Photos and article by Bill Sarama

It was a cold, dreary, cloudy late morning on December 7th 2023, of all dates, and I was heading south down US-13 in Delaware on track for OBX, to stay for a week in Duck, NC, just south of Virginia Beach. Dover AFB was coming into view and, as I always do on trips south, I planed to stop again at the Air Mobility Command Museum on the south end of the Base to see what was going on. I’ve been tracking the restoration of two heavy metal warbirds – a relatively new arrival, the Curtiss-Wright C-46A “Commando” and the Boeing KC-50J “Superfortress” tanker – that have been going on for almost two years now. In our warbird chasing we are so used to seeing the fully restored products either on the ramp or in a display hanger. Restoration work is usually hidden in a hanger somewhere. But what’s so cool here is that you can see the expert restoration volunteers or sometimes even contractors working in the open on the ramp and if you come back every three months or so, as I do, you can actually see progress in fixing up these classic big warbirds.

Back in the late Spring of 2023 the AMC Museum acquired a vintage Curtiss C-46A “Commando” (43-47350) WW2 transport aircraft from the backyard of the US Navy Air Museum at NAS Pensacola, Florida. They (USN) weren’t going to fix it up so the AMC Museum took on the challenge of restoring this classic warbird. The AMC Museum contracted with a vintage aircraft restoration and aircraft moving company to dismantle the plane at NAS Pensacola and ship the aircraft pieces by truck from Florida up to Dover AFB in May of 2023. The pieces of the C-46 – fuselage, tail, wings and engines – sat at the Museum Restoration Barn at Dover for most of the summer. By contract, the aircraft moving company came back in the Fall of 2023, moved the pieces, and assembled the Commando’s pieces back together again near the Museum’s Control Tower. When I came back in early December of 2023, the C-46A Commando was all back together but looking really beat up and totally faded. The tail still had “R5C” on it, its Navy buzz number from Pensacola, and “N6611Z”, its private “N” number before the Navy Museum acquired it in 1989. The Navy Museum never refurbished it and it came to Dover “As-Is” looking very ratty and ready for the expert restoration that will soon start here at Dover. It will be interesting to come back every few months and see the restoration progress.


The Curtiss C-46A Commando was a cargo and troop transport built during WW2. The aircraft was originally designed as an all-metal pressurized airliner, however, the immediate needs of the US Military curtailed civilian service until after the War. Altogether 3,180 of the models were built. While the C-46 flew in most theaters in WW2, it is most associated with “Flying the Hump”; the transportation of personnel and supplies over the Himalayas in India. The aircraft could carry up to 40 troops, 33 stretchers, or up to 16,000 pounds of cargo. The Museum’s C-46 Commando was built in 1945, serving the Chinese National Aviation Company (CNAC) until 1949, when it was purchased by Claire Chennault on behalf of the Civil Air Transport Company (CAT), the forerunner of Air America. The aircraft returned in the 1950”s and flew for several air carriers well into the 1980’s. The aircraft will be restored and painted in the standard Troop Carrier paint scheme of WW2.


The second large aircraft undergoing a very slow restoration process here at Dover that I have also been following is the KB-50J Boeing Superfortress tanker (49-0389). Back in February of 2023, the nose was off, windscreen was covered, the four engine nacelles were off, and the wing hose reel pods were open. Now in December, the nose is still off, the windscreen is completed, the port engines are covered, starboard engines are still open and the wing hose reel pods are now enclosed. The restoration is being done in the open on the ramp near the 108th ARS NJANG KC-135E Tanker. The concept here is that all the tankers will be grouped at the west end of the Museum ramp.

This KB-50J Superfortress tanker was originally a B-50 Superfortress bomber aircraft. The B-50 started life as an upgraded model of the B-29 Superfortress. The general
appearance of the B-29 and the B-50 are similar; however, the B-50 features several upgrades from the B-29 design, including more powerful engines, a taller tail and redesigned cockpit, and many other structural changes.


On 1956, the plane now here at Dover was the first B-50 to be converted to a KB-50 tanker. Instead of carrying bombs, the KB-50 carried two large fuel tanks in the bomb bay. It had two drogue hose pods mounted on the wing tips, along with a third hose reel in the former tail gunners position. In 1957, jet engines were added to boost the aircraft to safer speeds while refueling faster jet aircraft. Those that received jet engines were dubbed KB-50J’s like the tanker here at Dover. The KB-50 was used successfully for about eight years. It served as the basis for the KC-97L design, a plane also here at Dover, and both aircraft served concurrently until replaced by the jet powered KC-135 Stratotanker. The last of the KB-50’s flew as emergency refuelers for jet fighters over Vietnam before final retirement in 1965.



Some other design details on this particular aircraft:
a) A taller tail was fitted to the B-50 to improve stability in flight. This new tail fin could fold down to be fitted inside regular USAF hangers.
b) Installation of the General Electric J-47 turbojet engines increased the aircraft’s airspeed and altitude allowing it to refuel the newer and faster jet fighter aircraft.
c) The B-50 wing was reconstructed using stronger aluminum known as 75ST and became 600 pounds lighter.
d) After finding corrosion in a crashed KB-50J (48-065) on 14 October 1964 in Thailand, all B-50 variants were forced into early retirement in March of 1965 and were replaced by the early KC-135 Stratotankers.
e) In the B-50D models and later versions, the seven piece nose cone window used on the B-29 was replaced by a single plastic window cone and a flat bombardiers window.
f) With the hose-and-drogue on the KB-50J, three jet aircraft could easily refuel, usually with two fighters on the wing hoses, like a F-100 Super Sabre and a RF-101 Voodoo and a heavier jet, like a B-66 Destroyer using the tail fuel hose, typical in the early years of Vietnam.
g) The Boeing KB-50J had a crew of six – pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and two refueling operators. It never had a tail boom like the KC-135E. It carried 6,066 gallons (39,430 pounds) of transferable fuel, had a service ceiling of 32,100 feet, a range of 2,300 miles, a maximum speed of 444 mph, and was a “Probe-and-Drogue” aerial refueler with no refueling boom. It was built by Boeing Aircraft and Hayes Aircraft Corporation on the re-fits.



Parting Shots: The KB-50J on the Dover Museum Ramp, sits right near a KC-135E from the 108th ARW at McGuire and a recently arrived KC-10A from the 305th AMW, also from McGuire.


Nearby is a Boeing KC-97L Stratofreighter tanker completing the group of three tankers now on the west end of the Museum ramp.


Near the adjacent visitor parking lot near the tankers sits a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star on a circular concrete pad. We’ll be back in a few months to check on the restoration progress. The Dover AMC Museum continues to be a great place to walk around with almost 35 legacy heavy metal historic aircraft of the USAF Air Mobility Command. You should come for a visit if you like big historic military planes.

You may also like...