C-47 Stories by Roland Rogers

C-47 Airplane . . . Picking Up The Pieces

It was the best day of my life . . . no, I must say it was the second best day of my life. The best day must be reserved for my wedding day of 55 years ago and still counting.

The day I am referring to was a typical spring day in Louisiana, . . . hot, humid, and I had been miserable for several weeks. It all started when the U.S. Army canceled the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). The army had placed me in an accelerated Engineering program at Western Maryland College, where we were to learn two years of Engineering in nine months. All was going fine until some Army brass decided 100,000 of us could better be used to staff some Infantry Divisions in preparation to stop the Nazi onslaught in Europe. Thus, I found myself in the D-335 Regiment of the 84th Infantry Division on April 1, 1944. April Fool's Day, very appropriate.

Why me! I was a fly boy, and I would have been happy around airplanes. I had a lot of airplane experience. I helped build bombers at the Douglas Aircraft Company. I had joined the Army Air Corps. I had graduated from the Air Corps Airplane Mechanics School at Gulfport, Mississippi. I had been a flight line mechanic at Randolph Field, Texas. I had flown a Taylorcraft airplane and had flown in many military airplanes. I was supposed to be working with airplanes. After being at Camp Claiborne only a couple of weeks, I was given the assignment of Jeep driver for Company D. In another week or so, I was driving for the Company Adjutant. 

On the above referenced day, the Adjutant and I had been working an all day field problem, and we got back to our barracks late in the afternoon. As I entered my barracks, my buddies told me to hurry packing because I was shipping out to the Air Corps. Because that had been a running joke, I paid little attention to them, because I was tired and hungry. However, there were a number of duffel bags ready to go. I couldn't take a chance on missing something as important as returning to the Air Corps, so I went to the First Sergeant to see if I really was on a shipping list. He had no record of it, but admitted several of his people were shipping out to the Air Corps. Now imagine that, he didn't know if I was on his shipping list or not. Any way he advised me to get to the Personnel Office as fast as I could, because it was time for them to be closing. When I got to Personnel, they were standing on the outside step with the key in the door lock. A quick explanation got one of them to open the door and look up the shipping orders. YES! I was on it, and was to leave in one hour! I do not remember, but I am guessing I did not get to eat that evening. I had been reassigned because of the technical training obtained at the Air Corps school in Gulfport, Mississippi.

My new assignment was Bowman Field, Louisville, Kentucky. A Troop Carrier Command was there, and they had C-47 aircraft and CG-4 gliders. However, shortly after I arrived the aircraft left and headed for India to fly the "Hump". While waiting for a work assignment, we had a lot of free time. One day after lunch several of us were sitting on the grass, and we saw a Cessna AT-17 Bamboo Bomber circling the field with its landing gear up. The AT-17 was used as a transition trainer for pilots who were going on to fly multi-engine type aircraft. It soon became apparent he was in trouble and couldn't get the gear down. Many GI's gathered to watch the show. After circling for quite a while, either to get his nerve up or to burn off gasoline, he made his final approach. It would have been a perfect normal landing if the landing gear had been down. As the Cessna flared out and it settled down, the two wooden props were the first to hit the runway, and with a lot of noise, pieces flew in all different directions. Another successful landing, because both pilots walked away from it without injury.

Another interesting sight was watching five cross country P-51's make a landing while still in formation. The airplanes were on the ground and P-51 No. 4 was going a bit faster than the others. As he was about to collide with P-51 No. 3, he applied full power, lifted the right wing a bit, and leaped over the other P-51. It was a tight fit, but the only resulting noise was the beautiful sound of the Rolls Royce Merlins.

I was soon assigned to work in the Sub-depot repairing airplane parts and an occasional airplane that landed to have work done. The work was interesting and varied, much like what would be done in a commercial repair shop.

One day I was given a special assignment. Five of us were to travel to an area about 100 miles from Bowman Field to a farm where a C-47 had crash landed on August 11, 1944. This site was close to Cincinnati, but on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Our mission was to disassemble the C-47, place the pieces on trucks and trailers, and move them to Bowman Field. This was to be no small task. In addition to the trucks, trailers, automobile, and crane, we were advised to take bedding, because we would be sleeping in the fuselage. The expected duration was to be about one week "in the field", and we had no idea of what the task ahead of us would entail.

