Aviation Insider: A Tale of the Times

Aviation Insider: A Tale of the Times

We’ll lose the XC-99 and it won’t be alone 

Big, historic airplanes could be the aeronautical definition of “conundrum” for museum people. No one wants to see a truly historic airplane, such as the XC-99 disintegrate into powdery oxide while in outside storage. However, the realities of space and financing determine the prioritization for every museum of any size: some aircraft are just not likely to be saved. The tale of the XC-99 is long and arduous and, unfortunately, typical of what faces many, big airplanes.

The term “magnesium overcast” seems to fit the XC-99, the colossal, one-of-a-kind cargo version of the B-36 bomber.

The six-engined, 265,000-pound XC-99 made extensive use of the tricky, flammable metal. It was big enough, with its 230-foot wingspan, to come close to blotting out the sun. Today, efforts to preserve and display the XC-99 appear to be at a hiatus. At the request of Flight Journal, retired Lieutenant General Jack Hudson, director of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, issued this statement:

“The staff of the NMUSAF has determined that our current restoration and exhibit resources and manpower must be redirected and focused to meet our critical near term requirements of enhancing current public galleries, such as Cold War, as well as preparing for our new fourth building and its four additional galleries. These near term requirements, along with the budget and manpower reductions, will not allow for the needed care, attention, and restoration of the XC-99 in the foreseeable future.”

The mortal remains of the XC-99, moved from San Antonio, Texas, to Dayton at huge difficulty a decade ago, was moved again to the boneyard in Arizona. The villain: ongoing federal budget squeeze.

XC-99 upbringing

Designed in 1942, the XC-99 had a spacious, double-deck interior designed to carry 400 combat troops or 101,000 pounds of cargo. The XC-99 was powered by six 28-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-4360-35 radial engines rated at 3,000hp each. It was the largest aircraft in the world in the 1950s and remains the largest propeller-driven aircraft ever built.

Testing began on November 23, 1947. The XC-99 entered service two years later. It was stationed from 1949 to 1957 at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas. In 1951 and 1952, the plane carried seven million pounds of equipment and supplies supporting the Korean War effort.

As a teenager, I had a memorable tour of the XC-99 when it visited Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC in May 1954.

The tabloid Washington Daily News published an air-to-air, black and white photo of the XC-99 arriving for the Armed Forces Day show at Bolling. Visible in the photo were Fort McNair and Bolling, with its busy runways and ramp, as well as the engine nacelle of the TB-25N Mitchell carrying the photographer. I wrote to the paper requesting an 8 by 10 print. The Daily News wrote back and said I’d have to send them a dollar. I did. The paper went out of business soon afterward so mine may be the only copy of this portrait of a flying behemoth.

People gawked whenever the XC-99 appeared at an air show. At one event, when it was still an operational aircraft, a woman asked pilot Captain Jim C. Douglas, “How will you move this thing from here?”

Douglas replied, “We fly it, lady.” The woman retorted, “Young man, what kind of a fool do you take me for?” By 1957, the condition of the six-engined XC-99 was such that $1 million in immediate maintenance would have been needed to keep it aloft. The big plane was always difficult to load, lacking the “roll on, roll off” capability of today’s airlifters, Repairs were deemed uneconomical. The Air Force withdrew the plane from service.

Thereafter, the XC-99 had several owners until 1993 when the Kelly Heritage Foundation acquired it and towed it back onto the base. “We were about to renovate the XC-99 when Kelly was placed on the closure list by the 1995 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission,” said Duane Simpkins of the foundation in a 1998 interview. The foundation has not updated its web site for several years and did not respond to an FJ inquiry. Also in 1998, retired Major General Charles Metcalf, then director of the Air Force Museum (now the NMUSAF) told me he hoped the XC-99 could be saved but was “pretty pessimistic.”

The condition of the aircraft had deteriorated badly, in part because magnesium does not hold up under the elements.

That year, some of the XC-99 was in the museum’s restoration hangar, but most of it was in San Antonio awaiting movement. Museum spokesman Robert J. Bardua said restorers had the leading and trailing edges of the wings, wingtips, horizontal and vertical stabilizers, flight controls, tail section, engines and propellers. The rest would come later, Bardua said.

The traveling XC-99

Among XC-99 buffs, two myths have taken hold. The first is that the Air Force missed an opportunity to fly the plane to its museum in Dayton in 1957 for the price of fuel. The second myth is that, today, nobody in the Air Force cares. A flight to Dayton was nixed in 1957 because the cost of making the XC-99 airworthy for a one-time trip was prohibitive. Many with an interest in the aircraft worked to save it. I published an opinion piece in the trade journal Air Force Times in 1998. With enormous effort and expenditure, the XC-99 — in derelict condition — travelled by land from San Antonio to Dayton. Efforts to restore it moved in fits and starts.

It was always a challenge, in both technical and fiscal terms, The April 3 statement — gotten for us by Bardua, who is on the job 16 years later— confirms that this is the wrong budgetary era for a challenge of this magnitude.

Curiously, no one seems to have considered an obvious alternative — the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. When I visited Dover recently, AMC Museum director Mike Leister had not heard that plans to restore the XC-99 in Dayton had been dropped.

A far-out prospect

Leister told me his museum would face the same challenges as the NMUSAF, He does not have funds to move the XC-99 from Dayton to Dover and would want to be better informed before working with magnesium. But Leister said he has the space, the expertise, and the volunteers to restore the XC-99. He and his staff restore large aircraft constantly. They currently display the only C-5 Galaxy on exhibit for the general public.

