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Diels Engineering Inc., #P62 CURTISS C-46 COMMANDO Blown to 117" Wingspan

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[IMAGE Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando

The Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando was a transport aircraft originally derived from a commercial high-altitude airliner design. It was instead used as a military transport during World War II by the United States Army Air Forces as well as the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps under the designation R5C. Known to the men who flew them as "The Whale," or the "Curtiss Calamity," [2] the C-46 served a similar role as its counterpart, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, but was not as extensively produced.

After World War II, a few surplus C-46 aircraft were briefly used in their original role as passenger airliners, but the glut of surplus C-47s dominated the marketplace with the C-46 soon relegated to primarily cargo duty. The type continued in U.S. Air Force service in a secondary role until 1968. However, the C-46 continued in operation as a rugged cargo transport for northern and remote locations with its service life extended into the Twenty-first Century.[3]

The Curtiss CW-20 was first designed in 1937 by George A. Page Jr., the chief aircraft designer at Curtiss-Wright.[4] The CW-20 was intended as a private venture intended to introduce a new standard in pressurized airliners. The CW-20 had a patented fuselage conventionally referred to as a "figure-eight" (or "double-bubble"[5]) which enabled it to better withstand the pressure differential at high altitudes. This was done by having the sides of the fuselage creased at the level of the floor that not only separated the two portions but shared in the stress of each, rather than just supporting itself. The main spar of the wing could pass through the bottom section which was mainly intended for cargo without intruding on the passenger upper compartment.[5] A decision to utilize a twin-engine design instead of a four-engine configuration was considered viable if sufficiently powerful engines were available, allowing for lower operating costs and a less complex structure. [6]

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Engineering work involved a three-year commitment from the company and incorporated an extensive amount of wind tunnel testing at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The resultant design was a large but aerodynamically "sleek" airliner, incorporating the cockpit in a streamlined glazed "dome." The engines featured a unique nacelle "tunnel cowl" where air was ducted in and expelled through the bottom of the cowl, eliminating turbulent airflow and induced drag across the upper wing surface.[5] After a mock-up was constructed in 1938, Curtiss-Wright exhibited the innovative project as a display in the 1939 New York World's Fair. [7]

Although the company had approached many airlines in order to obtain their requirements for an advanced airliner, no firm orders resulted, although 25 letters of intent were received, sufficient to undertake production. [7] The design of a 24-34 passenger airliner proceeded to prototype stage as the CW-20 at the St. Louis, Missouri facility with the initial configuration featuring twin vertical tail surfaces. Powered by two 1,600hp R-2600-C14-BA2 Wright Twin Cyclones, NX-19436 flew for the first time on 26 March 1940 with famed test pilot Eddie Allen at the controls. After testing, modifications were instituted, including the fitting of a large single tail to improve stability at low speeds.

The first prototype was purchased by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) to serve as a master for the series and was designated "C-55", but after military evaluation, the sole example was returned to Curtiss-Wright and subsequently re-sold to the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).[7] During testing, General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold became interested in the potential of the airliner as a military cargo transport, and on 13 September 1940, ordered 46 modified CW-20As as the C-46-CU Commando; the last 21 aircraft in this order were delivered as Model CW-20Bs, designated C-46A-1-CU. None of the first C-46s purchased by the U.S. military were pressurized.[8][9] The design was then modified to the C-46A configuration, receiving enlarged cargo doors, a strengthened load floor, and a convertible cabin that speeded changes in carrying freight and troops. The C-46 was introduced to the public at a ceremony in May 1942, attended by its designer, George A. Page Jr.[4]

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A total of 200 C-46As in two initial batches were ordered. [2] At this time, one other important change was made; more powerful 2,000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines replaced the two Wright Twin Cyclones. A number of minor modifications, such as fuel system changes and fewer cabin windows were also adopted. [10] Subsequent military contracts for the C-46A extended the production run to 1,454 examples, 40 of which were destined for the U.S. Marine Corps, to be designated R5C-1. The military model was fitted with double cargo doors, a strengthened floor and hydraulically operated cargo handling winch; 40 folding seats were the sole passenger accommodation for what was essentially a cargo hauler.[10] Tests indicated that the production C-46 was capable of carrying a substantial payload, and could fly well on one engine. When empty, the aircraft could even climb on one engine at 200-300 ft per minute.