When we arrived at the crash site, we were very surprised at what we saw. It was about fifteen miles from a main highway, and there were obstructions on all sides. In addition, there were many trees. I do not know what military base the C-47 came from, or what the mission was. However, with two pilots and no cargo, I am guessing it was a cross-country training flight with a very experienced pilot-instructor in command. Having had an engine failure, the pilot shut down the faulty engine, and the C-47 was flying in a circle on one engine. Because of the rather tight circular flight pattern necessitated by small hills, the airplane could not gain altitude to clear the hills. Operating at emergency power on the good engine made it overheat, so there was no choice but to land the airplane while the good engine was still operating. The pilot picked the only suitable place, no it wasn't really suitable. However, it was the only logical place that was reasonably level, but it was way too small. 

The pilot should be commended for making such a good landing, even if it was a crash landing. After all, any landing you can walk away from is considered a good landing. In this case, the pilot also demonstrated substantial skill. I did not see the landing, but it is my guess he was careful to not waste any of the landing surface. He must have set the C-47 down at the very edge of the small wheat field using full wing flaps, cowl flaps open, and with sufficient air speed, so as to not stall, but with little excessive speed. The pilot knew once he came over the edge of the field he was committed. There was no chance of a go-around with only one overheated engine operating. As the C-47 was rolling on the ground, it must have become apparent very quickly the field was too short. The Ohio River was at the end of the field, and Lick Creek was on the left side, plus several small trees all around. Continuing the ground roll would result in an extreme disaster, because of the trees and the airplane nosing over into the Ohio River. With this in mind, the pilot apparently elected to retract the landing gear while applying the right-hand brake, probably with considerable force. The C-47 airplane is still partly supported on its the wheels after the landing gear has been fully retracted, and there is still brake action. The wing flaps made contact with the ground and perhaps other lower parts did also because of uneven ground surfaces. All this resulted in slowing the airplane a bit, but application of the right-hand wheel brake ground looped the airplane about 90 degrees to the right, breaking off both propellers. The airplane came to a stop with Lick Creek behind it and the Uhio River to the left.. One propeller had penetrated the fuselage, and one wing was slightly bent. It would never fly out of the field, but both pilots did walk away from their landing with no injuries. The owner and operator of the farm was Reuben Kirtley. Mr. Kirtley was operating a tractor in an adjacent field and had a good view of the crash landing. 

I don't think we did any actual work on the airplane the first day. By time we checked out all the gear at Bowman Field, drove 100 miles in Army trucks at wartime speed, there wasn't much time for anything but planning. Immediately, it was determined our equipment wasn't adequate. The airplane was in better condition than we expected.. For instance, the fuselage was intact, except for the hole made by the propeller. Only one wing suffered damage, and that was minor. The fuel tanks had a lot of fuel in them, which had to be removed. 

The following is what the general plan looked like. First the car wasn't suitable for off road use in the farmer's field. It was to be exchanged for a Jeep. We had nothing capable of transporting the fuselage and center wing section, complete with engine nacelles from the firewall back. That piece of the airplane was 64 1/2 feet long and 24 feet wide.That problem could be solved by getting a 60-foot flatbed trailer from Bowman Field. We had brought drums for the gasoline, and they would go on the small truck. Both outer panels of the wing and the engines would go on the 25-foot flatbed trailer. The crane had sufficient capacity to handle anything we needed to lift. 

On day two, a truck driver and I returned to Bowman Field in the car. He got the 60-foot trailer and a snub-nosed AutoCar tractor. I got a Jeep and a .45 pistol. The C-47 was equipped with a newly developed airborne navigation Radar, and it was to be protected by an armed guard. 
The truck driver (an ex-Navy man who had received a medical discharge) suggested we put the Jeep on his 60-foot flatbed, then ride in his AutoCar and talk while driving. With the Jeep sitting in the center of the trailer, we left Bowman Field about noon and headed down the main highway (no Interstates in those days). After an hour or so of driving, we stopped in a small town for a snack at a coffee shop. Several curious school boys gathered around our equipment. Perhaps they were in the fourth or fifth grade. One asked me why the Jeep was on the trailer. Maybe he asked me because the truck driver was a civilian and I was in uniform, complete with the .45 on my hip. I answered him thusly: "You've seen pictures of what Jeeps can do, such as climb very steep hills, push over trees and things haven't you? Well, the Jeep has so much power that it takes a lot of gas. We have to take this Jeep down the road a ways, and to save gasoline, we are taking it there on this truck." Guess I convinced him the big AutoCar tractor was more economical than the small 4-cylinder Jeep. 

