At the Greatest Show on Turf, Geneseo New York Airshow 2017. Author in front of The Tinker Belle.
Flying the C-46 Commando
September 20, 2017
By First Officer Charles Scott Williams
In baseball the knuckleball is referred to as controlled chaos. Landing a 48,000 pound tail wheel aircraft or “taildragger” nicknamed The Tinker Belle is sometimes in the same neighborhood as the knuckleball. Eye height at touchdown on the main landing gear is almost in the stratosphere and then the fun begins. I never knew that dancing was a part being a pilot until I flew the C-46. After the main landing gear touches, the throttles are brought to idle, the airspeed bleeds off, and the tail begins to settle. With decreasing wind flow over the rudder, greater deflections are required of the rudder to achieve control about the vertical axis. I can hear the Jackson 5 singing “Dancing Machine” in my head as my feet dance upon the rudder pedals trying for that magical thing called directional control. Fred Astaire would be hard pressed to keep up with the gyrations of a pilots feet on the rudder pedals of the Commando during landing. The tail wheel settles to the runway during landing roll out with the tail wheel locked and upon touchdown the landing can quickly turn into a knuckleball as the way the tailwheel is headed is the way The Tinker Belle or “Tink” wants to go. Rudder pedals in addition to using differential brakes and thrust to control the direction of this monster are your tools for directional control of the C-46, and you might need them ALL depending on the conditions.
I was first introduced to the C-46 via a non-profit called Warriors & Warbirds (W&W), the organization that operates The Tinker Belle, based at the Charlotte Monroe Executive Airport in Monroe North Carolina. The aircraft is owned by the lovely city of Monroe, North Carolina, a place that offers many business opportunities for those delving into entrepreneurial enterprises or simply those that want a nice place to raise a family. Monroe has a lot to offer and I am thankful that The City of Monroe and Warriors & Warbirds gave me the opportunity to fly this piece of living history. In the lower 48 states, The Tinker Belle is the only C-46 Commando dwelling about in the skies, working the airshow circuit. She serves as an ambassador, promoting the City of Monroe North Carolina and as a living history lesson for all the thousands of folks that have and will tour her. Ground School for me began with W&W C-46 Pilot, Tom Mulcrone. Tom flew the C-46 for Zantop Airlines in the 1960’s before beginning a career with Delta Air Lines, eventually retiring as an L-1011 Captain. Known as “The Professor” for his encyclopedic knowledge of all things C-46, it was a true pleasure to learn from the man with an equivalent of a PhD on the Curtiss Wright product known as the Commando. As all at W&W are volunteers, I paid my dues working on the ground before actual flight training began and wore many hats at my first airshow, Warbirds Over Monroe in 2016. Sanitation Engineer, caterer, aircraft washer, Ramp Worker, directing the start and taxi of Tinker Belle, are many but not all of the titles at that airshow that I took on. To me it was all fun, just to be a part of the show in support of the C-46. The day finally arrived for my Second-in-Command qualification flight in the right seat of “Tink” with W&W’s Chief Pilot, Captain Alex Mello. Captain Mello’s flying skills include multiple decades as an Airline Pilot currently flying the A320 Airbus for a Major Airline based in Charlotte and hundreds of hours flying the C-46. But before you spread your wings and break the surly bonds, preflight inspection is a must.
Due to the sheer size of the Commando, preflight inspection takes a while The wing span is 108.6 feet and the cockpit seat height on the ground with the tail down is roughly the same as that of a Douglas DC-10 wide body jet. Oil capacity is checked via use of a 15 foot ladder and if oil is needed it is delivered in gallons instead of quarts. The fuel tank quantity is checked via use of the same logic that President Regan used in dealing with the then Soviet Union, “trust (the fuel gauges) but verify.” Verifying is done by climbing on to the wings through each over wing emergency exit and actually “sticking the tanks” with a measuring stick to verify fuel quantity in each of the 6 fuel tanks. The remainder of the exterior preflight is similar to most other aircraft in that you are checking general condition of the aircraft controls and structure. Hydraulics are checked in the reservoir itself which is located inside the cabin, just aft of the cockpit, aircraft left. Checklists are used for all cockpit procedures just as in any professionally ran flight operation and finally the time comes to bring the two Pratt & Whitney 2,000 horse power engines to life. Unlike turning one start switch on the Boeing 737 that I fly for a Major Airline based in Houston, starting the R-2800 engines of the C-46 requires teamwork between the right and left seat occupants in the cockpit. In starting the left engine Captain Mello actuates the starter switch and I turn on the magnetos, move the mixture to auto rich, and manipulate the left throttle to coax the engine to start. Roles are reversed in starting the right engine as I engage the start switch and the Captain moves the left mixture, magneto switch, and throttle. Runway 23 waited patiently as we taxied out at KEQY, the Charlotte Monroe Executive Airport as did great visibility and light winds, a combination that suits this big tail dragger and fledgling First Officer just fine. All checklists have been completed and we line up on Runway 23 and lock the tail wheel in place. Brakes held, control wheel or “yoke” aft, the engines are pushed up to 30 inches of manifold pressure and the brakes are released after ensuring engine parameters are nominal. Both throttles are then pushed up to 52 inches of window rattling manifold pressure and within mere seconds, the tail wheel is aloft, nose lowering to almost level attitude as we accelerate towards takeoff speed. “V one.” “V, two,” “positive rate” (of climb), “landing gear up.” Airborne now, the runway falls below and behind as we accelerate to 125 knots (144 miles per hour, mph) with the cowl flaps open to cool 36 cylinders that are working very hard to earn their keep. Power reductions for climb and cruise follow suit shortly thereafter and we are trimmed up for stabilized straight and level flight. Ponderous and slow would be an adequate description of the maneuverability in pitch and roll rates but you must remember this, unlike another Curtiss Wright product, the P-40 Warhawk fighter plane, the C-46 is a freighter and not designed to turn like that of an agile fighter aircraft.
