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Douglas C-54 Skymaster

C-54 Skymaster
Role Military transport aircraft
Manufacturer Douglas Aircraft Company
First flight 7 June 1938
Introduction 1942
Retired 1975
Primary users United States Army Air Forces
United States Navy
United States Air Force
Produced 1942–1947
Number built 1,170
Developed from Douglas DC-4

The Douglas C-54 Skymaster was a four-engined transport aircraft used by the United States Army Air Forces in World War II and the Korean War. Like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the C-54 Skymaster was derived from a civilian airliner (the Douglas DC-4).

Besides transport of cargo, the C-54 also carried presidents, prime ministers, and military staff. Dozens of variants of the C-54 were employed in a wide variety of non-combat roles such as air-sea rescue, scientific and military research, and missile tracking and recovery. During the Berlin Airlift it hauled coal and food supplies to West Berlin.

After the Korean War it continued to be used for military and civilian uses by more than 30 countries. This was one of the first aircraft to carry the President of the United States.


  • Design and development 1
  • Operational history 2
  • Variants 3
  • Operators 4
  • Accidents and incidents 5
    • Disappearance (1950) 5.1
    • Berlin corridor attack (1952) 5.2
    • Shot down (1954) 5.3
    • Disappearance (1964) 5.4
  • Specifications (C-54G) 6
  • Notable appearances in media 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
    • Notes 9.1
    • Citations 9.2
    • Bibliography 9.3
  • External links 10

Design and development

The first DC-4 design (later redesignated DC-4E) originated in 1935 from a requirement by United Air Lines.[1] The goal was to develop a much larger and more sophisticated replacement for the DC-3 even before the first DC-3 had even flown.[2] There was enough interest from other airlines that American Airlines, Eastern Air Lines, Pan American Airways, and Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA)[N 1] joined United, providing $100,000 each toward the cost of developing the new aircraft. As cost and complexity rose, Pan American and TWA withdrew their funds in favor of the Boeing 307 which was anticipated to be less costly.[3]

A USAAF Douglas C-54 (s/n 41-37271), circa 1943. The C-54 had almost nothing to do with the earlier DC-4E described here.

With a planned day capacity of 42 passengers (13 rows of two or more seats and a central aisle) or 30 as a sleeper transport (like the DST), the DC-4 (as it was then known) would seat twice as many people as the DC-3 and would be the first large aircraft with a nosewheel. Other innovations included auxiliary power units, power-boosted flight controls, alternating current electrical system, and air conditioning. Cabin pressurization was also planned for production aircraft. The novel tail with three low vertical stabilizers enabled use of existing hangars and provided sufficient vertical fin area to allow the aircraft to continue flight with only two engines on one side operating. The wing planform was similar to the DC-3, with a swept leading edge and almost straight trailing edge. The four 1,450 hp (1,080 kW) Pratt & Whitney Twin Hornet 14-cylinder radials were all mounted with noticeable toe-out, particularly the outer pair.[4]

The prototype (NX18100, s/n 1601) first flew, without incident, on 7 June 1938 from Clover Field in Santa Monica, California, piloted by Carl Cover. Testing issues, however, delayed the Approved Type Certificate until 5 May 1939. It was used by United Air Lines for in-service evaluation during 1939. On 9 June 1939 when the DC-4 was in Dayton, Ohio, along with Carl Cover, Orville Wright was a passenger on a flight over the city. Although the aircraft was relatively trouble-free, the complex systems proved to be expensive to maintain and performance was below expectations, especially with an increase in seating to 52 and gross weight to 65,000 lb (29,484 kg).

The design was abandoned in favor of a smaller, less-complex four-engined design. This newer design was also designated DC-4, leading the earlier design to be re-designated DC-4E (E for "experimental"). Before the definitive DC-4 could enter service the outbreak of World War II meant production was channeled to the United States Army Air Forces and the type was given the military designation C-54 Skymaster, with US Navy aircraft designated Douglas R5D. The first aircraft, a C-54, flew from Clover Field in Santa Monica, California on 14 February 1942. With the introduction of the Tri-Service aircraft designation system in 1962, all R5Ds were re-designated C-54. In the end, only 80 DC-4s were built, the remaining aircraft being C-54s.

Operational history

C-54s began service with the USAAF in 1942, carrying up to 26 passengers, later versions carrying up to 50 passengers. The C-54 was one of the most commonly used long-range transports by the U.S. armed forces in World War II. Of the C-54s produced, 515 were manufactured in Santa Monica, California and 655 were manufactured at Orchard Place/Douglas Field, in unincorporated Cook County, Illinois, near Chicago (later the site of O'Hare International Airport).[5]

A C-54 landing at Tempelhof airport during the Berlin Airlift.