When we arrived at the crash site and off loaded the Jeep, I assisted in removing the many bolts attaching the outer wing panels to the center section. (Wish I had counted them; the wing has a big cord, and the bolts are spaced close together.) The next few days were very busy ones getting the airplane parts on the trailers, etc.
We slept on the floor of the airplane. Because it was August, the weather was warm. One morning, Mrs. Betty Kirtley, the wife of the farmer whose field the airplane was in, invited us to her house for breakfast. Breakfast time was announced by the ringing of a large dinner bell. I also believe she treated us with drinks and afternoon snacks. Mrs. J. C. Acree, who was an elementary school teacher, also upplied us with additional food during our stay.

The first load out of the field was the salvaged gasoline. The fuel was pumped out of the airplane tanks into the drums sitting on the small truck bed. The truck was parked on a wide dirt area where two small roads crossed near the town of Florence, Kentucky. The gasoline drum area was roped off in an attempt to keep the public away from the drums and gasoline fumes. I believe it was on a week-end when I was guarding the gasoline, when a woman slipped under the rope barrier to get a closer look. She was smoking a cigarette, and those of us standing near by shouted at her to get out of there because of the 100 octane aviation fuel in the drums.

As the larger parts were loaded, the trucks and trailers were left parked in the farmer's field. In maneuvering the Jeep, I backed it past the loaded outer wing panels. A corner of the windshield caught the mounting flange on the undamaged wing, bending the wing flange and bending the windshield frame on the Jeep, plus breaking the windshield. Our crew leader made no comment, but I was very nervous about it. What would happen when we returned to Bowman Field? (Nothing happened, I might as well have broken a lead pencil.)

Now we were all ready to go, but go which way with that 24-foot wide load? The crew leader took the Jeep out on a scouting trip to check out the various bridges and other possible obstructions. It was found we could not return by the same route we used traveling from Bowman Field. A round about way through Frankfort was selected. Although not a fully clear route, it was the best we could do. 

When all was ready to leave the farmer's field, I used the Jeep to break down several small saplings, making a path for the trucks and trailers. As we moved from the field unto the country road, we became aware of many other overlooked obstacles. First, there were many mail boxes set close to the edge of the road which were in the way. The Jeep quickly pushed them over, breaking the mounting posts. We were traveling over a very narrow graveled country road. Our load was 24 feet wide, and the road was maybe 18 feet wide at the most. A few large trees and many small ones had to be cut, as well as telephone poles. Anything in our way had to go. Cars coming toward us were forced into the ditch to clear our wide load. This width was the result of having the C-47 center wing section (and fuselage) on a trailer.

I drove the Jeep about a half mile ahead of the big tractor/trailer rig, and the smaller truck was well in front of me. The plan was for the smaller truck to block traffic until I caught up with it, and as the bigger unit passed through that point, we would move out in front of it again. In spite of that plan, a few cars caused us problems. At one point, a lone car driven by an Army officer's wife was approaching us. I headed the Jeep straight for the car, and my partner stood up waving his arms. Just then, the big rig appeared over the top of a hill, and the woman driver panicked. Her officer husband jumped out of the car, and running to the driver's side, pushed his wife into the passenger's seat. In a very short time, he had the car off the road and into the large ditch, just as the big rig went by. 

Further down the road we had a more difficult time. We had come to the most challenging part of our journey. On the edge of this town was a bridge with sides so high it blocked the big rig. The 60-foot trailer had to be raised a considerable amount for the load to pass over this bridge. To accomplish this, the 25-foot trailer was unloaded, and the AutoCar was detached from the long trailer. Then the crane, which was traveling with us, lifted the rear of the 60-foot trailer (and load) until the 25-foot trailer could be backed under the rear wheels of the 60-foot trailer. The crane then was positioned at the front of the 60-foot trailer to raise that end to the correct height.With the crane leading and pulling the 60-foot trailer and its load, and the 25-foot trailer and its truck operating backward, it successfully crossed the bridge as one unit. I noticed we exceeded the bridge capacity by a large percentage.

