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The Douglas C-54/R5D/DC-4 Skymaster

Overview

Douglas Aircraft Company decided to produce a transport about twice the size of the DC-3 in 1938.[i] Douglas developed the DC-4E to meet a United Airlines requirement for a long-range airliner. The DC-4E flew for the first time in 1939. The DC-4E was complex and expensive to buy and maintain. Douglas revised the aircraft into the DC-4.[ii] With the war the aircraft was turned into a military transport. The C-54 Skymaster made its first flight on February 14, 1942.[iii] The civilian version of this aircraft, the DC-4, wasn’t bult until 1946. The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the United States Navy (USN) bought 1,162 of these aircraft. The USN version was the R5D. Douglas only produced 79 for civilian service. [iv] After World War II over 300 of the Skymasters went into civilian service. [v] As of 2020 Buffalo Airways still operates a fleet of 16 DC-4s.


[i] Boeing.com, http://www.boeing.com/history/products/dc-4.page, last accessed 6/16/2020.

[ii] Airliners.net, https://www.airliners.net/aircraft-data/douglas-dc-4/189, last accessed 6/17/2020.

[iii] Commercial Transport Aircraft, Edited by Michael J. H. Taylor, © 1990 Tri-Service Press Limited.

[iv] Commercial Transport Aircraft, Edited by Michael J. H. Taylor, © 1990 Tri-Service Press Limited.

[v] Boeing.com, http://www.boeing.com/history/products/dc-4.page, last accessed 6/16/2020.

World War II

The USAAF took delivery of the first C-54 Skymaster on March 20, 1942. Within the year the U.S. military received enough Skymasters to make a credible air bridge from the United States to various war theaters. The first C-54 loss was on January 15, 1943. The Skymaster fell apart in mid-air over Suriname, killing all 35 people on-board.[i] On July 9 a C-54 was practicing dropping a tank by parachute. A Lockheed C-40 which was photographing the exercise crashed into the C-54 in mid-air. The C-40 crashed killing all on board. The C-54 stayed airborne long enough for the two passengers to bail out. The three C-54 crew members died in the crash.[ii] On March 25, 1944 a USAAF Skymaster overflew a convoy. A Royal Navy F4F Wildcat mistook it for a Focke Wulf FW 200 and shot it down. All 6 crew members died in the shootdown.[iii] A C-54 crashed into the side of a mountain killing all 7 on-board on June 20.[iv] On July 26 a Skymaster disappeared over the Atlantic with 26 people on board.[v] A C-54 crashed into a residential area near Glasgow-Prestwick Airport on August 28. The crash killed all 20 people on board and 5 people on the ground.[vi] On September 4 a R5D-2 ditched in San Francisco Bay. One of the 5 people on board died.[vii] A C-54 crashed in Maine on September 7, killing all three crew members.[viii] On November 9 a C-54 crashed at Marathon-Florida Keys Airport, killed all 4 people on board.[ix] Two days later a C-54 crashed off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. All 17 on board died.[x] The next day a C-54 crashed in Canada. The crash killed 9 of the 18 people on board.[xi]

In 1944 a C-54 became the first presidential aircraft. It was a VC-54C nicknamed “Sacred Cow”. A VC-54C flew President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference, in February 1945. The VC-54C had 33 other long-range transports flying with it on this mission.

On March 9, 1945 a Skymaster crashed into Rock Harbor, Florida killing all 5 people on board.[xii] A C-54 crashed soon after takeoff on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, on May 5, all 21 on board died.[xiii] The last Skymaster crash during the war occurred on July 20, 1945. The crash was at New Castle AAB, Delaware. The 4 crew members died in the crash.[xiv]

A C-54 flew film of the Japanese surrender ceremony from Tokyo to Washington. This record setting flight took 31 hours and 25 minutes. Skymasters also brought many U.S. occupation troops from America to Japan. During the war C-54s made 79,642 transoceanic flights.[xv]

The U.S. loaned 22 C-54Ds to the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the war. The RAF returned the surviving C-54s to the U.S. after the war.[xvi]

[i] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19430115-0, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[ii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19430709-0, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[iii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19440325-0, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[iv] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19440620-0, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[v] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19440726-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[vi] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19440828-2, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[vii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19440904-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[viii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19440907-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[ix] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19441109-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[x] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19441111-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[xi] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19441112-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[xii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19450319-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[xiii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19450505-0, last accessed 6/19/2020.

