19 September 2011

The First Steps to a Turboprop Transport, Part Two

A week and a half ago I had blogged about how the USAF was getting turboprop transport experience by setting up a test squadron at Kelly AFB to operated transport aircraft that had been converted to turbine power: 

52-2693 and 52-2672 in flight together.
On 15 June 1954, the headquarters of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) activated the 1700th Test Squadron (Turboprop) at Kelly AFB, Texas, with the task of developing maintenance procedures and techniques for the employment of turboprop transport aircraft pending the arrival of the C-130 and C-133 into the USAF service. The squadron had three flights with each flight dedicated to a single type for the testing of standard transport aircraft that had been converted to turboprop power. The first of the three flights to be activated would operate the Convair YC-131C. Two aircraft were converted from standard C-131 Samaritan transports (the USAF version of the CV-340 airliner) to use early test versions of the venerable Allison T56 turboprop.

Back in January 2010 I had written a short posting about the second of the demonstrator aircraft that were operated by the 1700th Test Squadron and operated in the second flight of the unit- the Boeing YC-97J, a Pratt & Whitney T34-powered version of the C-97 Stratofreighter. I had recently picked up Cal Taylor's voluminous tome on the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster and he devotes considerable space to the YC-97J and its operational use by the 1700th TS. The YC-97J made its first flight at Edwards AFB on 19 April 1955 and given that it used the same T34 engines as the upcoming C-133, the USAF was keenly interested in flight testing the engine in an operational environment with the YC-97J. From my previous posting about the YC-97J: 

Boeing converted two aircraft (52-2693 and 52-2672, both KC-97Gs) to turboprop power. Pratt & Whitney YT34 turoprop engines (which would later be used on the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster) delivering 5,700 horsepower were substituted for the four R-4360 radial engines. For a brief time the USAF considered redesignating these two Stratofreighters as C-137, but ended up assigning them the designation YC-97J (ironically the C-137 got used for the Boeing 707s used by the military, itself a development of the Model 367-80 prototype).

The conversion to turboprop power shaved nearly 5,0000 lbs off the aircraft's weight as the YT34s were much lighter but more powerful. The first flight was made on 19 April 1955 and the YC-97J demonstrated significant improvements in overall performance. The top speed was 417 mph compared to 375 mph for a regular Stratofreighter and the YC-97J took only 14 minutes to reach 20,000 feet whereas the regular Stratofreighter took 50 minutes!

Inflight study of the YC-97J during its Edwards flight test program.
In addition to using the same T34 engines as the C-133, the YC-97Js also used an early version of the same Curtiss turboelectric three-bladed propellers planned for the C-133. The first YC-97J completed its flight testing at Edwards and was delivered to Kelly AFB on 14 September 1955, nine months after the YC-131Cs had arrived. The second YC-97J arrived at the end of the month. After a short series of flights operating within the continental United States, the USAF authorized the aircraft to begin overwater missions with the first overwater flight being to Kindley Field in Bermuda- the aircraft covered the 1,700 mile route from San Antonio to Bermuda in 4 hours 42 minutes, the fastest time at that point by a prop-driven aircraft. On 26 January 1956, the YC-97J departed for Rhein-Main AB in West Germany staging through Dover AFB in Delaware, then Newfoundland and Scotland. Despite record breaking cold weather on the trip, the YC-97J performed flawlessly without any of the usual maintenance headaches that were commonplace for the piston-driven C-97s. On the leg between Newfoundland and Scotland, four hours were shaved off the usual flight time when using C-124s or C-118s, the run being made in only 6 hours 30 minutes. It was clear that the time savings was tremendous on long distance missions. The international aviation press covered the flight with interest. On an outbound stop in London, the YC-97J was climbing out of Heathrow at 2,500 feet per minute and London ATC asked the pilots to slow the rate of climb as the radar dish was too slow to keep up! The return flight from Frankfurt stopped in Paris, London, the Scotland (Prestwick), Newfoundland (Goose Bay) then Selfridge AFB in Michigan before returning to Kelly AFB. It was the first round-trip trans-Atlantic crossing by an American turboprop aircraft. During the mission to West Germany and back, no engine or prop maintenance was needed and the aircraft's four engines used a mere four quarts of oil for the entire trip. Needless to say, the USAF was very enthusiastic about the aircraft!

