In 1935, America was starting to look for the next step in commercial passenger aircraft. This was a time before the DC-3 ruled the skies and Curtiss threw their own hat into the ring with a design known as the CW-20. The proposed aeroplane would hold 36 passengers in a pressurised cabin with the capability of carrying over 8,000lb of cargo as well.
The design would not actually see air beneath the tyres until 1940, with Edmond Allen, a familiar name for testing Boeing designs, at the controls. Noticeable differences to the production variant of the C-46 is the twin tail design. This was quickly removed following problems in early flight testing, being replaced by the more familiar single fin design.
With war starting to seem inevitable for American forces the US Army took an interest in the CW-20 not long after flight testing started. They ultimately ordered 46 examples, to be designed the C-46. The first example (the modified prototype, designated C-55) was delivered in June 1941. This very first example was returned to Curtiss just 3 months later and ultimately spent time with BOAC registered G-AGDI until 1943.
Once production started in earnest the Army received an initial run of 25 airframes powered by Pratt and Whitney R2800 engines producing 2,000hp a side. These initial deliveries were capable of transporting up to 50 troops or an impressive 10,000lb of cargo.
With the C-46 already in active service a new version soon followed, the C-46A. This new and improved design was capable of carrying 15,000lb of cargo, complete with a large cargo access side door. The C-46A made up the remaining aircraft from that initial 46 strong order.
Demand grew for the type as the war drew on, with over 3,000 examples being constructed across a number of Curtiss sites including Buffalo, Louisville and St Louis.
While the majority of the C-46s in service were “A” models, there were other designations constructed. Over 1,400 C-46D models were constructed for use as personnel transports, though a small cargo/paratroop door was left in place. These designs took over from the C-46A on the production line at Buffalo.
There were countless other developments and modifications trialled on the aircraft, the F model featured squared off wingtips while the L model (3 aircraft constructed) featured higher powered engines (2,500hp) when they were delivered in 1945.
Ultimately the Commando would go on to serve in all theatres of the Second World War, providing personnel transport, cargo flights and paratroop duties. The reliable engines combined with high altitude pressurised capabilities made the C-46 well suited to operating in challenging conditions.
Perhaps the most iconic role the Curtiss transport took on was in the China-Burma-Indian theatre. This role involved making regular flights over the Himalyan Mountains (jokingly named “The Hump” by the allies). This flying was incredibly challenging often carrying extreme (sometimes out of limits) loads across mountains peaking as high as 14,000ft.
In Europe the C-46 saw plenty of service particularly carrying out target towing duties late in the war in 1945.
The Commando did earn a difficult reputation and suffered high losses particularly in the pacific theatre. While this was partly due to enemy fighters there were plenty of stories of hydraulic leaks and problems to the extent that some crews took extra barrels of hydraulic fluid.
Post war the C-46 saw extensive service on both passenger and cargo services around the world particularly in challenging climates and conditions. Today a large number of C-46s remain on display around the world with examples in China, Brazil, Mexico amongst others along with a number in US Museums.
While the C-46 was built in significant numbers during the war and quite a few surveyed there are remarkably few airworthy airframes remaining, with a select number still in flying condition. The most famous examples still in flying condition will undoubtedly be the Buffalo Airways fleet based at Yellowknife in Canada(source for Buffalo shots included here is Anson Chappell).
These airframes have become celebrities in their own right, having starred in the very popular “Ice Pilots” television series. Anyone who has watched this series will have undoubtedly developed an interest in this aircraft, more than any of the other classic aircraft the airline flies the C-46D certainly has the most character (and appears to be the most challenging).
Only one C-46 remains on the airshow circuit, “The Tinkerbelle” C-46F. This airframe is finished in an Olive Drab USAAF colours and makes for an impressive display airframe. The aircraft is used for demonstration flights and parachute drops. I was lucky to see this aircraft fly at Reading in 2014 and receive a tour of the inside of the airframe (Cockpit shot above). Once on board a C-46 you get a great impression how much of an aircraft of two halves it is. There is a huge hold taking up the entire bottom half of the fuselage simply for cargo.
The Commemorative Air Force do have a C-46F “China Doll” which did perform on the airshow circuit in the 1980s and 90s. The airframe is now with the Southern California wing of the force and is no longer flown. Their website does offer a series of fascinating accounts of flying the aircraft though which offer a great impression of flying this historic airframe.
Jeff Ethel, who flew the aircraft in 1997 commented how light the controls of the C-46 are especially when compared to similar aircraft such as the DC3 or B17. The C-46 is apparently a wonderful aeroplane to fly with very responsive engines.
One interesting final chapter to the C-46’s development story is the XC-113. This airframe was used as the flying testbed for the General Electric TG-100 Turboprop engine. This was mounted on the starboard wing of the airframe, providing difficult handling characteristics due to the differing power and response levels of the two power plants. IT does not come as much of a surprise that the aircraft was severely damaged in a ground accident before it ever got off the ground.
So there you have it another chapter in the wide reaching Curtiss story, more commonly known for fighters and lighter aircraft the company left a big impression with the C-46 with examples still very much earning their keep to this day. The next part will take a look at another departure from the norm, the brutish Helldiver.
The archive shots in this post are from the San Diego Air and Space Museum archives and linked appropriately through the pictures.