In all phases flight, the use of the huge elevator trim wheel at my left hand is not an option but a necessity unless you want a cardio workout the entire flight. Elevator, rudder, and ailerons are all cable and pully affairs just like a Cessna 150. The horizontal stabilizer of the C-46, at 36 feet 4.4 inches, is greater than the wingspan of a Cessna 150 and the C-46 wingspan is 108.6 feet! Earlier models of the Commando offered hydraulic aileron boost but this is not offered in The Tinker Belle, which is an F Model C-46. Cruise speed is about that of a Cessna 310, in the 160 to 180 knot (184-207 mph) range, and engine out performance in positive vertical rate of climb equates to similar light twin engine aircraft. Roll and pitch rates are slow, but again, the C-46 was designed to haul a lot of cargo in and out of sometimes unimproved airstrips, not try and turn on a dime in air combat maneuvering like a fighter. The Commando became a legend and earned its place in history flying the “Hump,” the nickname for the Himalayan Mountains in the CBI or China, Burma, India Theatre during World War II. Commando’s hauled anything that would fit into the cavernous cabin which included jeeps, up to 40 combat troops, bombs, fuel, and anything else needed to support the Allied effort during the war. The Tinker Belle has cables in the cabin ceiling that run from front to rear. Many that tour her think these are simply hand hold cables for balance but they are actually used by paratroopers to connect their static lines. The static line plays out when the troopers jump from the door and opens the parachute of each jumper.
WWII Weekend at the Reading Pennsylvania Airshow 2017
Reenactor Paratroopers, Author second from right. The Tinker Belle in background
After delivering various cargos, the C-46 would return to base and repeat as necessary, the hazardous journey across the treacherous Himalayas. Moving forward seventy three years I find myself leisurely cruising above the lush forests and farmland around Monroe North Carolina, just getting the feel of flying The Tinker Belle during my right seat checkout. With landing gear and flaps retracted “Tink” handles like other transports that I have flown in my aviation career, very stable, as the R-2800’s loaf along with that distinctive radial engine sound that makes the hair on your arms stand up. The cyclic firing of the circularly arraigned cylinders of the radial engines is literally a blast from the past as most in modern times only hear the flavorless common whine of turbine engines passing overhead. Rolling left and right via use of the “yoke” in my hands offers a heavy feel and the reaction time of the C-46’s long wings is slightly delayed and slow. Returning to straight and level flight shows the stability of this huge “tail dragger,” which is solid as a rock. Descending, as in any aircraft requires planning for many reasons. As “Tink” is unpressurized, the descent rate must be kept low so as not to hurt the ears of passengers and crew. Any big reciprocating engine needs tender loving care so that it is maintained in the proper temperature range, thus when power is reduced for descent it is reduced slowly. Captain Mello and I are both airline professionals and the use of checklists is no different when flying The Tinker Belle than in our respective Airbus and Boeing aircraft at work. Returning to the Charlotte Monroe Executive Airport the R-2800’s are reigned in as the power is reduced, slowing to adequate airspeed to lower the landing gear and flaps for landing. 25 inches of manifold pressure is set and varied slightly as needed with the landing gear all down and flaps extended to 35 degrees or fully for landing. The descent rate on final approach with an airspeed of approximately 100 knots (115 mph) at these power settings and in this configuration (landing gear and flaps down) maintains an approximate 3 degree gradient to the runway. As the altimeter unwinds with our descent the runway approaches and as it nears I pull back slightly on the yoke as the main wheels make contact. Both throttles are brought to idle and if you recall the reference to “dancing” on the rudder pedals, this is where the music starts. Today the winds are light and my dancing shoes are not needed but you never let your guard down when landing a taildragger until the aircraft is back in the hangar with the doors closed and locked. Decelerating on landing roll out decreases the lift on the horizontal stabilizer and the tail begins to settle to the runway. The trick is to fly the tail to the runway and not simply let it drop like a rock, banging to the ground. The shock absorber will do its job with the tail wheel but why subject such a lovely gal as The Tinker Belle to such unnecessary abuse? Thus, I apply slight forward pressure on the yoke as the airspeed bleeds off which gently lowers the tailwheel to Mother Earth. At taxi speed the tailwheel is unlocked which allows the tail wheel to pivot. To clear the runway after landing we make a 90 degree right turn on to the taxiway using a touch of right brake which applies the brake on the right main landing gear and then applying a pinch of power to the left engine. The thrust from the left engine in conjunction with the application of right brake, pivots the tail to the left and the nose of the aircraft to the right. To slow the momentum of the swinging fuselage or body of the C-46, before we reach the 90 degree point of the turn, a touch of left main wheel brake and a pinch of thrust from the right engine arrests the momentum of “Tink” perfectly at the 90 degree point of the taxi turn. Another 90 degree turn is made and we taxi straight ahead to the ramp where The Tinker Belle will rest until called airborne again for the next show. After landing and parking checklists are completed, mixtures are brought back to the aft cut offs. The silence of the shutdown R-2800’s is deafening.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would fly a C-46 Commando but post flight I find myself shaking hands with Captain Alex Mello and thanking him for the opportunity. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the volunteers at Warriors & Warbirds as well as the fine City of Monroe North Carolina for this rare chance to operate such a historic aircraft. If you would like to tour The Tinker Belle, see her on the airshow circuit, or volunteer with Warriors & Warbirds please look us up on Facebook or at warriorsandwarbirds.com.