The final large production run C-46D arrived in 1944–45, and featured single doors to facilitate paratroop drops; production totaled 1,430 aircraft. [10] Although a one-off XC-46B experimented with a stepped windscreen and uprated powerplants, a small run of 17 C-46Es had many of the same features as the XC-46B along with three-bladed Hamilton-Standard propellers replacing the standard Curtiss-Electric four-bladed units. A last contract for 234 C-46Fs reverted to the earlier cockpit shape but introduced square wingtips. A sole C-46G had the stepped windscreen and square wingtips but the end of the war resulted in the cancellation of any additional orders for the type. [9]

Most famous for its operations in the China-Burma-India theater (CBI) and the Far East, the Commando was a workhorse in "flying the The Hump" (over the Himalaya Mountains), transporting desperately needed supplies to troops in China from bases in India and Burma.[10][11] A variety of transports had been employed in the campaign, but only the C-46 was able to handle the wide range of adverse conditions encountered by the USAAF. Unpredictably violent weather, heavy cargo loads, high mountain terrain, and poorly-equipped and frequently flooded airfields proved a considerable challenge to the transport aircraft then in service, along with a host of engineering and maintenance nightmares due to a shortage of trained air and ground personnel.

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After a series of mechanical gremlins were resolved, the C-46 proved its worth in the airlift operation. It could carry more cargo higher than other Allied twin-engine transport aircraft in the theater, including light artillery, fuel, ammunition, parts of aircraft and, on occasion, livestock. Its powerful engines enabled it climb satisfactorily with heavy loads, staying aloft on one engine if not overloaded, though "war emergency" load limits of up to 40,000 lbs often erased any safety margins. Nevertheless, after the troublesome Curtiss-Electric electrically-controlled pitch mechanism on the propellers had been removed, the C-46 continued to be employed in the CBI and over wide areas of southern China throughout the war years.[11]

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The C-46's huge cargo capacity (twice that of the C-47), large cargo doors, powerful engines and long range also made it ideal for the vast distances of the Pacific island campaign. In particular, the U.S. Marines found the aircraft (known as the R5C) useful in their amphibious Pacific operations, flying supplies in and wounded soldiers out of numerous and hastily-built island landing strips.

Although not built in the same quantities as the C-47, its more famous wartime compatriot, the C-46 nevertheless played a vital role in Pacific operations. However, the aircraft was not deployed in numbers to the European theater of operations until March 1945, where it augmented USAAF Troop Carrier Command in time to drop paratroopers in an offensive to cross the Rhine River in Germany (Operation Varsity).

So many C-46s were lost in the paratroop drop during Operation Varsity that Army general Matthew Ridgway famously issued an edict forbidding the aircraft's use in future airborne operations. Even though the war ended soon afterward and no further airborne missions were flown, the C-46 may well have been unfairly demonized. The operation's paratroop drop phase was flown in daylight at slow speeds at very low altitudes, by an unarmed cargo aircraft without self-sealing fuel tanks, over heavy concentrations of German 20 mm, 37 mm, and larger calibre antiaircraft (AA) cannon utilizing explosive, incendiary, and armor-piercing incendiary ammunition.

