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   Vol. 23 No. 27
Tuesday June 7, 2024

Air Cargo Took Off Above The Himalayas

Modern Air Cargo Began Over The Himalayas

If you want to know exactly when the defining time occurred for air cargo in the 20th century, and what led to its development, just cast a line back eighty-two years ago and you will discover that modern air cargo was born in India and China.
     Today, as air cargo’s future is increasingly connected to these two ancient countries, it can be said that what is old is new again.
P40 B fighter aircraft      Early in World War II, President Roosevelt asked Army Air Force General Hap Arnold to devise a method for supplying Chinese and American troops and aviators fighting against the Japanese in China.
     Americans were aiding the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek, while American aviators operating P40B fighter aircraft supplied by the USA were part of an all-volunteer group known as the AVG, under the command of Claire Chennault.
     Later, the world would come to know this pilot group as the legendary Flying Tigers.
     As the enemy closed in, military planners decided that an air route across some of the most rugged territory in the world—the Himalayan Mountains—would be sustainable in any event.
     The route quickly earned a name that has immortalized the effort and heroism of that first great air cargo movement, which kept freedom and hope alive for millions during the darkest days of the conflict: for succeeding generations, “The China-India-Burma Hump (CBI)” described a journey which created an aerial lifeline from the Assam Valley in India to Kunming, China.
     China-India-Burma Hump operations took off after the Japanese closed down the overland truck route, called The Burma Road, as Rangoon and the country fell in early 1942.
     To look at it today, that vaunted and somewhat mysterious Burma Road is/was little more than a mostly unimproved artery hacked out in serpentine form in the rugged mountains.
     But as breathtaking as the sheer cliffs were to passengers and drivers inching along the Burma Road, that experience was nothing compared to the adventure of take-off and landing first-generation, all-cargo aircraft operating back and forth between India and China.

Chna Burma India Photos

     The Himalayas are rugged mountains, some as high as 14,000 feet, which lay square between the Assam Valley and Kunming.
     Since the Japanese controlled everything else, there was no right or left about it either.
     The only way between the two cities was the relatively short 500-air mile, truly hellish flight up over the mountains.
     Although today aircraft routinely fly over the Himalayan Mountains, but as World War II raged, the otherwise picturesque, snow-capped, remote peaks were a daunting challenge to airmen and their twin-engine aircraft.
     Flights from Assam to Kunming often took several hours.
     Unpredictable weather and wind currents were a constant challenge, extending the journey for additional hours as aerial charts were drawn and redrawn to direct flights around fierce storms.
     Bodies were often stressed to the limit; as engines beat ominously against an unforgiving sky, aircraft would encounter up and down drafts, falling and rising thousands of feet in almost an instant.
     Without warning, an airplane would be flipped over by wind currents or whipped side to side.
     The run quickly gained the ominous moniker, “aluminum alley.”
     During the three plus years of Hump operations, more than 167,285 trips were completed, delivering 760,000 tons of air cargo.
     But the price was paid with 792 lives lost aboard 460 aircraft and 701 major accidents.

Flying Tigers

     Incredibly, remains of Hump pilots and their downed aircraft were still being recovered years later.
     In the summer of 2002, an expedition scaled an 18,000-foot peak, bringing back fragments and other remains of an air cargo flight from 1944 that went missing and was never heard from again, until someone spotted it from the air in 1999.
     Not enough can be said of the heroism and sacrifice that was made by the early military air cargo pilots. They were a select and intrepid breed with lion-sized courage and determination.
     Everyone connected in any fashion to aviation, and especially air cargo, owes the Hump pilots who founded our great industry a debt of gratitude that we should never forget.


