In the winter of 1946, Skymaster 56498 soared over the midwest plains of the United States as it neared the end of a 6,000-mile journey, carrying a very precious cargo.
On board were dozens of British prisoners of war being repatriated from the battlefields of World War Two after the allied victory over Imperial Japan.
And now it is saving British servicemen again – as former members of the armed forces find camaraderie and new skills as they work to restore the aircraft to its former glory.
At the forefront of technological innovation at the time, the Skymaster’s 4,000-mile range regularly took it from US airforce bases in the Pacific Theatre to the Californian coast, and occasionally on to Delaware, where troops could be brought back home to the UK by ship.
Today, the very same Douglas C-54 type aircraft finds itself on British soil; somewhat more rusted in its 75th year, and facing a £1 million restoration project to see it take to the skies once again.
It is one of only a handful that still exists and had a lucky escape when Allan Vogel, an aircraft broker, spotted it lying in a scrapyard at North Weald Airfield in Essex.
‘I was over at the airbase looking at another airplane when I saw this Skymaster standing next to another Skymaster, which had just been totally cut up in to pieces,’ recalls Allan.
The Skymasters had been brought across the Atlantic for a Steven Spielberg war epic based on the Berlin Airlift – which several Skymasters were involved in – but when the film didn’t come to fruition the planes were left to rust in what would have been their final years.
She will fly again: The 1945 Douglas C-54 Skymaster that was saved from a scrapyard is undergoing a £1 million refurbishment by veterans and volunteers to return it to its former glory. Pictured: Volunteers with the plane at North Weald Airfield in Essex
The planes had enjoyed a service life three times as long as many modern jets, with 56498 taking part in supply drops in Iwo Jima, carrying in US troops to the Korean war, and providing relief during the Vietnam War. Pictured: The Skymaster crossing the Atlantic in 2002 for a Steven Spielberg film project
In the 1970s, the Skymaster and her squadron took part in relief efforts during the Vietnam War, flying out of Guam and Atsugi and Iwakuni airbases in Japan to deliver supplies and much needed blood for the wounded of the conflict. Pictured: The aircraft at NAS Iwakuni in Japan during the Vietnam campaign on 13 June 1971
Pictured: Allan Vogel, the former South African police detective who saved the plan from a scrapyard, said he had become passionate about bringing military veterans and engineering students together to complete the restoration project
The planes had enjoyed a service life three times as long as many modern jets, with 56498 taking part in supply drops in Iwo Jima, carrying in US troops to the Korean war, and providing relief during the Vietnam War.
‘I was just flabbergasted these two huge old airplanes were just standing there and one of them was just getting the chop.
Allan, a former South African police detective with a passion for aviation, approached the owner and asked ‘”do you mind me looking for a buyer for this airplane instead of chopping it up?”, and he said “well yes go for it”.’
After initial calls to friends didn’t provide a backer, in December 2017 Allan created the Save The Skymaster charity and his project to raise money for the restoration was born.
Today, an army of retired military veterans and apprentices just starting out in their careers are working together to change the plane’s engines, restore its fuselage, and prepare it for its first flight in 18 years.
But the monumental task, which has even attracted the attention of an aviation college as a potential partner, comes at a whopping £1 million cost, and the pandemic has put the group severely off track.
‘We only just launched as a charity, and Covid has not been kind to us from a funding point of view,’ says Allan.
‘Our target this year was £500,000, and we were pretty much on target according to the Charity Commission grants that we applied for. This would have got our engines done and most of the necessary repairs.
‘Instead we’ve probably raised £15-16,000 from grants, and in donations very little, only a few thousand. Each airshow we would go to we would do £2-3,000 easily.’
Skymaster 56498 served in the Pacific Theatre during World War Two, and later returned to service in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts to bring in aid and supplies and return wounded soldiers. Pictured: The aircraft around 1964 in Vietman, taken by Jon Voss
An army of military veterans and apprentices just starting out in their careers are working together to change the plane’s engines, restore its fuselage, and prepare it for its first flight in 18 years. Pictured: 56498 seen in 1964
The Skymasters had been brought across the Atlantic for a Steven Spielberg war epic based on the Berlin Airlift, but when the film didn’t come to fruition the planes were left to rust in what would have been their final years. Pictured: The planes at North Weald in 2003 for a film about the Berlin Airlift believed to have been called ‘The Candy Bomber’
Leading the engineering side of the project is Sam Evans (pictured), an ex-RAF serviceman who worked on Harrier and Phantom jets in the RAF for 17 years before becoming a contractor for several years
But Allan reports that the men and women volunteering are still ‘so enthusiastic’, with some working in their own Covid bubbles under tight regulations to push the project forwards.
‘We’ve got chaps who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, veterans, who are working on the plane as we speak. They stick together, they’re local. They go home, they go to the airplane, they go home, that’s pretty much it! But they love it.’
