By Henry Simpson – Young Historians
C-54D Skymaster, 56498, was built in the Douglas Chicago plant in 1944 before being delivered to the US Navy in May 1945. This veteran of 3 wars has sat in the corner of an airfield for almost 20 years, but now the “Save the Skymaster” project is restoring the aircraft to be a beacon of hope once more.
I was fortunate to visit the aircraft to see it come to life and to speak to Garry Verducci about the project and the plans for this triple war vet to give hope to veterans today.
Stationed in Guam in 1945 with VR-11, Naval Air Transport Squadron, and initially designated an R5D-3 in Navy service, the aircraft was used to transport blood and medical supplies to the front line on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. There the aircraft would be converted into a flying hospital staffed by flight nurses who would repatriate the wounded back to Guam and then onto the mainland United States via Hawaii. After the war, it was briefly transferred to VR-6 for only 2 months in 1946 until being transferred to MAG-15 and later VMR-152 supporting the allied occupation forces in Japan. In 1946 the aircraft was to be involved in a somewhat clandestine operation, repatriating surviving British prisoners of war from the Burma “Death Railway”, this was kept secret from the public such were the atrocious conditions the POW’s had suffered at the hands of the Japanese. The aircraft ferried the men via Hawaii to Delaware from where they were repatriated by ship to the UK.
Remaining in the Pacific the aircraft was not involved in the Berlin Air Lift, but it would soon be required in war time service again when the Korean War began in 1950. Based at Barbers Point NAS in Hawaii the aircraft was involved in the transportation of men and supplies to and from the Korean peninsula throughout the conflict. After Korea as Garry puts it; “Having survived two wars, they thought they might as well throw her into another one!” This was Vietnam where the aircraft once again became a beacon of hope for the wounded, transporting blood in and taking the wounded out. It fulfilled this role until 1972, once again based in Guam just as it had 27 years earlier in the Second World War! With the conclusion of the Vietnam campaign the aircraft was finally retired from military service becoming a crop sprayer in civilian hands after which it spent time in Arizona where the dry desert climate kept the aircraft in good condition. Then in 1991 it was purchased by Atlantic Warbirds and it began flying at airshows in New York State at which point the aircraft was put into its current Berlin Air Lift era Air Transport Command, Atlantic Division, livery.
In 2001 HBO planned to produce a Berlin Airlift film for which 56498 and a DC-4 were flown to North Weald in England, however the film fell through and the aircraft remained on the ramp. I personally remember seeing these big classics as a child after they arrived and they would remain unmoving landmarks on the airfield until 2017 when both Aircraft were put up for scrap and purchased by Henry Hyde. The DC-4 was judged unfeasible to repair and was broken up for parts, 56498 however was found to be in much better condition and a society was formed to restore the aircraft to which Henry officially gifted the machine.
Over the past couple of years work has been underway to restore the machine to flight and on July 4th the public were invited to witness the engines run, the society having succeeded in getting the propellers turning again after 18 years! “Each engine has had to be totally cleaned out and inspected, with spark plugs replaced and all 4 carburettors rebuilt” Garry describes, in addition, all of the fuel lines have been replaced and the fuel tanks (in the wing cavity) have had to be opened up, inspected and resealed though “only the port wing tank is working so far.” Sitting aboard the Skymaster before the planned afternoon engine run Garry provided me with a rundown on the status of the Pratt & Whitney R-2000-11 Twin Wasp engines: “Engine 1 is running well, but this morning it did not want to go,” (as we spoke engineers were working on it), engine 2 needs to be removed for a full overhaul, engine 3 is running but pending a piston change and engine 4 is running well. “We have got 2 replacement engines” he comments ,“one with only 50 hours on it so engine 2 will soon be swapped out for that and sent for overhaul.” He recalls when they first started up again that there was “5 minutes of smoke, flames and bangs while they cleared themselves out” but they have been running well since. “As for the next job?,” I ask him “Everything!” he laughs, he personally is working on the control cables and the electrics and avionics have already been replaced, “35 volunteers are working on a regular basis, we all do different jobs. Currently the ailerons have been stripped and are awaiting new fabric covering.” “There is some corrosion on a wing spar but it is reparable” he adds, while skin damaged from rain water on the underside is also being replaced. Overall though the aircraft “was in great condition from its time in the desert, much better than the DC-4”. The aircraft will remain on the N-reg, meaning it will be limited to 90 flight hours a year in the UK, but this is better than the UK G-reg as “that would require too many modifications, it would not be original, especially if we carry passengers for flights” (as the society hopes to do in future).
The plan for the aircraft is for it to become a flying museum with one half of the aircraft kitted out as a flying hospital, the other depicting the history of the aircraft, with the aim of taking it to shows so that, “everybody can come aboard to inspire a new generation with this living history.” They feel that it is important to give more recognition to the flight nurses and to recognise that 80% of the construction of the aircraft was done by women at the Douglas Factory. “This will be a flying memorial” he describes “we even have some guys who have become members who flew this aircraft in Vietnam!”
One of the big aspects of the restoration is that they are opening up training courses to help veterans “any who are struggling and out of work, they are joining the project to learn about aviation and engineering to help them get into the sector.”
“It gave hope to soldiers in WW2, it gives hope to veterans today.”
The project is also taking on students and young people interested in engineering to help give them experience, they have industry sponsors including one who will shortly be removing and overhauling the undercarriage “which will come back as new.” Garry is keen to highlight that these sponsors are a big help and that the project is still looking for more.
Looking forward the aircraft has been invited to the 2024 Berlin Air Lift commemorations, “But whether we could get it done by then, we don’t know.” He believes they are still 2 years of work away from flight, funding dependent. In the shorter term, next year they hope to do taxi runs with passengers once all 4 engines are running and the undercarriage is overhauled. This will be a big step forward from the aircraft’s formerly neglected state, it will also allow them to put on more events to help generate the funding needed to complete the restoration to airworthiness.
Leaving the aircraft to watch the engine run, engines 1 and 4 thunder to life seamlessly with no sign of the morning’s issues and the Skymaster comes alive for the public for the first time in 2 decades! Having seen the aircraft sat on the ramp for so long it was fantastic to finally see the propellers turn and as the engines throttled up it was clear that she is well on her way to her next mission, commemorating the past, while providing hope to the veterans of today.
You can find out more about the Save The Skymaster project on their website: www.savetheskymaster.org or by following them on Facebook @savetheskymaster
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