Pacific Crossings, C-54-Style

Despite Arnold’s design changes, he didn’t have any tools or any space to work on his record-setter. Even if he had, he was once again too busy with work to do much. Flying the C-54 turned out to involve many missions to ferry the airplanes to various locations around the US and the world, which kept him away from home sometimes for weeks. In February 1970, Arnold was assigned to ferry a C-54 to Korea.

Ferrying a C-54 from the United States to Korea wasn’t a bit like flying as a passenger on a 707 or 747 across the Pacific Ocean. First, the C-54 was unpressurized and could only fly at about 8,000 feet above the ground or water. Second, the airplane had to be outfitted with special long-range fuel tanks for making the Pacific crossing. Even with the extra tanks, Arnold and his crew still had to make multiple stops for refueling. And last, there was no meal service, except for box lunches scrounged at various stops along the way.

The airplane they were ferrying wasn’t even at Eglin – they first had to fly to Victoria, Texas, to pick it up from a refurbishment facility. On February 20, the crew departed Victoria and flew to McClellan AFB in northern California, stopping at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma along the way. The next day, after loading the long-range tanks into the cargo compartment and hooking them up to the C-54’s fuel system, they headed for Hickam AFB in Hawaii. About ten miles off the California coast at 8,000 feet altitude, Arnold decided to start pumping fuel from the long-range tanks – he wanted to know about any problems right away, not several thousand miles from the nearest land mass where they could wind up as a tiny speck bobbing in a monstrous ocean. It was a fortunate choice – when the flight engineer switched tanks, all four engines quit and the C-54 turned into a 35 ton glider.

No one said a word. The airplane was silent except for the muffled sound of the propellers as they wound down and whispers from the air rushing past the cockpit. Arnold immediately pitched the nose of the C-54 up to achieve the airplane’s best glide speed, where it would lose as little altitude as possible; still, 8,000 feet is not a lot of altitude, especially over the water. As Arnold pulled the airplane up, the horrified flight engineer realized what had happened and switched back to the main fuel tanks. The airplane continued descending as the main tanks pushed their precious fluid back into the fuel lines; after an agonizing 30 seconds, the fuel reached all four engines and they restarted. After the engines were running again, the flight engineer took a trip to the cargo bay and discovered that the valve for the auxiliary tanks had been installed wrong – what normally would have been the “on” position was instead “off.”

Wayward valves resolved, the rest of the trip to Hickam was uneventful, and after some rest and refueling, they continued to Wake Island and then to Itazuke Air Base in Japan, which Arnold had last visited 13 years earlier during operation Mobile Zebra from Foster AFB. The leg from Wake Island to Itazuke took 13 and a half hours, breaking his personal flight length record of 12 hours set flying in a balloon at White Sands Proving Ground in 1952.

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