Of the dozen veteran volunteers the most senior is Sam Evans, an engineer and aircraft mechanic who cut his teeth working on Harriers and Phantoms in the RAF for 17 years.
He has taken on a similar challenge before, managing and maintaining his very own Vulcan strategic bomber as it toured the country before being retired. He called the experience ‘absolutely fantastic’.
Douglas C-54 Skymaster specifications
Years of service: 1942 to 1975 (retired from military use) – still used by Buffalo Airways, Canada and some performance airshows
Number built: 1,170
Capacity: 50 troops / 32,500 lb (14,700 kg) cargo
Length: 93 ft 10 in (28.60 m)
Wingspan: 117 ft 6 in (35.81 m)
Height: 27 ft 6 in (8.38 m)
Engines: 4 x Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasps
Maximum range: 4,000 miles (6,400 km)
Maximum speed: 275 mph (443 km/h
Sam worked at some of Britain’s most prestigious airbases in St Athen, Brize Norton, and for five years at RAF Gütersloh in West Germany, but was made redundant just at the point when the Cold War ended.
It was less than unfortunate timing for Sam, who was in a wheelchair from a motorbike accident when they told him he would be leaving the force. But six months later he went back to work on RAF aircrafts as a civilian contractor.
Contracted work in the aviation industry has proven to be extremely turbulent though according to Sam, and at the start of the pandemic in March he again saw his work cut by the RAF.
‘9/11 was a disaster for aviation, but coronavirus has been far, far worse, I’ve actually had to take a permanent job with Bombardier for the stability of a permanent employer. I’ve already lived through one massive recession so I wasn’t going to do it again,’ he said.
Sam got involved with Save The Skymaster after being introduced to Allan Vogel through a mutual friend; originally with the intention of just helping to get it air worthy, the project has given Sam an outlet to meet other RAF engineers and veterans who have experienced the similar struggle to adapt to civilian life after years in a tight-knit group in the armed forces.
‘It’s about being part of a team, that’s what you get used working in the forces, working towards a common goal.
‘That’s what you miss when you first come out all of a sudden, you’ve had these mates around you all of the time -its the same guys day in day out for years at a time – and then all of a sudden you’re cast out.
‘I had the motorbike accident and then I didn’t see anyone else from the air force from the day I had the accident until the day I left, no one came to see me. So that was quite extreme, and that’s what happens to these guys, they come out of the military and suddenly your whole life is changed. You’ve been living in service accommodation because you move so regularly, that you don’t have your own house, and so you lose all of that, your whole world comes to an end and it does take quite a bit to adapt to it.
‘We’ve got guys who are still serving involved in the project as well, so this sets them up for civilian life when they leave.’
The opportunity to volunteer on the aircraft can also give much needed emotional relief to those still serving in the armed forces, and project founder Allan is actively encouraging servicemen suffering from PTSD and other conditions to get involved in the project.
Garry Verducci, 53, serves as the charity’s membership secretary as well as getting his hands dirty fixing fuel tanks on the weekend, and says the plane gives him a ‘getaway’ from an incredibly stressful day job.
Garry has worked in counter-terrorism with the Ministry of Defence for the past 17 years, and has found his work to be ‘distressing’ at times. His love of aviation is ‘for me, escapism from that role’.
‘In the job, (security) creates quite a bit of stress, and the things we’re doing can make it quite a stressful environment.
Work in progress: The project’s 18-month timescale has been knocked back by the pandemic, with volunteers entering Covid bubbles to work on fuel tanks, electronics and the fuselage. Funding to repair all four of its piston engines still needs to be found
The opportunity to volunteer on the aircraft can also give much needed emotional relief to those still serving in the armed forces, and Allan is actively encouraging servicemen suffering from PTSD and other conditions to get involved in the project
Sam Evans got involved with Save The Skymaster after being introduced to Allan Vogel through a mutual friend; originally with the intention of just helping to get it air worthy, the project has given Sam (left) an outlet to meet other RAF engineers and veterans who have experienced the similar struggle to adapt to civilian life after years in a tight-knit group in the armed forces
‘I’ve always been interested in aviation and I just came across Skymaster by chance on the internet, I was invited along, and for this year it’s been absolutely brilliant for me because it’s not really about the aircraft – the thing you initially join for – but I found with this group everyone is about getting the aircraft off the ground. Apart from being quite enthusiastic, we’re learning lots of skills.
Garry’s past attempts to find a rewarding hobby have found him struggling to strike a balance between his passion for duty and service and finding fulfilment.