[xiv] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19450720-3, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[xv] History of War, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_douglas_C-54_skymaster.html, last accessed 6/17/2020

[xvi] History of War, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_douglas_C-54_skymaster.html, last accessed 6/17/2020

Post-World War II

In 1945 the USAAF began weekly scheduled round-the-world flights. [i] In 1947 a C-54D flew on auto-pilot from Newfoundland to Brize Norton, England. In 1948 a Skymaster flew from Fairbanks, Alaska, over the North Pole, and landed in Oslo, Norway. The flight took 22 hours.[ii]

On July 26, 1947 President Harry S. Truman was aboard “Sacred Cow” when he signed the National Security Act of 1947. This act established the United States Air Force (USAF) as a separate service.[iii]

On June 24, 1948 Soviet forces blockaded all surface traffic to West Berlin. This was the first major test of the USAF, which became a separate military service on September 18, 1947. The U.S. and UK decided to resupply West Berlin, which was over 100 miles (200 km) inside Soviet occupied Germany. The USAF used every available Strikemaster for the Berlin Airlift. [iv] On March 4, 1949 a USAF C-54E crashed while on a Berlin Airlift mission. The pilot, 1st Lieutenant Royce C. Stephens, died in the crash. The other 4 crew members survived.[v] On June 25, 1949 a C-54E overturned on landing at Berlin-Templehof Airport, one crewmember was injured.[vi] On July 12, a C-54 crashed after two engines malfunctioned, killing all 3 crewmembers.[vii] The airlift lasted until September 1949. The Soviet forces lifted the blockade and East Berlin remained free. The USAF airlifted 1,783,826 tons of supplies to Berlin during the Berlin Airlift.[viii] The RAF, French, Canadian, South African, Australian, and New Zealand air forces also flew Berlin Airlift missions. This joint effort meant an average daily delivery of about 9,000 tons of supplies.[ix]

When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950 C-54s evacuated 851 American civilians from South Korea.[x] The first USAF loss of the Korean Conflict was a C-54 that was destroyed in a strafing attack by North Korean Yaks on June 25.[xi] This destruction caused General Douglas MacArthur to order fighters based in Japan to give air support to the evacuation. [xii] C-54s and C-47s kept the Pusan Perimeter supplied and evacuated the wounded. [xiii] Without these relief supplies North Korea would have taken over South Korea. Chinese forces launched an offensive on November 26. This caused the U.S. military to go on its longest retreat in history. C-54s airlifted over 1,000 Korean orphans from Seoul and surrounding areas to the safety of Jeju Island.[xiv] Some C-54s were re-configured with litters for medical evacuations. During the Korean Conflict Skymasters medically evacuated 66,000 patients.[xv]

Some C-54s were modified for other purposes. These included EC-54Ds (AC-54D) for electronic reconnaissance, JC-54D for missile recovery, HC-54D (SC-54D) for search and rescue, and TC-54D for training. [xvi]

The last U.S. military Skymaster crash occurred on January 10, 1968. Turbulent conditions caused a U.S. Navy R5D-2 to crash into Mount Tobin, Nevada. The crash killed all 19 on board.[xvii] The U.S. military retired the Skymaster in 1975. At the time over 20 air arms were still using Skymasters.

The last military crash of a Skymaster occurred on January 21, 1982. A French Navy C-54E crashed in New Caledonia while practicing touch-and-goes. All 7 crew members died in the crash.[xviii]


[i] History of War, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_douglas_C-54_skymaster.html, last accessed 6/17/2020

[ii] History of War, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_douglas_C-54_skymaster.html, last accessed 6/17/2020

[iii] AMC Museum, C-54M Skymaster, https://amcmuseum.org/at-the-museum/aircraft/c-54m-skymaster/, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[iv] AMC Museum, C-54M Skymaster, https://amcmuseum.org/at-the-museum/aircraft/c-54m-skymaster/, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[v] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490304-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[vi] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490625-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[vii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490712-2, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[viii] History of War, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_douglas_C-54_skymaster.html, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[ix] World Atlas, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-was-the-berlin-airlift.html, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[x] History of War, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_douglas_C-54_skymaster.html, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[xi] Air War Over Korea, by Larry Davis, © Squadron/Signal Publications 1982, P. 79.

[xii] Air War Over Korea, by Larry Davis, © Squadron/Signal Publications 1982, P. 79.

[xiii] Air War Over Korea, by Larry Davis, © Squadron/Signal Publications 1982, P. 79.

[xiv] Air War Over Korea, by Larry Davis, © Squadron/Signal Publications 1982, P. 81.

[xv] AMC Museum, C-54M Skymaster, https://amcmuseum.org/at-the-museum/aircraft/c-54m-skymaster/, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[xvi] History of War, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_douglas_C-54_skymaster.html, last accessed 6/18/2020.