During World War II, the C-54 was used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, and Winston Churchill. The American delegates to the Casablanca Conference used the Skymaster.[6] The C-54 was also used by the Royal Air Force, the Armée de l'Air, and the armed forces of at least 12 other nations.

President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which created the U.S. Air Force, on board "Sacred Cow", the Presidential VC-54C which is preserved at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. More than 300 C-54s and R5Ds formed the backbone of the US contribution to the Berlin Airlift in 1948. They also served as the main airlift during the Korean War. After the Korean War, the C-54 was replaced by the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, but continued to be used by the U.S. Air Force until 1972. The last active C-54 Skymaster in U.S. Navy service (C-54Q, BuNo 56501, of the Navy Test Pilot School, NAS Patuxent River) was retired on 2 April 1974.[7]

In late 1945, several hundred C-54s were surplus to U.S. military requirements and these were converted for civil airline operation, many by Douglas Aircraft at its aircraft plants. The aircraft were sold to airlines around the world. By January 1946, Pan American Airways was operating their Skymasters on transatlantic scheduled services to Europe and beyond. Trans-Pacific schedules from San Francisco to Auckland began on 6 June 1946.[8] After disposal by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, many C-54s were modified for use in civilian firefighting and air tanker roles. This included fitting tanks inside and under the fuselage and the fitting of dumping and spraying equipment also on the wing trailing edges. C-54s continued in this role until the late 1990s.


Netherlands Government Air Transport C-54A on display at the Aviodrome.
First production variant adapted from DC-4, 24 built.
First military version with strengthened airframe, increased fuel capacity, provision for passengers or cargo, Navy equivalent R5D-1, 252 built.
Increased fuel capacity in the wing, One was used by Winston Churchill, 220 built.
Same as C-54B but with R-2000-11 engines, 380 built.
Further revision to fuel tanks and provision for rapid conversion from passenger to cargo, 125 built.
Same as C-54E but with different version of the R2000 engine.


Accidents and incidents

A USAF C-54 destroyed by North Korean fighters, 1950.

Disappearance (1950)

On 26 January 1950, a C-54D operated by the United States Air Force disappeared during a flight between Anchorage-Elmendorf Air Force Base (Alaska) and Great Falls-Malmstrom Air Force Base (Montana) with a crew of eight and 36 passengers (34 service personnel and two civilians).[9][10] No trace of the aircraft or its occupants has ever been found.

Berlin corridor attack (1952)

On 29 April 1952, an Air France Douglas C-54A (registration F-BELI) operating a scheduled service from Frankfurt Rhein-Main Airport to Berlin Tempelhof Airport came under sustained attack from two Soviet MiG 15 fighters while passing through one of the Allied air corridors over East Germany. Although the attack had severely damaged the aircraft, necessitating the shutdown of engines number three and four, the pilot in command of the aircraft managed to carry out a safe emergency landing at Tempelhof Airport. A subsequent inspection of the aircraft's damage revealed that it had been hit by 89 shots fired from the Soviet MiGs. There were no fatalities among the 17 occupants (six crew, 11 passengers) despite the severity of the attack. The Soviet military authorities defended this attack on an unarmed civilian aircraft by claiming the Air France plane was outside the air corridor at the time of attack.[11]

Shot down (1954)

On 23 July 1954, a Douglas C-54 Skymaster civilian airliner, registration VR-HEU, operated by Cathay Pacific Airways, en route from Bangkok to Hong Kong, was shot down by Chinese Communist La-9 fighters off the coast of Hainan Island, killing ten.[12][13][14][15]

Disappearance (1964)

On 28 March 1964, a C-54A disappeared over the Pacific (about 1120 km west of San Francisco—last reported position: ) on an executive passenger flight from Honolulu International Airport, Hawaii to Los Angeles International Airport, California. The pilot reported a fire in No. 2 engine, which might make it necessary to ditch. Nothing more was heard from the aircraft, nor was any trace of it found despite an extensive search. Three crew and six passengers died in the accident.[16]

Specifications (C-54G)

General characteristics


Notable appearances in media

A C-54, registration C-FIQM (Buffalo 5-721 (tail 57)), was used as a substitute Lancaster bomber due to its similar top speed and maximum payload, for a recreation of Operation Chastise with its bouncing bomb. It was filmed in the UK documentary Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb, Canadian documentary Dambusters Fly Again, Nova season 39 episode "Bombing Hitler's Dams", and Ice Pilots NWT season 3 episode 2 "Dambusters".[17][18][19][20][21][22]

The movie The Big Lift, starring Montgomery Clift shows extensive operations of the C-54 as it was shot on location during the peak of the Berlin Airlift in 1949.

