesley South. On December 3rd the aircraft was transferred to the newly-formed VIP unit of Transport Command, No.1359 Flight, at RAF Lyneham near London – from where they literally flew around the world.
Departing on December 19th, for example, the aircraft flew New Zealand Minister of Labour P.C. Webb home from meetings in England, picked up Prime Minister P. Fraser and his party at RNZAF Whenuapai, then flew them to the UN General Assembly meeting back in London via Washington DC.
She was ferried to the US on February 9th, 1946, and inducted into the US Navy as R5D-3 Bu.No. 91995 in July. (After that, the trail goes cold.)
C-54D-1-DC (msn 10637 / DC368)
Once passed to the RAF, this Skymaster was initially dispatched to 45 Group (essentially North Atlantic Ferry Command) at Dorval, Montreal for ‘special duty’ – possibly transferring ferry pilots back from Europe. It finally went to Britain permanently in September and joined 246 Squadron’s ‘C’ flight – the last Skymaster to reach British shores.
Ironically it also appears to be the first one returned to the USA, departing on February 9th, 1946.
It was transferred to the USN in July 1946 as Bu.No. 91996 and served as the Blue Angels support aircraft for their 1966/67 show season and ended up in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB.
C-54D-5-DC (msn 10689 / DC420)
KL981 entered the RAF on May 25th, 1945 and joined ‘C’ Flight of No.246 Squadron. The aircraft was returned to the US in February before being transferred to the US Navy in July as Bu.No. 92002.
On March 7th of the following year, the aircraft made a forced landing at NAS Agana, in Guam, and was destroyed in the ensuing fire.
C-54D-5-DC (msn 10690 / DC421)
This Skymaster was delivered into RAF hands on May 18th, 1945 and also went into the VIP service of ‘C’ Flight, 246 Squadron. It was flown back to USA a year later and joined its sister aircraft as a US Navy R5D-3 in July, wearing Bu.No. 91997.
The best information I’ve been able to get says the aircraft then served the Navy loyally for the next 25-odd years, and was retired to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan by 1974.
BUT – there is a very misleading anomaly in the records, where two aircraft have been identified as being assigned US Navy Bu.No. 91997.
The other claimant was also a Chicago-built C-54D-5-DC, but msn 10640 and contract number 42-72535. That aircraft was sold to Americada Corporation in 1958 and re-registered as N4043A. From there it went through a fascinating sequence of short-term owners and operators, eventually ending up at N’Djili AIrport, Kinshasa, Zaire where it was written off as a result of a forced landing and ensuing engine fire on January 7th, 1987.
Given the sequencing of ex-RAF Skymaster Bureau Numbers, it seems pretty clear KL982 was the genuine #91997.
And, just to disprove it from the other angle, I don’t think KL982 could have been 42-72535 (msn 10640): RAF Skymasters seem to have been getting assigned in twos at that stage and KL982 being msn 10690, serial #42-72585 puts it in production order and in a pair with KL981 – msn 10689, serial #42-72584.
I’m willing to bet – and the 1958 disposal date is a big clue – that msn 10640 was always USAF #42-72535, and never a Navy R5D, before it was sold to Americada.
So if you ever see photos of a ‘91997’ in civilian livery, double-check the back-story …and the msn.
(With a BIG ‘thank you’ to Ken Fielding for putting me straight on this.)
C-54D-10-DC (msn 10749 / DC480)
Reaching the UK on June 3rd, 1945, KL983 was another aircraft taken on strength by ‘C’ Flight, 246 Squadron at Holmesley South. It was a short stay however. On June 21st the aircraft was transferred to No.232 Squadron and was with RAF Air Command SE Asia by mid-July.
It was returned to the USAAF in early March 1946 and soldiered on with the USAF for another 20 years – finally being withdrawn from use and placed in storage in 1966. I don’t have its (inevitable) scrapping date.
C-54D-10-DC (msn 10750 / DC481)
KL984 joined the RAF on June 23rd, 1945 and disappeared into apparently unremarkable service – presumably with No.232 Squadron in the East. It was returned to the US on February 22nd, 1946 and transferred to the US Navy in July as Bu.No. 91998.
It was then transferred to the US Marine Corps and converted to a R5D-5 (upgraded engines) in December 1958. At some point it was returned to the Navy and redesignated a C-54Q. It was finally withdrawn from Navy use and placed in storage in October 1970.
The aircraft was bought out of storage by Interair Leases (later International Air Leases) on January 31st, 1975 before being sold to Gerald D Wilson and registered as N96449 on December 12th that year.
On September 23rd, 1977, it was bought by Waig Aircraft Inc as Fire Bomber #118.
Then, on December 2nd, 1980, the aircraft was involved in a midair with another C-54, ex 45-0491, registered N406WA / Fire Bomber #119, five miles northeast of Indio, California. Fire Bomber 45-0491 landed safely but our old KL984 crashed with the loss of two lives.
C-54D-10-DC (msn 10783 / DC514)
KL985 entered RAF service on July 6th, 1945 and most probably, if only briefly, went to No.246 Squadron. She was then reported as on strength with 232 Squadron at Palam by mid-August.
Ultimately, both deployments were little more than temporary: The aircraft was probably flown back to the USA late in February 1946 and, by the end of July, was another ex-RAF Skymaster in the US Navy, this time as Bu.No. 91999.
At some point it was sold into civilian hands and creatively registered as N91999, before being sold to TANA Colombia as HK-1806 in 1976.
By 1990 ownership had shifted to Taxi Area El Venado and the registration was officially HK-1806P, but by August 1991 the aircraft was stored and becoming derelict at Villavicencio, southeast of Bogota. The outlook wasn’t good…
C-54D-10-DC (msn 10784 / DC515)
Like KL985, this aircraft also entered the RAF on July 6th, 1945. After a brief period at No.246 Sqn it was transferred to No.1332 HCU with KL978 (see above) in August 1945. Both aircraft were then transferred on to No.232 Sqn on November 15th.
Based in India at Palam, near New Delhi, the squadron flew a variety of missions including freight and personnel movements, as well as a regular air service between Sri Lanka and Australia.
KL986 went back to the US in February 1946 and was enlisted as a US Navy R5D-3 in July 1946, wearing Bu.No. 92000. I can’t find anything further.
And that, as they say, is that.
Or is it? As always, if you can offer any more information, corrections or photos, please let me know. (I’m particularly intrigued by the story of #42-72680 and the possibility it was on its way to become KL987 when it crashed on the Azores… )
But apart from that – phew!
…I need to concentrate on something with one seat and one engine for a change!
Sources and references:
Doug Ingells, A Giant Step Toward Our Modern Airliners, Salt Of America
Air Commodore (RAF, ret’d) John Mitchell, Churchill’s Navigator, Grub Street Press 2010. ISBN 97 819 0650 2744
The 24 Sqn RAF Association Blog and specifically John Mitchell’s Diary of a Navigator in Issue 13, Summer 2006 of the XXIV Squadron Association newsletter.
Fairbairn, T. Premier-ship, Aeroplane Monthly, No.539 (March 2018)
So you could always use this opportunity to give yourself a late Christmas gift.