The Richmond Register

July 15, 2013

Kentucky’s contributed to World War II aircraft production

Paul Foote

RICHMOND — Next weekend, the Aviation Museum of Kentucky in Lexington will display a Boeing B-17 bomber. Known as the Flying Fortress, B-17s proved vital to winning the Second World War.

This past weekend, the museum had a P-51 Mustang fighter and a Dauntless dive bomber available for on-the-ground viewing as well as for paid flights. Those planes also were crucial to the Allied war effort.

The only airplane assembled in Kentucky during WWII was the Curtiss C-46 Commando.  

In May 1942, the U.S. government assigned Curtiss-Wright, a defense production factory for wartime aircraft construction at Louisville, to produce the C-76 Caravan cargo plane, which was constructed mostly of wood.

However, after difficulties with the C-76, including a crash of a production model in mid-1943, as well as the realization that sufficient quantities of aluminum aircraft alloys would be available for war production, plans for large-scale C-76 production were abandoned.  

In May 1944, production was underway to build the first of 439 Curtis C-46 Commando twin-engine all metal aircraft. The last Commando was assembled in June 1945. By August of 1945, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation vacated the Louisville factory.

The C-46 aircraft was an important workhorse for the military during World War II. Initially, it was used to ferry cargo across the South Atlantic. It also saw some use as a glider tug in the European theater.

However, the C-46 became famous for its use in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater, flying supplies over the Himalaya Mountains, otherwise known as “the Hump.”

The cargo area in the C-46 was 48 feet long, 9 feet, 10 inches wide, and 6 feet, 8 inches high. Its maximum loaded weight was 45,000 pounds (which could be pushed to 50,000 pounds). As a result, the C-46 became the pillar of the CBI cargo route because of its combination of range, payload, and high altitude capability.

Despite weather and mechanical hazards, the C-46 had flown hundreds of tons of cargo by the time operations ended in November of 1945.

The C-46s military career didn’t cease with WWII. Small cargo operators acquired Commandos because they were perfect for operation in the rough terrain found in parts of South America. The United States used the C-46 to fly missions during the Korean War, and the CIA used it during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

There are only around a dozen Commandos still flying today. However, the C-46 will not be on display next weekend at the Aviation Museum.

The Aviation Museum of Kentucky is open to the public 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information about flights can be obtained by calling 859-231-1219.