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By that stage of the war, German AA crews had trained to a high state of readiness; many batteries had considerable combat experience in firing on and destroying high speed, well-armed fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft while under fire themselves. Finally, while most if not all of the C-47s used in Operation Varsity had been retrofitted with self-sealing fuel tanks,[12] the C-46s received no such modification. Although 19 of 72 C-46 aircraft were shot down during Operation Varsity, it is not as well known that losses of other aircraft types from AA fire during the same operation were equally as intense, including 13 gliders shot down, 14 crashed, and 126 badly damaged; 15 B-24 bombers shot down, and 104 badly damaged; 12 C-47s shot down, with 140 damaged.[13][14]

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fuse 82 inches...
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vertical tailfeather 20 inches...

During the war years, the C-46 was noted for an abnormal number of unexplained in-air explosions (31 between May 1943 and May 1945) that were initially attributed to various causes. In particular, the fuel system, which was quickly designed, then modified for the new, thirstier Pratt & Whitney engines, was criticized. The cause of the explosions was eventually traced to pooled gasoline from small leaks in the tanks and fuel system, combined with a spark, usually originating from open-contact electrical components. Though many service aircraft suffered small fuel leaks in use, the C-46's wings were unvented; if a leak occurred, the gasoline had nowhere to drain, but rather pooled at the wing root. Any spark or fire could set off an explosion. After the war, all C-46 aircraft received a wing vent modification to vent pooled gasoline, and an explosion-proof fuel booster pump was installed with shielded electrical selector switches in lieu of the open-contact type used originally.[15][16]

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wing 117 inches...
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Overall, the C-46 had been successful in its primary role as a wartime cargo transport, and had benefited from a series of improvements. Like the C-47/DC-3, the C-46 seemed destined for a useful career as a postwar civilian passenger airliner, and was considered for that purpose by Eastern Airlines. However, the high operating costs of the C-46 (up to 50% greater than the C-47), soon caused most operators to change their minds. Consequently, most postwar C-46 operations were limited to commercial cargo transport, and then only for certain routes. One of the C-46's major drawbacks was the prodigious fuel consumption of its powerful 2,000 hp engines, which used gasoline at a much higher rate than the C-47/DC-3. Maintenance was also more intensive and costlier.[10] Despite these disadvantages, surplus C-46s were used by some air carriers, including Capitol, Flying Tigers, Civil Air Transport (CAT) and World Airways to both carry cargo and passengers. Many other small carriers also eventually operated the type on both scheduled and non-scheduled routes. The C-46 became a common sight in South America, and was widely used in Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, especially in mountainous areas (where a good climb rate and high service ceiling were required) or to overfly deep jungle terrain where ground transport was impracticable.

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C-46 Commandos also went back to war, serving in both Korea and Vietnam for various USAF operations, including resupply missions, paratroop drops, and clandestine agent transportation. The C-46 was not officially retired from service with the U.S. Air Force until 1968. The type also served under a U.S. civilian agency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The C-46 played a supporting role in many clandestine operations during the late 1940s and early 1950s, including resupply efforts to Chiang Kai-Shek's troops battling Mao's Communists in China as well as flying cargoes of military and medical supplies to French forces via Gialam Airfield in Hanoi and other bases in French Indochina. The CIA operated its own "airline" for these operations, Civil Air Transport (CAT), which was eventually renamed Air America in 1959. The C-46 was also employed in the abortive U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

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Although their numbers gradually began to dwindle, C-46s continued to operate in remote locations, and could be seen in service from Canada and Alaska to Africa and South America. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Canadian airline Lamb Air operated several C-46s from their bases in Thompson and Churchill, Manitoba. A C-46 converted to civil passenger transport carried the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle from power in 1979, just ahead of Sandinista forces. One of the largest C-46 operators was Air Manitoba, whose fleet of aircraft featured gaudy color schemes for individual aircraft. In the 1990s, these aircraft were divested to other owner/operators.

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Between 1993 and 1995, Relief Air Transport operated three Canadian registered C-46s on Operation Lifeline Sudan from Lokichoggio, Kenya. These aircraft also transported humanitarian supplies to Goma, Zaire and Mogadishu, Somalia from their base in Nairobi, Kenya. Two C-46s of different vintages still operate as freighters for First Nations Transportation in Gimli, Manitoba.[17] Buffalo Airways also owns and operates two C-46s, primarily used in Canada's Arctic.