[xvii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19680110-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[xviii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19820121-1, last accessed, 6/23/2020.

In Civilian Service

The civilian designation for the Skymaster was the DC-4. Only 79 DC-4s were built post-World War II for civilian use. Many of the military Skymasters were purchased by airlines and used for civilian purposes. About 2 dozen remained in civilian use in the 1990s. [i] As of 2020 Buffalo Airways still operates a fleet of 16 DC-4s.

A United Airlines C-54A, registration number NC30065, was the first civilian loss. It crashed at Chicago Municipal Airport, Illinois on May 29, 1946. It was a training flight and the crew survived.[ii] On September 18 a Sabena DC-4-1009 crashed near Gander, Newfoundland killing 27 of the 44 people on board.[iii] On October 3 an American Overseas Airlines C-54E, named “Flagship New England”, crashing into a ridge in Newfoundland. All on board died.[iv] On October 8 a United Airlines DC-4 crashed, killing 2 of the 37 passengers.[v]

On May 30, 1947 an Eastern Air Lines C-54B dove into the ground killing all 53 on board. At the time It was the deadliest airline crash in the United States.[vi]

On March 12, 1948 a Northwest Airlines C-54G crashed into Mount Sanford, Alaska killing all 30 people on board. The wreckage was spotted on March 13 but no one was able to reach the crash site until July 24, 1999.[vii]

On November 1, 1949 a Bolivian Air Force P-38 Lightning crashed into an Eastern Air Lines C-54B while they were approaching Washington-National Airport. All 55 on board the C-54B died in the crash. The P-38 pilot survived. At the time it was the deadliest airline crash in the United States.[viii]

A Northwest Orient Airlines DC-4 with 58 people on board disappeared over Lake Michigan on June 23, 1950. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter found an oil slick, aircraft debris, and some human remains in Lake Michigan.[ix]

A Cubana de Aviación DC-4 and a U.S. Navy Beech SNB-1 collided in mid-air on April 25, 1951. All 43 on board both aircraft perished.[x] A Canadian Pacific Air Lines DC-4 with 37 people on board disappeared near Sitka, Alaska on July 21.[xi] Two C-54s collided mid-air on November 17. One DC-4 cashed killing the 3 crew members. The crash injured 11 people on the ground. The other C-54 landed safely.[xii]

On April 29, 1952 an Air France C-54A, with a crew of 6 and 11 passengers, was flying from Frankfurt to West Berlin. It was flying in one of the allied air corridors when two Soviet MiG-15s attacked. The MiGs struck the C-54 with 89 rounds. The C-54 lost power in 2 engines and 3 passengers were wounded. The C-54 made an emergency landing at Berlin-Tempelhof. The Soviet Union claimed the C-54 was outside the allied corridor when attacked.[xiii]

Two People’s Republic of China Lavochkin La-11 fighters shot down a Cathay Pacific Airways C-54A near Hainan Island on July 23, 1954. A USAF Albatross from Clarke AFB, The Philippines, rescued the 8 surviving passengers and crew members.[xiv]

On October 6, 1955 a United Airlines DC-4 crashed into Medicine Bow Peak, Wyoming. The accident site was 20 miles (32 km) off the airliner’s course. All 66 on board perished. At the time it was the deadliest airline crash in U.S. commercial aviation.[xv]

On June 30, 1962 a South African Airways DC-4, 43157, collided with a South African Air Force (SAAF) Harvard IIA. All on board survived. Both crew members of the Harvard IIA bailed out. The DC-4 landed safely at Durban.[xvi] The DC-4, 43157, served with the SAAF from 1966-1993.[xvii] This is one of the two DC-4s belonging to the South African Airways Museum Society.[xviii] DC-4, 43157, was the last DC-4 built.

The greatest loss of life in a C-54 mishap occurred on June 3, 1967. An Air Ferry C-54A crashed in Mont Canigou, France killing all 88 people on board.[xix]

On September 20, 1969 a USAF F-4 Phantom II struck an Air Vietnam C-54D. The C-54D crashed killing 74 of the 75 people on board and two people on the ground.[xx] A bomb exploded in the cargo hold of an Air Vietnam C-54D on March 19, 1973. The crash killed all 58 people on board.[xxi] Another Air Vietnam C-54D crashed near Pleiku City, killing 26 people on board, on March 12, 1975. A recovery effort wasn’t possible because of fighting in the area.[xxii] Groundfire is a possible explanation for the crash.

