DevelopmentThe Curtiss-Wright C-46 made its first flight on 26 March 1940. Curiously, the CW-20 prototype, known by the U.S. Army Air Corps as the C-55, was delivered to the British airline, B.O.A.C., which badly needed a good cargo carrier. Eastern Air Lines played a big part in developing this large aircraft which had its fair share of teething troubles. Eastern's Miami base identified more than 300 faults, and most of its recommendations were accepted by Curtiss-Wright. Eventually, the C-46 went into service in February 1943 for Eastern's Military Transport Division on a wartime supply route from Miami to Natal, then extended this across the South Atlantic on 1 June 1944. The route to West Africa was via Ascension Island, where an air base had been hewn out of the rock, and the C-46s carried extra fuel tanks for the two almost-1500-mile transoceanic segments.
The C-46 was always compared unfavorably with the DC-3, mainly because the latter was more adept at getting itself out of trouble. Yet in spite of allegations that take-off performance was not exactly dramatic, C-46s were almost standard equipment on freight runs into and out of La Paz, Bolivia, where the 13,400-foot altitude airport is still a challenge for almost any aircraft.
A Beast of BurdenOne reason why stubborn airlines in Latin America, operating vital services into jungle and savannah regions on a shoestring, hung on the C-46s with as much affection as the DC-3s, was that it carried twice the payload. Because of its clean lines, its apparent size was deceptive. In fact, it was twice as heavy as the DC-3. It was bigger than the Convair-Liner, but of course was not as fast. Indeed, it was not very much smaller than the four-engined DC-4 and could carry almost as much payload, although not as far.
Used mainly as an all-cargo aircraft, some C-46s were pressed into service as passenger "airliners" and pioneered many a low-cost route for cavalier entrepreneurs who successfully undercut Pan Am and PANAGRA in Latin America. The number of seats varied and many a seating layout echoed wartime parachutist transport style, with benches down each side of the cabin, and sometimes down the middle. In this way, there seemed to be almost no limit to the number of undemanding passengers who could be squeezed in. The 10,000 lb. payload theoretically allowed for 50 with full baggage; but for Mexican airlines transporting illegal immigrants whose baggage was minimal, as many as 80 could sometimes be observed disembarking, almost magically, from a C-46's fuselage.
Better Late than NeverNot too often did Pan American wait a full six years after a new type entered service before putting it to work itself. But such was the case with the ubiquitous Curtiss C-46, known by some airlines as/the Commando. Not counting the operations of C.N.A.C. (see below) Pan American did not acquire a fleet of its own until 1948, and then only second-hand, an uncharacteristic exception to the U.S. flag carrier's normal procedure.
However, this was an eminently sensible purchase, as the C-46 served as an all-cargo aircraft in the Caribbean and Central America, often venturing further south to Brazil and to other countries. By so doing, it released front-line aircraft from such onerous duties, and it was much in demand in areas where a flying truck was an economic asset. Most of Pan Am's C-46s were sold back to the Army in 1953, after performing unfashionable but none-the-less vital chores in support of its upper class contemporaries.
The HumpThe C-46 had its share of criticism during its service career, inevitably being compared with the DC-3. Its single-engined performance was less than adequate, and nowhere was this deficiency more acutely felt than by the wartime pilots who flew the "Hump" in 1944 and 1945. This was the section of the eastern Himalayas, whose cliff-like cordilleras formed a great barrier to communications with the Allied forces who were trying to stop the Japanese from occupying China.
A large number of C-46s were ferried out to China via the South Atlantic and southern Asia, and these bore the brunt of the airlift of supplies of men and materials to the war zone centered around Chungking, where the besieged Chinese were defending themselves against direct Japanese attack. They were aided by contingents of the U.S. Army Air Forces, together with the Chinese airline, China National Aviation Corporation (C.N.A.C.), still a Pan American associated company.
Backwards and forwards between airfields in northeast India and Chinese bases in the southwest, especially Kunming, the C-46s did wonderful work. One was out of action for only four days during a whole month, and that was for the essential 100-hour maintenance check. During the other 27 days the single aircraft averaged two round trips per day across the dreaded and deathly terrain, where no emergency landing was possible. The C-46's fine wartime service record is one of the best kept, if unintentional secrets of World War II.