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The Curtiss-Wright C-46 Cammando was the largest and heaviest twin-engine aircraft to see service with the USAAF. It gained its greatest fame in airlifting supplies over "the Hump" (the Himalaya Mountains) in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater in World War II, although it saw action in every theater.

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The Commando began its career as a pressurized, 36-seat commercial airliner (designated as CW-20) with twin rudders, but the Army saw greater utility for the aircraft as a transport. The USAAF first flew the prototype on 26 March 1940, modified it to have a single fin, and designated it the C-55. Demand for the aircraft grew rapidly, and manufacturing began at the new Curtiss plants in Louisville, Ky., and St. Louis, Mo. Redesignated as the C-46 Commando, the aircraft entered service with the USAAF in 1942. The aircraft division of Higgins Industries (the New Orleans, La. based boatbuilder that constructed most of the landing craft used in World War II) was given a contract for 500 aircraft, but only two C-46As were completed. All totaled, over 3,000 Commandoes were built before production ended.

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The C-46A had a large cargo door on the port side of the rear fuselage, folding seats to accommodate 40 troops, could carry a far greater payload than its more famous stablemate, the C-47, and it offered better high-altitude performance, which was one of the reasons it was used so extensively in the CBI theater. Commando crews began flying the hazardous air route over the Himalayas in 1943 after the Japanese closed the Burma Road. However, as a result of the CBI's harsh conditions, the type had a relatively high loss rate and maintenance was a problem. In Europe, the C-46 was used to tow gliders and drop paratroopers during the Rhein River crossing in March 1945.

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The C-46A, D, and F models were used in Korea, and a few aircraft were used by Air Force Special Air Warfare Center in the early years of the Vietnam War. C-46s were in limited Air Force service as late as 1969. Many went into civilian hands after World War II, and a fair number are still in use today.

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The United States Air Force utilized the C-46 Commando series as their primary transport workhorse in the Pacific Theater of War during the Second World War. The system was initiated to replace the Douglas series of DC-3 transports and first appeared in prototype form in March of 1940 as the twin-rudder CW-20T. Design specifications called for the Commando to feature a pressurized cabin for up to 36 combat-ready troops, longer range than anything available to the USAAF and an above average cruising speed.

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The CW-20T prototype later evolved into the CW-20A that featured a revised tail in the form of the more recognizable single rudder assembly. Later development focused in on the requirements as put forth by the United States Army Air Corps which put the CW-20A under trials with the designation of C-55, which consequently ordered a production version of the model now designated as the CW-20B.

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The CW-20B was redesignated to the more familiar C-46 identification. Final trial models were provisioned to fit up to 45 combat-ready troops and fitted with two Pratt & Whitney-brand R-2800-51 radial engines. The C-46 entered service with the plain designation of simply "C-46" in the Pacific Theater - and used almost exclusively there up until about March of 1945, to which the Commando would be seen across the European Theater as well. From its initial acceptance into service with the USAAF, the C-46 system would become the heaviest aircraft in that branch of service and make a name for itself as a true warrior workhorse, transplanting troops and cargo alike, across battlefields and beyond.

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Variants abound with the C-46 Commando. The United States Navy utilized a designation of R5C for their own Commando version with 160 models of the R5C-1 going to the United States Marine Corps. Specialized utility and troop models would be produced from the hundreds to the thousands. The C-46A Commando itself could carry up to 50 infantrymen and load/unload cargo through a large cargo door on the port side of the aircraft.

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The C-46 was officially retired from service in 1968, replaced by the equally effective C-130 series of transports.

The Commando was evolved from the Curtiss-Wright CW-20 which was originally laid out as a 36-passenger pressurised commercial transport in 1937. The prototype CW-20 first flew on 26 March 1940 and, because the US Army was impressed with its possibilities, authorisation was obtained for the purchase of a large number as cargo transports. In the meantime the prototype was bought, modified and given the Army designation C-55. It was later re-converted for civil use and sold to the British government.