In March 1956 the two YC-97Js were put on a scheduled cargo run between Kelly AFB to Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico via Charleston AFB in South Carolina and the return routing stopped over at Brookley AFB in Alabama (now Mobile Downtown Airport). Average flying time between San Antonio and Puerto Rico was 16 hours and despite the stopovers, it was still nine hours faster than what piston-driven USAF transports took to cover the distance. But it didn't stop there- that same month the first YC-97J made the first trans-Pacific crossing by a turboprop aircraft, averaging 360 mph over the 18,000 mile round trip. The longest leg of the route to Tokyo was between Midway Island and Yokota AB outside of Tokyo- on this leg the YC-97J flew at 30,000 feet and averaged 400 mph. 

In preparation for the arrival of the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster, the first group of air crew and mechanics arrived at Kelly AFB from Dover AFB for familiarization training with the T34 engine and its Curtiss propellers. The three-week course had pilots flying an average of 38 hours on the YC-97Js to build turbine experience while the Dover mechanics worked side by side with the Kelly AFB maintenance team to keep the YC-97Js flying. The reliability of the turboprop over the piston engine was now unquestionable and in the summer of 1956, both YC-97Js would fly a total of 46 hours 35 minutes together in a single calendar day as proof of the reliability of the turboprop. The engine overhaul time (TBO) over the course of the test program with the 1700th started out at 150 hours and ended up at 1,000 hours. 

The YC-97J departs San Diego Lindbergh Field.
In addition to its scheduled cargo flights, the YC-97Js were also flown on demonstration flights for interested groups ranging form the US Navy to other defense contractors like Pratt & Whitney and North American Aviation. On a three day demonstration in Connecticut for Pratt & Whitney, the YC-97J made 78 engine starts, 19 takeoffs and landings, 7 air starts and 15 flights without any malfunctions of the engine or propellers. By October, one of the T34 engines became the first American turboprop engine to reach 1,000 flight hours since its last overhaul. It was removed from the YC-97J with 1,001 hours and 20 minutes flight time and in that time, it only needed 44 hours of unscheduled maintenance and used a miserly 392 quarts of oil in that time frame, a fraction of what the regular C-97's piston engines would have used in 1,000 flight hours. The propellers also proved to be extremely reliable and when the first C-133 Cargomasters were delivered to Dover AFB, the engines and propellers were already rated at 1,000 hours TBO, a significant feat in that day. 

The 1700th TS's flight test program with the YC-97Js concluded on 15 November 1956, six weeks ahead of schedule. However, the aircraft were kept operational until 17 January 1957 as they were used in Operation Safe Haven to fly refugees from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution from Europe to new homes in the United States. The first YC-97J, would go on to create more aviation history, though- it was modified to become a Super Guppy transport. Aero Spacelines president Jack Conroy had already flown a piston driven Super Guppy, and aware of the pending retirement of the YC-97Js, acquired one as the turboprop engines made his conversion not only faster, but more efficient. The new turbine Super Guppy used a swing nose instead of a tail break as was the case with the original design and it was put into service with NASA in 1966, its first job transporting the second stage of the Saturn IB rocket from Huntsville, Alabama, where it was built to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was subsequently retired to the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. 

Stay tuned for the final installment in this series which will look at the turboprop-powered YC-121F Super Constellation!

Source: Remembering an Unsung Giant: The Douglas C-133 Cargomaster and Its People by Cal Taylor. Firstfleet Publishers, 2005, p29-43. Photos: Smithsonian Institution, SDASM.


  1. Having "Cut my flightline teeth" on the the C-133 at Dover AFB, Delaware in the mid-60's, I've been very interested in this series and learned a lot. I'm hoping the previously promised Pat 3 will be along soon. Keep writing, this is fascinating stuff.

  2. Having been at Kelly 1955-1958 flying C-54's for the 1700th Group of MATS (46 & 57th Squadrons), we only saw one (1) each type: 97, 121, and 131. Once in a while, we got to fly the flag-pole sorties with the unit. When I first arrived at Kelly, my first six week-end missions were to fly the broken turbo-engines to Allison's in Indianapolis on Friday and return with fixed ones on Monday. Cannot complain since I was from the Indianapolis area!