‘For 12 years I was also involved in search and rescue (as a volunteer), but that was also stressful because you’re pulling bodies out of rivers and god knows what…
‘I’m sure you can imagine there is a certain amount of post-traumatic stress from the job and also from the search and rescue. That got too much after a while because of some of the things you see and do, so afterwards I thought I needed to do something for myself and that’s where I came across the Skymaster and it just ticked all the boxes.
‘I’m not from an engineering background so I’m learning lots of new stuff which is escapism really. But the actual group itself, it’s just a happy place. I know it sounds weird, but you go along and you have fun!
‘You go to work on an airplane, and you end up making friends and just having that relief.’
He added that the plane had delivered a ‘hope-inspired’ message during three major conflicts, and its return to former glory was what ‘is driving us to get other people involved’.
David Shaw, CEO of the Veteran’s Foundation, praised Save The Skymaster’s work to encourage veterans to get involved in the project, and also meet to talk about their shared struggles during a pandemic which has significantly affected traditional forms of support.
Mr Shaw added that pandemic had help reinvigorate the sector’s ‘purpose and motivation’ to help people who need more support than they might normally because of the lockdown.
‘Skymaster are motivating people, they’re working in teams. I think the support that they [veterans] get and the motivation and enthusiasm is really beneficial, and their purpose is wonderful as well.
‘It’s very true particularly for people who are unemployed or made redundant to give them a real focus, and rather than twiddling their thumbs at home and wondering what to do next they’re in this tremendous project. It’s that camaraderie…’
The project has also attracted younger engineers, including graduates Owen Mansfield (left) and Joe Malkin (far right) who are using the project to learn valuable skills by working with older aircraft
Garry Verducci, 53, serves as the charity’s membership secretary as well as getting his hands dirty fixing fuel tanks on the weekend, and says the plane gives him a ‘getaway’ from an incredibly stressful day job
Most of the fuselage repairs are under way, but a major investment is needed for repair each of the four piston engines at a cost of £65,000 each. The project is expected to cost £1million in total
The Skymaster project, now a registered charity, has also attracted the attention of budding engineers, with founder Allan and veterans like Sam keen to pass on their skills to the next generation of aircraft designers and innovators.
When I spoke to Sam about developing younger talent he said: ‘We want to pass our skills on so we don’t get a group of people who don’t go in to look at it and go “oh no this is too much”, we want to get people thinking “Yes, we can make this happen”.’
Owen Mansfield, 21, is one student who has taken up the opportunity to work on the aircraft as he starts out on his career in engineering.
‘We started off just cleaning bits and pieces, but in the last year we’ve been working on the engines, myself and other volunteers have been taking bits off the engines and cleaning them and refurbishing them and check they all work. There is not a lot of tea-making going on,’ he said.
Owen found his passion in engineering from his dad who has worked on older aircraft for over 30 years. When the Skymaster flew over to the UK in 2002, he was working for the company that looked after them, so when the restoration project was started in 2017 Owen knew he wanted to help out.
He had already taken on a three-year apprenticeship scheme at aerospace firm Marshall’s in Cambridge in 2017, but unlike many work experience projects the Skymaster has given him the chance to get more hands on and gain a better insight.
‘I would like to be a fully qualified aircraft engineer, so working on the Skymaster definitely helps. Not only does it show you are willing to learn all different aspects, it gives you the experience that not everyone may have, it gives you that edge.’
And given his age, is he at all worried about the impact of the pandemic on the industry’s long term future?
‘I still want to carry it on, and I’m still determined to do what I love so no I’m not going to give it up too easily,’ he says defiantly.
Allan Vogel appears determined to inspire more young people to take up engineering, as there is also a potential partnership with Stanstead Airport College on the horizon.
The Skymaster R5D-3, with serial number 56498, was first delivered to the US Navy on 20th May 1945, and was assigned to her first unit VR-11, a Naval Air Transport Squadron based in Guam, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean
Douglas DC-4 Skymasters were even involved in picking up Yemenite Jews from the British Protectorate of Aden to bring them to safety in the newly formed state of Israel in November 1949. Pictured: A DC-4 at the Near East Air Transport (in Alaska Airlines trim)
Pictured: A school visit by an Orthodox Jewish community in March 2019. C-54 Skymasters were used to lift out over 40,000 persecuted Jews to Israel from the Yemen & Saudi Arabia in 1948 in a secret operation by the USAAF called Operation Magic Carpet
Skymasters became famous for the role they played in delivering food and supplies in the Berlin Airlift when the city was cut off from the west of Europe by Soviet forces. 56498 was not involved in the delivery, as it was left stationed in the Pacific. Pictured: Skymasters and Skytrains at Templehof Airport in 1948-49
Having worked with ‘famous faces’ such as RyanAir and TUI, Jennifer Hogan, the college’s head of engineering, said: ‘We have lots of students with a very keen interest in some of the older aircraft, so it just gives them a different option rather than working for some of the big passenger airlines.