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The Army production model of the CW-20, designated C-46, was a redesign not only to suit it to the duties of a military cargo or task-force aircraft but to allow easy large-scale production. It was produced in three large manufacturing plants and was put into widespread use by the US Army Air Transport Command, Air Service Command and Troop Carrier Command, and by the US Naval Air Transport Command and Marine Corps. The main compartment of the C-46 could accommodate (in addition to general cargo) 40 fully equipped troops, up to 33 stretchers, five Wright R-3350 engines or their equivalent weight of other goods.

Profiting from the experience of the C-46, the Curtiss company in 1944 prepared designs and a mock-up of a commercial version of the aircraft for immediate post-war production. Interestingly, by the end of that year at least two American airlines had ordered the type as the CW-20E. Several hundred of the 3,000 or so Commandos built survived the war and served in a commercial capacity for many years.

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Basic design for the airliner Curtiss Wright CW-20, began in 1936. This was later to become the C-46. At that time the Boeing 247 was the most prominent airliner, powered by 2 600 hp Pratt & Whitney engines and seating 10 passengers. American Airways had put its faith into the Curtiss Condor (2 Wright Cyclone GR-1820 engines and seating 15 passengers). TWA operated the DC-2, which came about in 1934 (2 Wright Cyclone 875 hp engines, 14 seats) and its excellence was accepted allround. Douglas improved this with the DC-3, powered by 2 1.200 hp Cyclone R-1820s or Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps also good for 1.200 hp. American had experimented with the Condor in socalled sleeper configurations and configured the DC-3 with 21 seats while in day use and 14 sleepers for flights during the night.The DC-3 had entered service in 1936. In 1935 Pan American World Airways had started its trans-Pacific routes with the Martin 130 flying boat (four 830 hp Twin Wasps, 14-32 passengers). The Curtiss Wright CW-20 had to do better.

The prototype was powered by two 1.700 hp Wright Cyclones and was aimed at the 24 to 34 seat market (while also able to reconfigure into 20 sleepers). The width of the fuselage was presumably such as would permit the berths fitted across its width and still leave room for a corridor ! In order to be able to pressurize the cabin, the designers had to strengthen the fuselage and this led to a circular cross-section for the fuselage. To have used one complete circle for the fuselage would have led to immense dimensions and too much drag. This was solved by the "double bubble" design and led to the typical shape of the C-46. The upper segment, the cabin, proved to be cavernous for those days...

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Compared to the Douglas DC-3, the CW-20 offered approximately 45 % higher gross weigth, while the fuel capacity of the Curtis Wright CW-20 was 25 % greater. Unfortunately, the fuel consumption was 50 % more and thus it fell short in the aim to increase the range of the airliner. The premier routes were the long haul transcontinental services and with the large capacity, strong performance of the engines and the ability to climb over the weather, the CW-20 must have been aimed at that market. But the lack of range was crucial. In fact, the high fuel consumption severly limited the maximum payload and thus the large volume could not be put to optimum use by cargo operators ! But anyway, the air cargo and mail tonnage available in pre-WWII days could not support all-cargo operations in aircraft the size of the CW-20. Curtiss was famous for its fighter designs for the US Navy as well as the Army Air Corps, starting with the P-36 in 1935 and continuing through to the P-40. The CW-20 was by far the largest project Curtiss had ever undertaken. The prototype, registered as NX-19436, was first flown on 26 March 1940. It initially had a twin-tail configuration, but within a year this was modified to the familiar single tail layout.

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By the middle of 1940, the war situation in Europe had deteriorated and the US military foresaw the involvement of the USA in what was to become World War 2. An unprecedented large amount of transport aircraft were ordered: 200 C-46s and 545 C-47s. Other types ordered in large numbers included A-20, B-24, B-26, P-38, P-40 and AT-6. The US Army Air Corps was renamed US Army Air Force (USAAF) on 20 June 1941.

