Amazing Aircraft, Massive Engines

I recently started up a new contract gig as a marketing writer for a technology firm, and I had lunch today with my work colleague Marty. We began with the typical “big fish” stories that guys tell over a sandwich and a beer.

Come to find out Marty is one of those rare people who actually knows a few things about vintage aircraft. His father was a maintenance technician for the U.S. Air Force in the Vietnam conflict. . Unlike the children of other war veterans, Marty’s is fortunate his father has been more than happy to share with his children some things about the work he did while in the military.

My friend and I swapped a few stories, and I will begin with one shared by him from his father.

“Puff the Magic Dragon”

My friend’s father got to see and perhaps even work on a most interesting aircraft. Not unlike many other magnificent designs, this plane was a product born for military service.

Many of us may have fond recollections about “Puff the Magic Dragon” as a mythical scaled creature as the subject of childhood songs and books. However, for those who served in Vietnam, the mere mention of that winged dragon is more likely to cause goose bumps – or a bitterly sobering interjection amidst an otherwise pleasant moment.

“Puff the Magic Dragon” originally had its start as a civilian Douglas DC-3 airliner, which was repurposed for military use, and thus designated C-47. When modified for use in the “Dragon” mode, it was given the prefix “A” (for “attack”) – thus the AC-47 gunship we now know as “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

A Gatling-Toting Flying Gunship

What made this aircraft interesting is that it was not your typical military service type – like a fighter that shoots down the other planes, nor a bomber which releases a payload onto a hapless many waiting below. Instead this Puff was a flying gunship. Protruding ominously from one side of the aircraft fuselage were three high velocity Gatling guns capable of firing 100 rounds per second.

Typically the aircraft would fly adjacent to and perhaps several miles away from a suspected target, around which it would fly in a circular path. Upon being given permission to “engage the enemy,” the gun operators would pull the trigger and thus unleash an ominous and deadly barrage of hot flying cannon rounds. Upon discharge, the canons would produce a grayish-blue smoke – thus giving it its name as “Puff.” When seen from the night sky, the imagery – and no doubt the sound – of this flying machine no doubt was extremely demoralizing, perhaps even to the “friendlies” standing by. The hail of fire this ship produced was powerfully devastating, and thus caused the enemy to quickly slink away whenever it came near.

Puff the Magic Dragon was held such fearful regard by the Vietcong authorities, that they had purportedly gave orders to their troops, “not attack the Dragon because it would only infuriate the monster.”

You can see photos of the gunship in action by clicking here.

The World War II version of the Dragon was replaced later by the AC-130 Spectre gunship used to this day.

My Story

In exchange for the interesting tale about the flying gunboat above, I provided my story…

Some years ago I spent about four years with a World War II United States Army Air Force (USAAF) vintage aircraft restoration club called the “Confederate Air Force” – now called by the diplomatically correct name of “Commemorative Air Force”. The aircraft I worked on included a Boeing “Flying Fortress” B-17 heavy bomber, a North American B-5 Mitchell medium bomber, a Grumman TBM torpedo bomber, a PBY Catalina “Flying Boat” (the kind that Jacques Cousteau used), among several others. You can read about my love affair with the B-17 by clicking here.

Memories from an Impressionable Time

The men (and the occasional women) with whom I worked on these magnificent aircraft were a motley mix, nevertheless true blooded patriots and dedicated professional aircraft technicians. In the years that I worked with them, I was a very young man, an unlicensed apprentice mechanic, nevertheless very willing to learn the aircraft maintenance trade. While I later on chose not to become an airframe and power plant (A&P) mechanic, the immensity of knowledge which these people shared generously remains with me to this day. I look back upon them with the marked fondness that only brothers could share.

Special Maintenance: B-50 Bomber

While the airstrip at which we worked was remote located, it was home to several busy commercial aircraft affairs, one of which restored older military aircraft.Of the more interesting aircraft projects that I got to share with them was a special request from a commercial aircraft repair group outside of the Confederate Air Force.

Apparently one of the aircraft that one of these commercial concerns had been contracted to restore was a B-50 bomber, whose forerunner was the B-29 Flying Fortress – the same aircraft that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.

Because the engines within the B-50 were of such a specialized nature, this aircraft restoration firm called upon us Confederate club members to help out. The main problem was getting the gigantic radial engines up to operating condition. While we did manage to get them to run, I would not have wanted to be a passenger on that aircraft when it finally left to the customer! Apparently, it made it to its destination somewhere in South America.

The World’s Largest Piston – Powered Engine

Along with the B-50 project, we were also asked to help out with restoring an engine that belonged to a different aircraft.

This engine was purposed specifically for a cold war era nuclear bomber called a Conviar B-36 “Peacemaker”. See the B-36 in action in the movie Strategic Air Commandstarring famed actor Jimmy Stewart. This gigantic bird had six piston engines – facing backwards no less, to reduce frontal air drag. Because the bomber was short on power, its piston engines were assisted by a set of J47 jet engine pods at each wingtip – a most odd assortment of powerplants. The J47s engines were the predecessors of the J57 engines used later to power Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

The engine I helped work on turned out to be the world’s largest production piston-engine aircraft: the Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engine.

A Four Thousand Three Hundred And Sixty Cubic Inch Engine!

The “R” designation stands for “radial” engine. No big deal. But when I pronounce the number “4360” – this refers to the engine’s cubic inch displacement.

Yes, this means the engine was four thousand three hundred and sixty cubic inches in displacement size! For reference, this means this engine was nearly 18 times the size and power of a Ford F250 truck engine! A massive beast of an engine. A true behemoth!

The R-4360 Wasp engine had four banks of nine cylinders, which made 36 cylinders in all – just for one engine! Each cylinder had two sparkplugs, and thus each engine had 64 sparkplugs! Now, Place six of these engines onto one B-36 aircraft, and you have 384 sparkplugs on one airframe! And each one of these had to be replaced every time the aircraft flew!

I knew two gentlemen who have actually worked on the B-36. They didn’t have fond recollections of its repair, and the hazards frequently associated with even the simplest of its maintenance tasks. For every one hour the aircraft flew, it had to be repaired for at least 100 hours to restore it to proper flying condition.

An Honor to Witness

While working with these men and women and in listening to the stories, I felt a sense of nostalgia: a witnessing of their testimony about a bygone era that had a wonder all of its own. Now forever gone…

Other Resources:

My Girlfriend Weighed 18 Tons

The Movie Strategic Air Command starring Jimmy (James) Stewart