TINKER HISTORY: Douglas C-54 Skymaster

  • Published
  • By Greg L. Davis
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The Douglas Aircraft Corporation C-54 “Skymaster” was a four-engine cargo and troop transport built around a high-aspect ratio wing with conventional tail unit featuring a single rudder. The low-wing configured aircraft sat on retractable tricycle landing gear.

Building upon the success of the DC-3/C-47, Douglas had partnered with major airlines to design the DC-4 to create an aircraft capable of transporting more passengers in a voluminous cabin. Although it was meant for airline service, by the time the first aircraft rolled off the production line on Feb. 14, 1942, the U.S. was involved in World War II and the first examples were delivered directly to the Army Air Corps as C-54s.

Tinker began work on C-54s in the maintenance role within two years of the aircraft entering service. A majority of the work performed here between April 1944 and December 1953 involved overhaul and repair of the aircraft’s radial engines. Period photos show aircraft in Bldg. 3001 along with engines/propellers undergoing maintenance in the specialty shops within the Oklahoma City Air Depot. 

The C-54 is famous on four accounts. Three of the four reasons center around a lone C-54, serial No. 42-107451, which was heavily modified to become the personal transport of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and earned the designation VC-54C. This luxurious aircraft was named ‘Sacred Cow’ and became what we now refer to as the very first Air Force One. The second reason is this exact aircraft rushed the film documenting the Japanese Empire’s surrender back to the U.S. for processing and distribution to bring the war in the Pacific to an end. The third reason the Skymaster is famous is because it was aboard this very aircraft, according to the National Museum of the Air Force, that “Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, signed the National Security Act of 1947 on board the Sacred Cow on July 26, 1947. This act established the U.S. Air Force as an independent service, making the Sacred Cow the “birthplace” of the U.S. Air Force.” The fourth and likely most widely known reason is the C-54 carried tons of essential supplies, mainly coal, during the Berlin Airlift. The Berlin Airlift was a sustained effort to supply the population of Berlin in 1948-1949 as the Iron Curtain was imposed when the Soviet Union tried to forcefully annex the city. Thirty-eight C-54s were heavily modified with the removal of fuel tanks and amenities as they were converted into airborne coal-carriers with the designation C-54M.

The DC-4/C-54 was successful as an airliner until it was quickly replaced by larger, faster aircraft as jets came of age. Despite this, many of the aircraft were put in to service as low-cost transports, freight haulers and aerial firefighters around the world. Many still continue in this role to this day.


Manufacturer: Douglas

Aircraft type: C-54

Nickname: Skymaster

Crew: 4-6

Power plant: Four Pratt & Whitney R2000 radial engines creating 1,200 horsepower each

In-service dates: 1942-1962

Number produced: 1,163

Tinker connection: Maintenance, repair and overhaul