‘We have every hope and ambition that we will have really healthy applications for next academic year
‘We’ve seen similar things happen in 9/11 and other big hits to the industry and it has always bounced back. There is a lot of airplanes out there and they have to fly again, and we certainly have the students who are ready and keen to take those places and work in the industry as soon as it picks up again.’
While Allan’s 18-month timescale to have the plane taxiing up and down the runway with passengers may have been knocked off course, Sam, Garry, Owen and the other volunteers continue to plough on relentlessly.
Most of the fuselage repairs are under way, but a major investment is needed to repair each of the four piston engines at a cost of £65,000 each.
‘I can’t see this getting back to normality any time soon, so really we just need to ride out this storm. I think there is going to be a lot of fallout from it,’ says Allan.
‘I think we will be a good outlet for people who might have suffered as a result, getting people retrained and refocused. That’s where the Skymaster comes in, it can actually lift people up again and give them hope and an opportunity in life again.
The long-term objective is to operate the Skymaster on the UK and European airshow circuit as a performance aircraft and also for enthusiasts to come and visit.
‘It will be a flying museum, it’s configured with some stretchers in like it was during WW2 with the hospital stations in it.
‘The way we’re going about this restoration is very different to one man and his aeroplane, for his own benefit. This is more about people, and lifting people up.’
You can support Save The Skymaster’s project to restore the Skymaster 56498 in a variety of ways.
To give £10, text SKYMASTER 10 to 70085 for a regular donation and SKYMASTER 10 to 70450 for a once off donation.
You can also become a member and be kept up to date with Skymaster’s restoration progress by visiting their website at https://www.savetheskymaster.org/membership/.
56498: The C-54 Skymaster that brought hope to soldiers and civilians for over 70 years
20th May 1945 – The Skymaster R5D-3, with serial number 56498, is delivered to the US Navy, and is assigned to her first unit VR-11, a Naval Air Transport Squadron based in Guam. Her job was to repatriate wounded soldiers back to safety and take in a 1000 ltrs of blood and vital supplies every day to the battlefields of Iwo Jima to the islands of Japan.
2nd February 1946 – She is transferred to to a new unit, VR-6, for a few months until being moved onto MAG-15, Marine Air Group 15, in April of 1946 based out of Hawaii, and remains based in the Pacific Theatre for the next year.
It was around this time that 56498 made a long distance journey to Delaware to repatriate British Prisoners of War from Japanese concentration camps. From here they boarded a ship back to Britain.
August 1947 – The plane is moved to VMR-152, Marine Transport Squadron 152 at El Toro, California. From here she moved around with the squadron to Barbers Point, Corpus Christi and onto Iwakuni in Japan.
1948 – Her former unit VR-6 takes part in the Berlin Airlift carry food and medicine supplies to the people of West Berlin when it was blockaded by the Soviet Union. But 56498 was not involved, she instead remained in the Pacific as the Communist threat from North Korea was imminent and she was needed there to support the US Navy’s efforts.
However, C-54 Skymasters have been associated with the crises because of the incredible effort of their pilots and crew who took part in what is known as Operation Vittles.
January 1952 to June 1953 – 56498’s VMR-152 unit joins up with VMR-253 at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, southern Japan to help with efforts in the Korean War. The squadron logged over 11,000 flight hours, carried 30,170 personnel, and moved 2.3 million kg of cargo during the conflict.
Early 1970s – She takes part in relief efforts during the Vietnam War, flying out of Guam and Atsugi and Iwakuni airbases in Japan to deliver supplies and much needed blood for the wounded of the Vietnam conflict.
1972 – She finishes her Vietnam-related missions flying wounded Americans out of the conflict back to Barbers Point, Hawaii, and El Toro, CA.
1972 to 1975 – Skymaster 56498 is moved into storage at Davis–Monthan’s Air Force Base, southeast of Tucson, Arizona, which is a well-known ‘graveyard’ for excess US military planes.
1975 to 1980 – The aircraft is purchased by Biegert Aviation, a fire bombing & spraying company that put the plane to use extinguishing Californian wildfires and bug spraying.
1995 – 2002 – Over 40 years after first taking flight, Skymaster 56498 is bought by Atlantic Warbirds Inc, a company based in the New Hampshire, USA that uses the aircraft for airshow performance on the country’s air show circuit, including appearances on the Spirit of Freedom Tour in it’s MATS Atlantic Division scheme.
2002 – A comprehensive restoration was carried out and the aircraft – along with another Skymaster – was flown to England to feature in a film about the Berlin Airlift. Unfortunately, the film was cancelled and she was stored at North Weald airfield north of London, where she has remained ever since.
2017 – Allan Vogel saves 56498 from being scrapped after finding clues of its incredible history on an inspection of the cockpit. He watched the other Skymaster be turned into scrap.