History of the CAF’s Curtiss C-46F “China Doll” (by Ron Fleishman, So Calif Wing historian.)
The history of the C-46F “China Doll” is typical of post-WWII surplus transport aircraft.
“China Doll” was one of 234 C-46Fs built at the Curtiss plant in Buffalo NY. She rolled off the assembly line and was accepted in July 1945, with Curtiss Construction No 22486 and AAF serial No 44-78663. Records indicate that early assignments included Sedalia Army Air Base (now Whiteman AFB, home of the B-2 bomber), Greenville SC, Brookey AL, and other bases in the southeastern United States. Used as a transport and glider tow plane, she flew with the military until the early 50’s.
Surplused and sold to Meteor Air Transport of Teteboro NJ, she was given the new number N53594, a new civilian paint scheme, and was put to work hauling clothing to Detroit and auto parts back to New Jersey. She was even used as a Christmas holiday transport, hauling toys and Santa sleighs. A radio remote was broadcast from the plane on one Christmas eve over New York City, according to Ken Johnson, chief pilot at Meteor.
Meteor went out of business in 1958, after which the plane changed hands many times … Riddle, Zantop, Universal, and several companies owned by Ortner Air Service of Wakeman OH. The last civilian owner was Plymouth Leasing of Detroit, who leased the plane to Rosenbaum Aviation, who in turn cut holes in her sides, put spray booms on her wings, and used her as a pinecone beetle sprayer.
The CAF acquired the plane from Plymouth Leasing in Feb 1978, along with the C-46 N78774. Both of the old girls were tired and needed lots of “TLC”. N78774 got lucky early and went to the Oklahoma Wing to become “The Tinker Belle”. “Ol’ 594” had to wait. She was finally assigned to the East Texas Wing, located at Conroe TX, where she was given the name “Humpty Dumpty” in honor of the C-46s that flew over the Himalaya Mountains (i.e., “the Hump”) during the war. She also received a Chinese color scheme and clever nose art , showing a Chinese egg jumping over mountain peaks.
An engine failed in 1980. This posed a bigger problem than the East Texas folks wanted to handle, and the plane sat in non-flying condition until the summer of 1981. The newly formed So Calif Wing wanted a plane, and they were offered the C-46 if they could come up with two new engines and hang them on the plane. Who could refuse an offer like that?
It took the entire summer of 1981 to replace the engines. Then, on her first test flight, she skidded off the runway into axle-deep mud. With lots of coaxing, she finally left Conroe and flew to Airsho81 at Harlingen TX, where two main oil lines let go.
During Airsho81 the C-46 was officially assigned to the So Calif Wing. On Columbus Day 1981, she was flown to Van Nuys airport, in Los Angeles, and then to her permanent home at Camarillo Airport in the spring of 1982, where work began in earnest to make her a “star airshow airplane”. This wasn’t just a line fed to an ol’ country girl. The California Colonels really meant it. Over the course of several years they cleaned up corrosion, patched up lots of sheet metal, overhauled the propellers, replaced the passenger windows, and gave the plane a new coat of shiny aluminum paint and bright USAAF markings.
Still not satisfied, the So Calif Colonels gave her a new name and glamorous new nose art. In honor of the oriental flights of her sister ships, the name “China Doll” was chosen . Tony Starcer, the famed GI artist who painted the original “Memphis Belle” nose art plus hundreds of others, applied the new name and art. It was to be Starcer’s final nose art painting. When the plane was repainted in 1994, the nose art was re-done by artist Patricia Sica.
Specification Curtiss C-46-F Army Transport
Length 76′ 4′”
Wing Span 108′
Wing Area 1360 Sq. Feet
Height 21′ 9″
Landing Gear Track 25′ 8″
Empty Weight 32,000 lb.
Take-off Weight (MAX) 56,000 lb. Max Military.
48,000 lb. for Cargo (FAA)
45,000 lb. for Passengers (FAA)
45,000 lb. for All CAF Flight Operations
Gross “Ramp” Weight (MAX) 48,000 lb
Useful Payload: 13,000 pounds (fuel and cargo Combined)
Fuel Load (MAX): 1406 gallons (8,436 lb.) to top of filler necks;
1200 gallons (7,200 lb.) to bottoms of filler necks.
(Economy Cruise) 150 Gallons / Hr
(75 Gal each engine / Hr)
Air Speed: (Economy Cruise) ~135 Knots
Indicated Air Speed: _______
(True Air Speed will be higher).
Take-off Distance: (Min) Dependant on Weight, Wind and Runway.
Landing Distance: (Min) 2,500′ available, Dry-Hard surface runway (PILOT MUST BE HIGHLY PROFICIENT).
Engine: (2) Pratt and Whitney R-2800-51M1 18-cylinder radial.
2,000 HP Each, with Supercharger.
Propeller: Hamilton Standard 3-blade Model23E50 .
Light weight,Landing 61
Climb, Single-Engine 95
Climb,Single-Engine enroute 111
Normal enroute climb 115-125
Vne: Never Exceed 234
Vmo: Maximum normal operation 191
Va: Maneuvering 130
Vle: Landing Gear-Extend 130
Vfe: Flaps-Extend 117
Landing Lights 121
Description Pwr Setting Prop RPM Takeoff Power 52.0″ 2,700 Maximum
Except Take Off. 44.0″ 2,550
Climb 36.0″ 2,300
Cruise 30.0′” ~1,900