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.

Upgrading Charlie and . . . The Propeller Arrives!

AirVenture in Oshkosh is over so it’s time to get back to work! I’ll post a condensed version of the Oshkosh presentation on a separate page some time during the next few weeks once I catch my breath.

When we last saw Arnold and his family, they had just moved to Eglin AFB in Florida, where he was assigned to manage funds in the Air Force Armament Laboratory. Since he was no longer deploying all the time, he planned to start working on his record-setting airplane, but first he had one small project to do on Charlie, the family airplane.

Charlie was a Beech B35 Bonanza and had only enough seats for four adults. This was no problem when Arnold’s four daughters were small, but by 1969 they were too big to cram together into the two seats in Charlie’s backseat. Rather than buy another airplane, Arnold decided to equip Charlie with a second backseat. He designed a bench and installed it in the baggage compartment. There was still enough room to put small bags under the bench, and as long as the two girls in the backseat plus the luggage weighed less than about 200 pounds, everything would be fine. Of course, once the youngest girls got a little bigger and the rest demanded to take more luggage the solution would fall apart, but Arnold figured it would make Charlie work as a family airplane for a few more years. Plus, it gave him a chance to use his engineering skills that the Air Force seemed determined to waste, despite paying for his two degrees.

Arnold refreshed his mechanic’s skills by welding the frame for the seat and he found a local upholsterer to make the cushions. After getting a blessing from the FAA, he made the maiden flight with the family and realized he had forgotten that there was no window in the baggage compartment, so no one wanted to sit there. Fortunately, Beech already had a window kit that he was able to buy instead of heading back to the drawing board. A few weeks later, with the new window installed, the complaints from the back of the airplane died down.

With Charlie complete, another officer at Eglin presented Arnold with an opportunity to start building his dream airplane. All Air Force bases are full of pilots who can’t fly military airplanes for one reason or another, and Eglin was no exception. A second lieutenant who worked at the lab with Arnold had a civilian pilot’s license and owned a J-3 Cub that he kept at the airport in Crestview. The lieutenant decided to buy a new engine and propeller for his Cub and offered the existing ones to Arnold for only $100. The engine was a 65 horsepower Lycoming model that, even in 1970, was an antique. Parts were hard to come by, but at $100, it was too good a deal to pass up. Arnold decided to bring the wood propeller home to better protect it from the elements, and he found it fit nicely under the bed in the master bedroom. It was a good thing he didn’t try to bring the engine home — it wouldn’t have fit under the bed, and despite her own love of airplanes, Colleen probably would have objected to an engine as a centerpiece on the dining room table.