The last Skymaster loss occurred on August 14, 1996. An Air North DC-4 crashed in the Iskut River near Creek Airport, British Columbia. Two of the crew members were rescued but the pilot drowned.[xxiii]


[i] Commercial Transport Aircraft, Edited by Michael J. H. Taylor, © 1990 Tri-Service Press Limited.

[ii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19460529-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[iii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19460918-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[iv] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19461003-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[v] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19461008-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[vi] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19470530-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[vii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19480312-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[viii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19491101-0, last accessed 6/20/2020.

[ix] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19500623-0, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[x] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19510425-0, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xi] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19510721-0, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19511117-1, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xiii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19520429-0, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xiv] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19540723-0, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xv] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19551006-0, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xvi] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19620630-0, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xvii] The Unofficial Website on the South African Air Force, https://www.saairforce.co.za/the-airforce/aircraft/32/dc-4-skymaster, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xviii] Aircraft of The SAA Museum Society, http://saamuseum.co.za/our-aircraft.html, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xix] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19670603-1, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xx] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19690920-1, last accessed 6/21/2020.

[xxi] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19730319-1, last accessed 6/23/2020.

[xxii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19750312-0, last accessed 6/23/2020.

[xxiii] Aviation-Safety, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19960814-1, last accessed 6/23/2020.

Douglas C-54 Stats

Commercial Transport Aircraft, Series Editor: Michael J.H. Taylor, (c) 1990 Tri-Service Press Ltd.

 C-54

Take-off Weight

73,000 lbs (33,000 kg)

Max Speed

274 mph (441 km/h)

Cruising Speed

207 mph (333 km/h)

Capacity

32,000 lbs (14,500 kg)

Rate of Climb

1,070 ft/min (326 m/min)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Robert Sacchi

Comments

Robert Sacchi (author) on July 01, 2020:

It depends on the year. In the post WWII years it many were used as passenger planes. The DC-6, which is bigger with a similar look, was also flying for a long time. It would probably depend on which airline and when.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 01, 2020:

I'm pretty sure I've flown this type of plane commercially, but it's been a long while. Is this one of the smaller planes that typically services routes that are off the beaten path?

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 25, 2020:

Thank you for reading and commenting:

Liz Westwood - That was an unofficial nick name. It happens often in aviation and government circles.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 25, 2020:

I am noting this.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 25, 2020:

It sounds like this aircraft was ready just in time for World War 2. I hadn't come across the Sacred Cow term for the president's plane before.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 24, 2020:

Thank you both for reading and commenting. The article doesn't cover all the accidents. The 1940s aircraft were death traps by today's standards. For the standards of its day the Skymaster was an airworthy aircraft.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 24, 2020:

This plane sure has a long history and it has been used for many purposes, which you covered very well in this article. There have sure been some awfu.l crashes but when a plane is used in wars I guess that will happen. I appreciate reading about the hsitory of this plane, Robert

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 24, 2020:

Not at all, please.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 24, 2020:

Thank you.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 24, 2020:

Robert. I am noteing the further update. Thanks.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 24, 2020:

Glad you found the article interesting. The Skymaster was sort of in between. It got superseded by the DC-6 (C-118 Liftmaster) so it wasn't the latest and greatest for very long. This happens to many aircraft history and technology is such they aren't the superstars even though they do valuable work for a long time.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 24, 2020:

This plane not as famous as the DC-3 served for along time. For a short time, it was used by the Indian Airlines but discarded in favor of the super constellation. Very interesting article for an aviation buff like me.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 24, 2020:

You're welcome.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 23, 2020:

Thank you, Robert for the update.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 23, 2020:

Thank you for reading and commenting. Aircraft participate in a lot of history. That is one thing that fascinates me about researching aircraft.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2020:

I got a kick out of the first presidential planes being nicknamed the "Sacred Cow." The Berlin airlift was certainly an important time for the use of this aircraft. It is always fascinating learning more about the various aircraft that have been in service and how they were utilized.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 23, 2020:

Thank you both for reading and commenting.

Miebakagh Fiberesima - Planes used in Air Force One were the Boeing 747, as the Presidential Plane and the C-130 as the Air Force plane. The C-54 was an impressive plane in its day. Aviation has gone a long way since the 1940s.

Mary Norton - Yes, it is difficult to distinguish commercial planes. Many have similar looks. The emergency instructions tell the type of plane, and how to egress in the improbable event the need will arise.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 23, 2020:

I am getting introduced to different types of airplanes. I can't often recognize the plane I board.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 23, 2020:

Robert, the C-54's or sky master must be a super plane. I though it was the air plane that was used in the movie Air Force One. Thanks.

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