It took quite a bit of time to accomplish the movement of the big load across the bridge. Police cars had blocked the road, but still one civilian got through. The policeman from one car was in a nearby coffee shop, and I sat in the driver's seat of the car, studying the emergency equipment. A button on the floor was a mystery to me, but I thought it might be the switch for the siren. The car that got through our road block came around a curve at a rapid speed and was quite near. I hit the floor button with my foot, and yes, it was for the siren. I'm not sure which was the quickest, the renegade car stopping or the police officer coming out of the coffee shop to see who was playing with his car.

There was just one other hair raising situation. As we crept through Frankfort at a walking pace, a large group of people followed us on foot. I was near the front of the 60-foot trailer watching for tree branches, overhead wires, etc., that might get in the way of our progress. I turned to look toward the back of the load, and froze. I couldn't shout a warning, or give any sign of a pending disaster. When the engines were removed from the wing, the exhaust pipe was separated so that what was attached to the engine went with the engine. The remaining exhaust pipe extension stayed attached to the firewall and center wing section. This was formed from thin stainless steel. It was essentially a thin walled pipe about eight or ten inches in diameter. It had an essentially knife edge facing forward. As I looked back, I saw a man standing in front of the slowly moving unit and facing me. He did not see the exhaust pipe extension coming toward him. I could see his head was in direct line with the pipe, and it looked like his head might fit into the pipe. The pipe was about to become a circular guillotine. It all happened so fast there was no time to take any action. 

I will leave you, dear reader, with the fact the man moved just in time to avoid being decapitated. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

C-47 . . . My Shortest Flight

It was a beautiful clear Missouri day. The spring time sun was warm and bright, and there was very little breeze. By this time, I had been on the Flight Line, and on flying status, at the Sedalia Army Air Base for about six months. Having graduated from the Army Air Corps Airplane Mechanics School at Gulfport Mississippi, and Flight Line Mechanic at Randolph Field on BT-13 Basic Trainers, plus having worked at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California, I had a few years experience with airplanes. To paraphrase Paul Harvey, this is the rest of the story: 

"My airplane", an olive drab C-47 with a big '63'on the nose, sat where I had parked it the previous evening. My Engineering Officer, Lt. Carl Ross, had posted No. 63 for a cross country flight. Now, my immediate task was to see that No. 63 was ready for the pending cross country flight. First, a visual inspection of the exterior to determine if anything was about to fall off. The tires and landing gear struts appeared to be within design limits. A couple of quick climbs upon the wing to open the oil inspection doors, one right and one left, showed me the oil levels were within operating range. Now off the wing and moving to the cockpit, I checked that the mags were 'off'. Returning to the front of No.63, I pulled each propeller through several times to make sure oil hadn't drained to the lower cylinders forming a hydraulic lock that could damage the engine when started. Next was a trip to the left hand seat in the cockpit for an engine run up and preflight check out. 

No. 63 checked out fine. After all, the C-47/DC-3 airplane was essentially trouble free. All that remained was to fill the fuel tanks. Climbing upon the wings again, I grabbed the gas hose from the gas truck, and topped off each tank. No. 63 was ready to go!

In a short time the flight crew approached the airplane. The pilot in command, 2nd Lt. Frank W. Hartley, SN O-775072, was also a flight instructor. Lt. Hartley and I were good friends, and he would always request my No. 63 C-47. Frank never made a detailed preflight inspection, always relying on the quality of my inspections. We entered the cockpit, Frank on the left, the student pilot on the right, and I stood between them because the C-47 did not have a Flight Engineer's seat. The two pilot's started the P&W's with my help, and as soon as the engines settled down to their pleasant tone, we taxied to the runway. It was a text book take off . . . almost. On climb out, the copilot, in checking for landing gear retraction, noticed gasoline spraying from the right wing. The reduced air pressure over the upper wing surface was siphoning the fuel out of the gas tank because I (red face) had failed to secure the gas cap. Other than creating a potential in-flight fire, it was a beautiful sight. The fuel came out of the wing in about a four-inch diameter stream, the size of the filler tube, and it then flared out into a very wide spray, several feet across creating a horizontal fountain effect. We were thankful for the under wing engine exhaust system.

Frank did a tight left 180, flew down wind until he was past the runway. Another tight 180 put us in line with the runway, and we were safely on the ground. Frank quickly parked the C-47, and I secured the filler cap without shutting down the engines. We were soon off on our original mission, and if the pilot had been anyone other than Frank Hartley , I might have been in trouble. 

