Flying the DC-4

by Capt. Bill Eastwood

"Singapore Trader," N79065, on Wake Island in the 1950's. Photo courtesy of Capt. Bill Eastwood

The Douglas DC-4 or C-54, which was built to fill the need of the Air Transport Command in World War II, was a lumbering creature by today's standards, but in the late 40s and early 50s it was state-of-the-art transportation. When the war ended, these surplus planes were available at a very low price to anyone who wanted to start an air service. Seaboard & Western started operations with two of these war surplus planes.

The DC-4 was equipped with the latest in instrumentation and navigation tools. There was a two-axis autopilot, up and down and left and right, and knobs on the instrument panel allowed the pilot to control the autopilot. Some pilots devised a dowel with a suction cup on the end which could be placed through a spoke of the control column and the suction cup fitted around the control knobs The pilot could then make his wishes known by twisting the dowels without leaning forward to the instrument panel.

There was no propeller synchronization system and when the props rotated out of phase the cyclical sound was very annoying, especially in the crew bunk, located between the number two and three props. To counter this and get the props back into synchronization, the pilot in the left seat would move throttle levers one and two until the image out of his window of the two props was blended into one. Then the pilot in the right seat would do the same. Then, just by sound, the one and two throttle levers and three and four were matched until the noise stopped for a while. At night the Aldis Lamp was shined out the windows to get the same result. This was done two or three times an hour.

The autopilot served the purpose of relieving the pilots of hand flying, but it had some peculiarities, too. When set up to fly a heading, the nose of the plane would rotate slowly in a small circle. This was bad for the navigator when he climbed into the astrodome to take a celestial shot. Usually he would ask the pilots to disconnect the autopilot and fly by hand while he took his shot, which was flattering to the pilots.

In the early days, a radio operator was carried on over-ocean flights. From his station, he sent out position reports and other messages by Morse code. In order to increase radio range, the plane was equipped with a trailing wire antenna about 50 ft long which had a weight on the end. It could be let out by the operator and reeled in before landing. VHF voice communication, which was limited in range by line-of-sight and used mostly at airports, was controlled by the pilots. When ordered by the tower or other controller to change frequency, the copilot had to leave his seat and go the radio rack behind the captain's seat and, using a tool called rat tooth pliers, extract one frequency capsule and insert the proper one. Then he returned to his seat and called the next station. In the early 50s, for example, London Airways was controlled by only two frequencies: London West and London East.

The navigator station was located behind the pilots. In some models, the table was hinged beside the main cockpit door; in others it was behind the radio rack. The station was equipped with a remote compass, a Loran set and a drift meter. On long over-water flights the navigator usually took a celestial observation every hour unless cloud cover made it impossible. On the North Atlantic, there were several Ocean Station Vessels positioned at specific locations where they were constantly under steam and maneuvered to maintain a position within one square mile.

These ships were equipped with radar, and operators on board ship would give the radar position and groundspeed of the plane to the navigator by VHF. Radio-direction-finding transmitters which the planes could home on were also located on the vessels. The Ocean Station Vessels were also set up to provide rescue if a plane had to ditch in the ocean. Often, when passenger flights called in to the Ocean Stations, the stewardesses were given the mikes to talk with the radar operators on board the ships and give them a tantalizing peek at things outside of their women-less worlds.

The DC-4 was equipped with a tail stand which was carried in the belly. When a stop was made, the ground crew would take the stand from the belly first thing and install it in position at the tail. Then loading could safely take place, since the main cargo door was toward the rear of the plane. There was also a spare-parts kit carried in the belly containing those repair items that were most often needed en route.

The engines were equipped with electric starters. Even now I can hear the sound those starters made. Sometimes, at some out of the way station, a starter would fail and then a rope would be wound around the nose cone and pulled to spin the engine enough to get it started, Another, more popular, method was to start the other three engines and get up speed down a runway until the engine wind-milled fast enough to start. This method required about a one hour delay while the brakes cooled. Often in very cold weather the landing-gear-strut hydraulic seals would fail. The upper strut would bottom on the lower strut and damage the unit. Rope was used again to wind around the cylinder to prevent bottoming so the plane could return to the main base for maintenance. Oil dilution was supplied to the engines on shutdown in very cold conditions. Since wing ice was often encountered at the DC-4s cruising altitudes, the planes were equipped with inflatable rubber deicer boots on the leading edges of the wings. When it was necessary to use these, the pilots would observe the wings' leading edges until a suitable amount of ice had formed. Then a switch was activated that allowed pneumatic air to inflate the deicer boots and break off the ice. There was also a prop alcohol anti-icing system to be used when icing was anticipated.

East is odd and west is even. This applied to altitudes in flight. Since the DC-4 flew best at 9,000 ft, that was the altitude used across the Atlantic eastbound between the U.S. and Europe. Returning, 8,000 ft was the altitude. As nature would have it, the tops of the clouds over the ocean were usually 500 ft above 9,000 feet with the result that the plane flew in the choppy cloud most of the way with occasional tantalizing peeks at the clear sky above. Many times a pilot would say, "Another 500 feet and we would be on top." But sneaking up 500 feet would prove that that usually wasn't the case.

The instrument approach of choice was the Radio Range letdown and landing system. If this system were to be described to a pilot of today he would shake his head. The limit for an approach on this system was usually 400 foot ceiling and one mile visibility. Lower approaches, and there were many of them, were made by GCA (Ground-Controlled Approach) or cheating on the range approach. The GCA teams at Gander in the East and Shemya (in the Aleutian Islands) in the West were considered the best in the business and gave pilots the most confidence.

Reproduction of any material on this Web site is prohibited without prior written consent