See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists



  1. ^ Transcontinental and Western Air renamed itself to Trans World Airlines after World War II.


  1. ^ Pearcy 1995, p. 17.
  2. ^ Yenne 1985, p. 122.
  3. ^ Francillon 1979, p. 267.
  4. ^ Francillon 1988, pp. 266–268.
  5. ^ "History of O'Hare Int'l Airport." FAA. Retrieved: 1 May 2015.
  6. ^ Lavery 2007
  7. ^ "The Seventies 1970–1980." Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  8. ^ Berry 1967, p. 7.
  9. ^ Ranter, Harro and Fabian I. Lujan. 'Douglas C-54D-1-DC 42-72469 Snag, YT". Aviation Safety Net, 2008. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  10. ^ Kennebec, Matt. "Douglas DC-4 C-54D." 1000 Photos, 2010. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  11. ^ ASN "Aircraft accident description Douglas C-54A-DO F-BELI – near Berlin, Germany." Aviation Safety Net. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  12. ^ "ASN Aircraft accident Douglas C-54A-10-DC VR-HEU Hainan Island." Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  13. ^ "Accident details - VR-HEU." Plane Crash Info. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  14. ^ "VR-HEU Account by passenger: Valerie Parish." Major Commercial Airline Disasters. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  15. ^ "VR-HEU." The Life & Times of James Harper. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  16. ^ Ranter, Harro and Fabian I. Lujan. "ASN Aircraft accident Douglas C-54A-10-DC N4726V San Francisco, CA." Aviation Safety Network, 2011. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  17. ^ "Dambusters Fly Again." History Television, August 2011. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  18. ^ Chivers, Tom. "The day the Dam Busters returned... in Canada." The Telegraph (London), 2 May 2011. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  19. ^ Bryan, Hal. "'Ice Pilots' Help Re-Create 'Dambusters'". EAA, 5 May 2011. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  20. ^ "Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb." Channel 4, 2011. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.
  21. ^ "Bombing Hitler's Dams". PBS, WGBH, Nova. Retrieved: 12 January 2012.
  22. ^ "Ice Pilots NWT: Season 3, Episode 2: Dambusters." History Television. Retrieved: 15 May 2012.


  • Berry, Peter et al. The Douglas DC-4. Tonbridge, Kent, UK: Air-Britain (Historians) Ltd., 1967.
  • Blewett, R. Survivors. Coulsden, UK: Aviation Classics, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9530413-4-3.
  • Eastwood, Tony and John Roach. Piston Engine Airliner Production List. West Drayton, UK: Aviation Hobby Shop, 1991. ISBN 0-907178-37-5.
  • Francillon, René. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920: Volume I. London: Putnam, 1979. ISBN 0-87021-428-4.
  • Lavery, Brian: Churchill Goes to War: Winston's Wartime Journeys. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-591141-037.
  • Milberry, Larry. The Canadair North Star. Toronto: CANAV Books, 1982. ISBN 0-07-549965-7.
  • Pearcy, Arthur. Douglas Propliners: DC-1–DC-7. Shrewsbury, UK: Airlife Publishing, 1995. ISBN 1-85310-261-X.
  • Pickler, Ron and Larry Milberry. Canadair: The First 50 Years. Toronto: CANAV Books, 1995. ISBN 0-921022-07-7.
  • Yenne, Bill. McDonnell Douglas: A Tale of Two Giants.Greenwich, Connecticut: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-517-44287-6.

External links

  • (1952) AN 01-40NU-1 Handbook Flight Operating Instructions USAF Series C-54G and Navy Model R5D-5 Aircraft
  • Canadair DC4M North Star
  • Moose Jaw crash at
  • PSA History/Oldtimers Page
  • Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation—Operates C-54 "Spirit of Freedom" as flying Berlin Airlift Museum
  • Air Force Association page on C-54
  • Warbird Alley: C-54 page
  • Cockpit View of C-54 During Landing/Taxi
  • Boeing McDonnell Douglas page on DC-4
  • The last passenger certified & built DC-4s in the world
  • Vintage Wings of Canada Canadair North Star showing RR Merlin installation
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