Skymaster comes to life at Air and Space Museum

ASHLAND — Its exact duty service is unclear, but the Douglas C-54 now ensconced in the Durham Restoration Gallery at the Strategic Air and Space Museum clearly has seen hazardous duty since retirement.

The four-engine cargo plane is one of 1,164 Skymasters built in seven variants between 1942 and 1947 and was an adaptation of the Douglas DC-4 civilian airliner.

C-54s were used during World War II, Korea, and, perhaps most famously, during the Berlin Airlift when they ferried thousands of tons of food, medicine, fuel and supplies into the besieged city. The planes could be configured to carry as many as 80 passengers in lieu of cargo, and versions also carried presidents and prime ministers.

Exactly what all traveled in Serial No. 42-72724’s cargo hold is lost to history, but the plane was built by Douglas Aircraft in Chicago and delivered to the U.S. Army Air Force in 1945.

It was last assigned to the 3902nd Air Base Wing at Offutt in 1969 and transferred to the Strategic Air & Space Museum in 1970.

And there it sat. Outside.

For more than 40 years, the plane baked in the sun, froze in the winter and became home to innumerable insects, rodents and birds.

It also suffered the indignity of several impacts, the worst of which came on the day of the grand opening at the museum’s new location. A short but violent storm picked up the 54,000-pound plane, carried it several feet and deposited it with its tail atop a chain-link fence.

Every restoration offers its own unique challenges, said Restorations Co-Manager Mark Hamilton, but this plane even more than others.

“This one definitely had more structural damage than we usually see,” he said.

But life will be easier for the Skymaster now, as staff and about 15 volunteers pour thousands of man-hours into restoring its luster during the next two or three years.