Adapting the CW-20 to military service as the C-46 Commando needed few changes. The first 25 aircraft, designated C-46, were built essentially to the original specifications. The Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines were replaced by Wright Double Cyclones and plans to provide pressurization were abandoned, as well as a number of minor changes (like less cabin windows). Deliveries after the initial 25 were more adapted to the military role, like fitted with double cargo doors, a strengthened floor and hydraulically operated cargo handling winch. Forty folding seats took care of the seating in the C-46A. The US entered the war on December 7th, 1941.

The C-46s and the C-47s were used on short and medium routes. The war effort required more orders and thus an order for 150 C-46As was placed for the USAAF and 120 C-46As for the US Navy in June 1942. Followed in October by another order for 200 more. Some examples were modified on the production line to C-46D standard. The next order was for a 1.000 aircraft and these were followed by a further 2.250 C-46s in late 1943 and 1944. But after V-E Day (May 7th, 1945) cancellations were put in effect.

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The airlift from India to China, the socalled "Flying the Hump" operation, was the real hour of glory for the Curtiss C-46 Commando. In Feb. 1942 President Roosevelt ordered General Arnold to open a supply line across the Himalayas in support of General Chiang Kai-Shek (and his air adviser Claire L. Chennault) at a time when the Japanese offensive was at its peak. Rangoon fell in March 1942 and this cut off the supply via the Burma road. The initial 26 aircraft for this project were 10 ex-airline DC-3s and some C-53s. The flights were started in late 1942 by the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and the USAAF. By December of that year some 62 DC-3s of various types were involved, but already 15 had been destroyed. Conditions were poor at the airfields serving the China airlift, in september 1942, e.g. fuel was still being pumped by hand from drums. Chennault, a retired USAAC Colonel who had become special advisor to the Chinese Air Force in 1937, formed the American Volunteer Group (AVG) with 100 US-financed P-40Bs and began operations against the Japanese from bases at Kunming, the first successes recorded on 20 December 1941. In fact, this was the only air defence China had to offer at that time. The AVG ceased to exist on 30 June, 1942. The aircraft were taken over by the 23rd Fighter Group, developing into the China Air Task Force (under Chennault, recalled to active service as a General). Because the Japanese controlled the Chinese coast and the fall of Burma closed off the last remaining supply routes over the ground, all supplies (including aviation fuel !) had to be airlifted in. Existing numbers of aircraft had to be increased to be at all effective. In early 1943 General Arnold ordered to build up strength to 112 C-47s and 12 C-87s (converted B-24s).

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It was quite natural that the Chinese Air Force was to receive some C-46s and some 20 were left behind under Lend-Lease agreement. In fact, some C-46Es awaiting delivery in Tennessee, were picked up by Slick Airways and operated with the blue and white rudder striped with the Chinese Air Force markings. One C-46 was delivered to the Russian Air Force. No production C-46s were supplied to the RAF, but the original CW-20 prototype was purchased by the USAAF and supplied to Britain in 1942; BOAC used it for 18 months or so, mainly for flights to Lisbon, but it was broken up in late 1943. Records showed an abnormal number of explosions (31 between May 1943 and May 1945) in C-46s and this was attributed to the payload (gasoline drums, unpressurized cabin, high altitudes.. a leaky drum and a spark from the electrical system: a deadly combination). But after the war it was discovered that the unvented wing structure of the C-46 was the problem. Fuel leaking in the wing had nowhere to drain. A spark or static discharge led to the inevitable explosion. All C-46s certificated after the war were required to have a wing vent modification incorporated. After the war, Curtiss proposed civilian developments of the C-46 and Eastern Air Lines ordered a number of CW-20Es late in 1945. The order was however cancelled and further C-46 developments were ceased by Curtiss.

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