Airplanes of the Past Home Page



Curtiss C-46 Commando

The Curtiss C-46 Commando is a low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear originally derived from a commercial high-altitude airliner design. It was ultimately used as a military transport during World War II by the United States Army Air Forces as well as the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps. Usage continued for decades after its introduction.

At the time of its production, the C-46 was the largest twin-engine aircraft in the world, and the largest and heaviest twin-engine aircraft to see service in World War II.

Curtiss C-46 Commando in flight
Curtiss C-46 Commando in flight during WWII

C-46 Commando Design, Development and Production Numbers

The prototype for the C-46 plane was the Curtiss CW-20, designed in 1937 by George A. Page Jr., the chief aircraft designer at Curtiss-Wright. The CW-20 was envisioned as a private venture to introduce a new standard in pressurized airliners. The resulting design was a large, aerodynamically "sleek" airliner, incorporating the cockpit in a streamlined glazed "dome".

But with the advent of war, priority shifted to military aircraft. The first C-46 flight took place on March 26, 1940, and by the time of first delivery to the Army Air Force in 1942, it had been named the "Commando".

Although 17 different variants of the airplane were produced, the C-46A and C-46F made up the bulk of the production run. A total of 3,140 Commandos were made before production ended in 1946.

Curtiss C-46 Commando Topps Wings Friend or Foe trading card
Curtiss C-46 Commando
(from the author's Wings Friend of Foe collection

C-46 Commando Specifications

Crew: 4
Capacity: 40 troops or 30 stretcher patients or 15,000 lb cargo
Length: 76 ft 4 in
Wingspan: 108 ft 0 in
Height: 21 ft 9 in
Wing area: 1,360 ft2
Empty weight: 30,669 lb
Maximum takeoff weight: 45,000 lb
Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney R-2800-51 two-row 18-cylinder radial engines, 2,000 hp each
Maximum speed: 270 mph at 15,000 ft
Cruise speed: 173 mph
Range: 3,150 mi at 173 mph
Service ceiling: 24,500 ft
Rate of climb: 1,175 ft/min

C-46 Deployment in World War II

Initially, the C-46 was used to ferry cargo across the South Atlantic. The Army Air Force, Navy and Marines ultimately flew Commandos on all fronts in World War II, but they attained their fame flying material and supplies from India over the Himalayan Mountains, or "Hump" into China.

Aerial view of surplus C-46 Commandos in storage at Cal-Aero Field after WWII
Aerial view of surplus C-46 Commandos in storage at Cal-Aero Field after WWII
(Photo used by permission of the photographer, William T. Larkins)

They also towed gliders on raids behind enemy lines. In Europe, its first usage occurred late in the war when C-46s dropped paratroops during the crossing of the Rhine River in 1945.

Post-WWII Aircraft Disposal and Usage in Other Wars

The C-46 had been successful in its primary role as a cargo transport plane in World War II, and saw a series of improvements during production.

However, once peace was assured in 1945, the military found itself with a huge surplus of aircraft. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) handled the disposal of these planes. The RFC established depots around the country to store and sell surplus aircraft.

Curtiss C-46A Commando, S/N 42-3649, for sale at Cal-Aero Field, California, post-WWIICurtiss C-46A Commando, S/N 42-3649, for sale at Cal-Aero Field, California, post-WWII
(Photo used by permission of the photographer, William T. Larkins)

Many C-46 Commandos were sent to Cal-Aero Field, east of Los Angeles, near Chino and Ontario, California (see photo above) for storage, sale and disposal.

In later years the C-46 Commando went back to war, serving in both the Korea and Vietnam conflicts for various U.S. Air Force operations, including resupply missions, paratroop drops, and clandestine agent transportation. The C-46 was not officially retired from service with the U.S. Air Force until 1968.

C-46 Usage at Nonskeds

Curtiss C-46 of Meteor Air Transport
Curtiss C-46 of Meteor Air Transport
(Photo used by permission of William T. Larkins)

Like the C-47/DC-3, the C-46 seemed destined for a useful career as a post-war civilian passenger airliner. However, the high operating costs of the C-46 caused most airlines to show no interest in the C-46 for commercial service. One of the C-46's major drawbacks was its large fuel consumption, as was its intensive and costly maintenance.

Thus, most postwar C-46 operations were limited to commercial cargo transport on certain routes.

The C-46 was an important part of the surplus aircraft story as it became the aircraft of choise for many post-war "Nonsked" operators. Small cargo operators purchased surplus Commandos and successfully used them to fly non-scheduled routes. The rugged airplane was perfect for operation in the rough terrain found in parts of South America, such as the Amazon jungle and the Andes Mountains.

Surviving C-46 Aircraft

Curtiss C-46 "China Doll"
Curtiss C-46 "China Doll"

Today, some C-46 planes remain in operation as private aircraft. The C-46 is an ideal cargo transport for Arctic and remote locations with its service life extended into the 21st century. Everts Air Cargo in Alaska continues to operate a C-46, registered as N54514.

Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife, NT, Canada operates two C-46 aircraft. Other C-46 aircraft remain in operation around the world.

Others like "Tinker Belle" maintained by Warriors & Warbirds in North Carolina, and "China Doll" operated by the Commemorative Air Force Southern California Wing, have been restored by preservation groups and are in airworthy condition.

Several surviving C-46 aircraft have been restored and are on static display across the country, such as those shown in the photos below.

C-46 Photos by the Airplanes Of The Past Staff

C-46 Commando X606 in Tucson, Arizona
C-46 Commando X606
C-46 Commando, Robins AFB, Georgia
C-46 Commando
Tail section of the Curtiss C-46 Commando S/N 201198
Tail section of the Curtiss C-46 Commando S/N 201198


C-46 Commando Photos of Nonskeds ... by William T. Larkins

Curtiss C-46A Commando, N59487. of Central Air Transport, post-WWII
(Photo used by permission of the photographer, William T. Larkins)
Curtiss C-46A Commando, N59487. of Central Air Transport, post-WWII
Curtiss C-46 of Golden State Air Line, post-WWII
(Photo used by permission of the photographer, William T. Larkins)
Curtiss C-46 of Golden State Airlines, post-WWII
Curtiss C-46 of Meteor Air Transport, post-WWII
(Photo used by permission of the photographer, William T. Larkins)
Curtiss C-46 of Meteor Air Transport, post-WWII
Curtiss C-46 "Suncruiser" of Resort Airlines, post-WWII
(Photo used by permission of the photographer, William T. Larkins)
Curtiss C-46 "Suncruiser" of Resort Airlines, post-WWII

Special thanks to the photographer William T. Larkins for granting permission
to use these historic photos from his archives on this website

USAF C-46 Commando Photos

Curtiss C-46 Commando S/N 478018 parked on tarmac
Curtiss C-46 Commando S/N 478018 parked on tarmac
Curtiss C-46 Commando S/N 478109 in flight
Curtiss C-46 Commando in flight
Curtiss C-46D Commando S/N 4478054, "Big Ma Moo", on the tarmac
Curtiss C-46D Commando S/N 4478054, "Big Ma Moo", on the tarmac
Curtiss C-46 Commando in flight
Curtiss C-46 Commando in flight