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All those Wonderful Stories

Orvi's Orient Express

By Arue Szura, Folded Wings: A History of Transocean Air Lines

The largest, most daring, ferry operation ever undertaken by a civilian airline was accomplished by Transocean flight crews and maintenance men during the spring of 1948. It began when the Chinese Nationalist Air Force purchased 150 Curtiss C-46 twin-engined aircraft from the U.S. government and asked Transocean to bid on the "de-mothballing" of the stored surplus aircraft, the overhauling of the planes and the engines, and their delivery to Shanghai, China. They were to be used by General Chiang Kai-shek's air force.

Transocean lost the contract for the overhauling of the engines but presented such a daring and ingenious plan for the transfer of the airplanes to Shanghai that Nelson and his associates won the ferrying contract.

Transocean's idea for solving the transportation problem was to fit the C-46 Commandos with auxiliary long-range fuel tanks and fly them across the Pacific to China. All the other bidders had insisted on dismantling the overhauled aircraft and shipping them across the Pacific by steamship.

Heavy odds were placed against the success of TAL's projected sky ferry operation (experts estimated a loss of at least ten aircraft). But this was exactly the sort of challenge that Nelson and his staff enjoyed.


Chinese Army aircraft #C46289, one of 150 Curtiss C-46Ds TAL ferried to Shanghai, China, 1948.

The special cabin tanks, to extend the range from 1,500 to 2,600 miles, were installed in each C-46 at Transocean's Oakland maintenance base. Then test flights were made to determine the fuel consumption of the modified transports.

Detailed arrangements were then made to station mechanics at the Pacific island bases on the route. At these intermediate points would be spare parts, engines, and fuel.  The flight plan called for a zigzag route originating in Los Angeles, then to Oakland, and on to Honolulu, Wake, Guam, Okinawa, and finally to Shanghai. The C-46s were dispatched in groups of five, and a Transocean DC-4 was flown to China to bring the crews back to Oakland.  

Transocean safely ferried all 150 of the C-46s. They logged over a million and a half miles over the Pacific Ocean en route to China. There was only one incident. The 148th Commando lost an engine four hundred miles offshore from Oakland but returned on its remaining engine for repairs before completing the trip.

Later, Transocean flight crews also ferried a fleet of Grumman Albatrosses across the Pacific without incident in a contract operation involving more than 1,000,000 miles of flying. The flying boats were delivered from the factory at Bethpage, on Long Island, New York, to Jakarta for the Indonesian Supply Mission.

Transocean's pilots were modern day swashbucklers. Young and daring, most were in their twenties, yet they were tough and capable, with a professionalism unequaled by their contemporaries of the scheduled airlines. Most had been seasoned by war. They took on any challenge, blazed new air routes, sometimes landing where no other large aircraft had been, and set speed records as a matter of course. For example, late in 1958, a TAL Super Constellation on a contract cargo flight from Tokyo landed at Oakland more than eleven hours ahead of schedule, with a little help from the jetstream during a portion of the transpacific hop. Captain Jesse Morrison logged the one-stop flight of approximately 5,500 miles at fifteen hours and twenty-two minutes.

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