C-47 at Negative Angle of Attack

I had been a crew chief/flight engineer on the olive drab C-47 No. 63 at the Sedalia Army Air Base for several months during WW-II. Although there is a town named Sedalia that is 60 to 70 miles east of Kansas City, the home town for the Air Base was Knob Noster, Missouri. Knob Noster . . . no wonder they called the Air Base Sedalia. The confusion has been clarified by calling the present site Whiteman Air Force Base. 

When I was stationed at the Sedalia Army Air Base, it served as a training field for glider pilots and airplane crews who were learning how to tow a glider. Our gliders were the popular WW-II Waco CG-4A. Tow planes were the trusty C-47, although later we had C-46 airplanes.

The subject day was a typical one for Missouri, which gave us good visibility. Everything had gone smoothly during the preflight inspection, and we had an easy glider hookup. The student pilot was in the left hand seat, and this was to be his first glider tow. The right seat was occupied by an old crusty, cigar chewing, Texan. Egads, he must have been at least 35 years old! (I was 22 years old, and the student pilot was about the same age as myself.) While taxiing to the glider hook up and the take-off roll on the runway, I stood between the two pilots, assisting where I could. All this time I was standing, or kneeling, depending on what I was doing, because the C-47 did not have an engineer's seat. 

When standing, I had an excellent view of the runway and the area ahead of the airplane. When the airplane reached what should have been take-off speed, the airplane was still heavy on the runway. We continued down the runway while gaining air speed. Eventually we reached the end of the runway, and the airplane wasn't flying. I became very alarmed when I saw the end of the concrete runway disappear under the nose of the C-47 with nothing in front of us except grass (weeds?) and a near by drainage ditch which was coming toward us at a rapid rate. The ditch was about six feet deep and perhaps twenty feet wide; just the right size to swallow the front end of a C-47. 

Our air speed was greater than required for a normal take off. However, the glider we were towing had lifted off, and was flying on the tow rope long before the C-47 was ready for a normal lift off. Thus the glider was holding the airplane tail in a higher than normal position. This negative angle of attack prevented the C-47 from becoming airborne. 

About the time the runway disappeared under the airplane nose, the instructor gave out a Texan drawl, "Yep, when ya got a glider on behind, ya gotta pull her off". And that is what the student pilot was doing with all his might. It was a delayed take off, but it was a successful one.

The Unknown Was Frightening

My C-47, with the big Number 63 on her nose was on a night training flight out of Sedalia Army Air Base in the early days of 1945. After a couple of hours I was sort of frightened. Well, maybe I should say I was very scared. Because we were just cruising, there wasn't much for me as crew chief to do. I was relaxing in the cabin (sleeping?) when the pilot's called me to the cockpit. As I got into position between them, I was told to look at Number 2 engine. Distant storm clouds made it dark outside . . . very dark. However, when I looked at the engine, there was a ghostly bluish-green neon-like glow around the propeller hub. It was sort of ball shaped with streamers flowing out from it and waving in the airstream. I did not know what it was, and the unknown substance was scary. One of the pilots explained it was St. Elmo's Fire. I must confess the hair on the back of my neck bristled. I did not understand what was happening. 

Recent research has revealed the following. St. Elmo's Fire can form on aircraft flying through heavily charged skies, often as a precursor to a lightning strike. The glow can be seen concentrated on wing tips, antennae, the tail, nose and propeller blades when the electrical potential difference is large enough. St. Elmo's Fire can be heard "singing" on the craft's radio, a frying or hissing sound running up and down the musical scale, according to some pilots.

Physical descriptions of St. Elmo's Fire have ranged from a ghostly dancing flame to natural fireworks. It usually is of a blue or bluish-white color attached to fixed, grounded conductors and has a lifetime of minutes. The flame is heatless and non-consuming, occasionally accompanied by a hissing sound. These latter properties promote the myths of spiritual presence. The biblical burning bush that was not consumed may have been displaying one form of St. Elmo's Fire.

Of all the varied names attributed to this phenomenon, St. Elmo is the one most often passed down in English language chronicles. Mention of St. Elmo's Fire can be found in the journals of sailors from crews of the early explorers Columbus and Magellan, the tales of illiterate sailors as well as those of Shakespeare and Melville, and the notes of Charles Darwin during his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle.

Roland Rogers