     The first flights over “The Hump” carried Avgas and oil earmarked to support The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942 and, as mentioned, Flying Tigers P40B fighter operations.
     Those first DC-3 all-cargo flights were accomplished with passenger aircraft that were conscripted into the effort from China National Airlines (CNAC, a working partner of Pan Am) and others.
     Even more amazing were the pilots, who were sipping coffee in the cockpits of DC-3s a few weeks earlier at home in the USA as they flew between places like Chicago and Albuquerque for the commercial airlines.
     The outstanding airplane to emerge from Hump operations was the C-46A- Curtiss Commando.
     Called “Dumbo” by its pilots and crew after the 1941 Disney movie, the Curtiss C46A was an airplane that was out of place almost everywhere, but in the CBI Theater.
     At CBI, the Commando lifted twice as much cargo into the sky as the DC-3, upon wings that were actually four feet wider than the B-17 heavy bomber of the era.
The Commando      The Commando had better manners at high altitude and could haul twice the load of the DC-3.
     The Commando’s “double bubble” fuselage offered more room and stability aloft, and in some cases pressurized high altitude operations at its service ceiling of 21,000 feet.
     But as many veterans of the CBI recall, Dumbo was no push over.
     Almost every flight was an adventure.
     Serving the theater it was destined to define, the Curtiss Commando flew its last CBI Hump flight in November 25, 1945.
     In total, more than 3,100 Curtiss Commandos were built, serving in every theater of World War II.
     After the war, several carriers converted the wartime transports to civilian tasks for air cargo and passenger usage.
     The Commando made a brief comeback during the Korean War, but was quickly replaced in air cargo and other applications by the newer C-119 Flying Boxcar.
     As late as the 1980s, more than 300 Curtiss Commandos were still in service.
     Today, with the exception of South America and several air museums, the public has mostly forgotten the Commando, opting for a love affair with the more popular Douglas DC-3.
     For the record, the first Hump airlift delivered 30,000 gallons of Avgas and 500 gallons of oil.
     In August 1942, aerial deliveries continued aboard what was named the India-China Ferry Command. By December 1942, with some 29 aircraft, the cargo service flights were folded into the newly formed Air Transport Command (ATC).
     Volumes of air cargo that were moved across The Hump formed an ever increasing supply tide, which eventually contributed to Allied victory.
     An indication of how great an impact Hump operations had on the fortunes of the Allies can be seen by tracking shipments numbers.
     In July 1942, 85 tons were moved. In July 1943, 2,916 tons flew above the Himalayas.
     In 1944, 18,975 tons of air cargo flew. In 1945, the last year of operations, more than 71,042 tons of war material was delivered.
     Make no mistake, those shipment numbers, plus a wealth of cheaply priced DC-3s and Curtiss Commandos made available after the war, fueled aviation’s imagination as to a future role for air cargo.
     As the war ended, returning GI’s once again took up their civilian lives.
     Pilots and soldiers would become entrepreneurs.
     Aircraft once used to move gasoline and oil, people and tungsten, green tea, hand grenades and Hershey Bars were sold off as war surplus, as more than 100 air cargo companies, including one outfit called The Flying Tiger Line, went into business in the United States and elsewhere in the world between 1945 and 1947.

Flying Tigers Plane

     Later in 1948 the Russians, in a political power play they were destined to lose, surrounded Berlin, not allowing any vehicular or rail traffic to access the inland city located in the Russian Zone of post-war occupied Germany.
     With the success of the China-India-Burma Hump air cargo operations and Air Transport Command now a full time branch of the U.S. Army Air Force, air cargo was at the world’s attention as The Berlin Airlift saved a city of three million.
Geoffrey Arend, Flossie Arend

C-46D Video

     Spend a few minutes with the airplane that carried the cargo, proving a new industry was waiting in the wings.
     Here is a vintage C46-D based at Yellowknife Northwest Territories, Canada still humping cargo and the sweet sound of those engines is not to be forgotten.
     Go full screen, lean back and enjoy the ride.

If You Missed Any Of The Previous 3 Issues Of FlyingTypers
Access complete issue by clicking on issue icon or
Access specific articles by clicking on article title
Vol. 23 No. 24
AmidSpring's Day Dream
Chuckles for May 14, 2024
Where Are They Now
Vol. 23 No. 25
Vocational Cargo At A Much Earlier Age
Raising Hong Kong Not Just WCS
Chuckles for May 28, 2024
Indian Garment Exporters New Normal
Indian Widebody Shortage
Memorial Day 1940
Vol. 23 No. 26
Air India Readies Cargo Future
The State Of Global Air Cargo
Chuckles for June 4, 2024

Publisher-Geoffrey Arend • Managing Editor-Flossie Arend • Editor Emeritus-Richard Malkin
Senior Contributing Editor/Special Commentaries-Marco Sorgetti • Special Commentaries Editor-Bob Rogers
Special Assignments-Sabiha Arend, Emily Arend
• Film Editor-Ralph Arend

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