To me, the situation is déjà vu. I had a small role in preventing the XC-99 from rotting in San Antonio. By all accounts, it is too late now to prevent it from being placed in storage in Arizona. As a longtime supporter of the AMC Museum in Dover, I would love it if the XC-99 could be moved there, but grim realism tells me it isn’t going to happen.

The NMUSAF statement concludes: “As this aircraft is important to the NMUSAF collection and we do have concerns regarding its continued storage in the harsh Ohio climate. [Moving the aircraft to Arizona] will provide the best possible security and storage conditions until such time as final long term plans might be completed.”

It’s impossible not to think of other examples of heavy iron that should have been preserved but weren’t — the Junkers Ju 290 scrapped at Wright Field in 1947 (captured after World War II and brought here), the Lockheed R6O-1 Constitution (two built) and the Douglas C-74 Globemaster (14 built).

These aircraft would make eye-watering, educational displays and we’ve lost all of them. The combination of lack of interest, costs, and space worked against them. It’s a process that repeats itself entirely too often.

The jury is still out on the XC-99, but all signs suggest we’ll lose it too.

By Robert F. Dorr

Updated: January 16, 2020 — 5:04 PM


  1. The C-99 was not the largest propeller airplane ever built. Although only flown in a limited sense, the Hughes H-4 was bigger than the C-99 (no longer XC-99 — the X went away in the 50s as prolonged ops made it inappropriate). One criterion — enclosed volume, is not a usual spec. Less span, but the AN-22 was a lot heavier and, I suspect, had a greater cargo volume. The Princess was heavier, a bit less in span but more wing. Volume and usable volume? The Brabazon had the same span and more area, a bit lighter and less fuselage volume. Total volume (big wing)?
    By the way, I grew up on Wright Pat for twelve years and thought the climate was just fine!

    1. Soruce Goose never actually performed any military service .Was a big waste of money .C99 made trips to CAL & back permforming military service .

    2. It was advertised as largest Land Based plane in the 60s

  2. I have been inside the XC 99 ,its a great historical plane that should be reassembled ,maby not to flying condition but display condition & put together back in to Texas where the old confederate air force planes are . And a cover where it can be preserved for future generations to see the worlds largest prop driven plane that was actually used .

  3. First saw the XC-99 in 1978 at Kelly AFB and knew it instantly from an article I read in Popular Science or Popular Mechanics magazine. The huge plane was accessible from the perimeter road in a field and a sign was marked no trespassing. In 1979 a friend and I mustered our courage and walked over to pay respects and marvel at the size of the XC-99. We noticed that an observation door near the right landing gear was open and we decided to investigate. No telling what could have been waiting inside! The airplane had a clean aviation smell and we made our way the cockpit. From the pilot side windows it was not possible to see the wingtips and we wondered how throttle lever movements translated to changes in engine speeds (later learned by electrical, not mechanical connections to the carburetors.) What a thrill it must have been for the flight crew to line up on the runway, advance all 6 throttles, and fly the “Cargo Beast” to McClelland AFB in California once or twice a week!

    I read anything printed on the XC-99 and was ecstatic when the plane was destined to be restored at the Air Force Museum when Kelley AFB was closing. In summer 2008, saw the components on the ramp outside the Museum Annex and hoped that reassembly and static restoration would soon start. Calls to the Artisans in the Restoration Shop, and even the Curator for brief updates, informed me that a structural repair on the wing spar had taken place and fabrication on other wing components were underway. VOILA !! ALAS, years rolled by and restoration of the XC-99 was ever elusive for myriad reasons (not what I wanted to hear). Relocation to the Davis Monthan “Desert Spa” was a viable option for preservation of the fickle Magnesium components such as fuselage skin, but moving the huge pieces 1000s of miles from the Annex Shop where restoration would have, could have, should have, taken place was hard to bear.

    Just Musing – Visited the USAF Museum in July 2021 and thoroughly enjoyed the overdose and especially the new 4th Quonset Hangar where Experimental and Presidential Aircraft are now displayed (they were formerly displayed at an Annex hangar).

    Talked with a few of the Docents during the visit and they were well versed on the saga of the XC-99 and the museum priorities that didn’t allow for restoration at the time. We agreed that with Experimental and Presidential planes relocated from the Annex Hangar there would most likely be enough space to house the XC-99 components (keeping them out of the weather) and provide the added attraction of the XC-99 being reassembled and restored. A delightful display would be the B-36 and XC-99 as museum-mates in close proximity in the 4th Quonset Hangar !

    As we know, the sole XC-99 is the USA’s (and perhaps the world’s) high time Experimental Airplane with ~7600 hours and established numerous cargo lifting world records through the early to mid-1950s. Only the USAF Museum can restore and properly display this unique Military Aviation treasure. Hopefully the stars and planets will align soon and restoration of this historic airplane will be another showpiece for the World’s Finest Military Aviation Museum.

    Please do not let her die in the desert.


  4. My husband was an XC-99 flight engineer. When we visited the pieces of the plane dumped on the tarmac @ the USAFM @ Wright-Patterson AFB, we felt so sad seeing one wing only being used to shelter a portable barbecue, table, & chairs. What’s left of the plane now sits forgotten in the Davis-Mothan AFB boneyard neglected with no hope of restoration. Now, that’s very, very sad!

Comments are closed.

Air Age Media ©
WordPress Image Lightbox Plugin