There was no name on the C-46 but the ground and flight crews who flew the Hump called her the Betty G. The airplane was identified by a painting of a scantily clad female on the left side of the nose. In 1944 the Betty G encountered severe turbulence and crashed into the side of a mountain. The wreckage was located in an uncharted area and attempts to reach the site were futile. Rumors circulated that gold coins for Chiang Kai-shek's payroll were aboard the Betty G.
Chabua Airfield, Upper Assam, India, September 1944
Twenty-five miles from Chabua, a twin-engine C-46 approaches the field with one propeller feathered—tongues of flame intermittently escape from the feathered engine's nacelle. An Army Air Corps corporal and first lieutenant manning the control tower hear a southern drawl over the loudspeaker, "Chabua tower, 009, we've got one turnin' and one burnin' request a straight in approach. Over."
"009, Chabua tower, you're cleared for a straight in approach. Do you read?"
"Chabua tower, 009, that's a Roger."
"009, Chabua, you're breaking up, say again!"
"Chabua tower, 009, understand we're cleared for a straight in approach. Over."
"009, Chabua tower, that's affirmative."
The lieutenant yanks the field phone out of its leather case and turns the crank, "There's a C-46 making a straight in approach with an engine fire. We need a meat wagon and fire trucks to follow 009 down the runway."
A line of C-46s and C-47s are parked wingtip-to-wingtip on the flight line. When the flight line crews spot an ambulance and fire trucks racing toward the runway they turn their eyes toward the airplane on final approach. At the far end of the flight line, Staff Sergeant Kirkwood in charge of a four-man engine change crew tells his men to take a smoke break. The sergeant, a corporal and three privates climb down from their crew chief stands and move to the edge of the ramp to get a better view. They light cigarettes and watch as the C-46 makes a near perfect landing.
When the airplane rolls to a stop, fire trucks douse the flames while the flight crew scrambles out. Two mechanics push a crew chief stand alongside the feathered engine and remove the cowling. A fireman hands one of the mechanics a hose and he sprays the interior of the accessory compartment. Minutes later, a tug hooks up a tow bar and tows 009 alongside the C-46 Kirkwood and his men are working on. As the airplane goes by, a painting of a scantily clad female that resembles Betty Grable can be seen on the nose of the aircraft. A new private on Kirkwood's crew asks, "How come there isn't a name painted on 009, sarge?"
"We call her the Betty G, she's one of the oldest C-46s on the flight line."
"You still haven't told me why there isn't a name on the machine."
"Back in '42, after the Air Transport Command started flying the Hump, an engineer on one of our flight crews was a commercial artist in civilian life. When he wasn't flying, he'd paint the noses of our airplanes. It took him a couple of days to paint 009; he had to fit it in between flights. Just after he finished the painting he flew the Hump and was going to add the name when he returned. He never came back. The wreck was sighted on the side of a mountain and there were no survivors. In respect for the flight crew, a name was never added to the painting."
"Does anyone know what happened to the airplane?" the private asked.
"I'm not sure anybody knows. In those days we were short of pilots, mechanics, engines, tools and spare parts even more than we are now. Some guys blamed it on maintenance others think they lost an engine and some blame it on weather. You can take your pick. I worked on the bird a couple of times; as far as I know, it was one of our better machines. This is some of the worst flying weather in the world and there are no weather stations on the Hump. The only weather information comes from returning flight crews. The weather changes from minute to minute so pilot reports aren't much good. If the weather is good on one side of the Hump, it's usually lousy on the other. Our C-46s and C-47s can't fly under or over the weather they have to bore though it. If you lose an engine over the mountains; you have a problem, some of the clouds contain rocks."
"Is there a chance the crew bailed out?"
"I think we've lost around four hundred planes and less than two dozen guys walked out. It's a long 550 miles over the Hump. There's thick, green jungle down there plus tribes of head hunters and Japanese troops in northern Burma. Most of the troops feel they're better off going down with the plane. At least there's a chance they'll be found. If you bail out close to Chabua or Kunming you've got a chance otherwise you're dead meat."
"Some of the flight crew members I talk to say the C-46 is an accident waiting to happen. One of them said if you rivet six handles on the machine it would be a real coffin."
"The C-46 isn't as reliable as a C-47 but it has one big advantage, it can haul 3,000 pounds more freight than a C-47. That's a lot of beans and bullets."
From his crew chief stand Kirkwood watches the line chief, a gray haired master sergeant, park his Jeep alongside the Betty G then climb a work stand and examine the feathered engine. He walks over to Kirkwood who asks, "What happened to the Betty G, sarge?"
"Something in the accessory section came unglued; the flames nearly broke through the firewall. How close are you to finishing here?"
"We just finished pre-oiling and need to install the front row of plugs then crank it up. Less than an hour if we're lucky and don't have many squawks."
"After you clear the runup squawks, I'll get some troops to handle the test flight. I need you to yank the Betty G's engine so the sheet metal shop can patch the firewall tonight."
"My crews been working their ass off for over twelve hours."
"We're short crews. A lot of troops are down with dengue and malaria. We're going to pull a 100 Hour Inspection on the Betty G so there's plenty of time to hang the engine. Just drop it for the tin benders and you can hang the new one tomorrow or the next day."
"I'm going to have some pissed off troops; we hung two engines today."
"Here's my beer ration chit; buy them a beer."
"Hell, you don't have to do that."
Kirkwood's men are not happy when told they have to drop the Betty G's engine. When they learn the line chief gave them his beer chit, they accomplish the job in record time. After they finish, they pickup a case of beer from the PX and sit around a table. "It's going to be awhile before another crew drops an engine in less than an hour," the corporal says as he opens his second can of beer, "The line chief is a nice guy to give us his beer ration. I used to think all regular army guys were hard asses but if it wasn't for the regulars this country would be in deep..."
Kirkwood interrupts, "The line chief, first sergeant and the chief pilot's engineer, Frank Reynalds, are the only regular army NCOs left on the base. They know more about airplanes than you or I will ever know. They taught me most of what I know; stuff that I'm trying to pound into your thick skulls. Something must have sunk in for us to drop an engine in less than an hour."
Two days later, Kirkwood and his crew hang a new engine on the Betty G. They finish the job before the inspection crew is through. They have to wait until the technical sergeant in charge of the inspection crew runs the engines and turns the airplane over to Kirkwood's crew to handle the test flight.
The sergeant in charge of the inspection crew waves and Kirkwood follows him into the Betty G's cockpit. Kirkwood takes the co-pilot's seat while the inspection chief runs both engines. The engines check out perfectly. After shutdown, Kirkwood and his crew visually inspect the new engine then install the cowling. The inspection chief clears the 'Red Cross' from the aircraft form then takes his leave. Kirkwood and his crew take another smoke break while they wait for the test flight crew. "Off your ass and on your feet that's our test crew walking across the ramp."
"If that's Major Carson, one of us will have to go up with him. It ain't going to be me unless I get flight pay," a private tells Kirkwood.
"You'll go up if you're ordered unless you want to wind up in the guard house. You'll be going up as a passenger not a crew member and passengers don't draw flight pay."
"I'd like to go up," the newest private volunteers.
"OK, you'll be in good hands. Carson started flying the Hump in December of '42 when we took over from the Tenth Air Force. He's an old airline pilot who flew for the Loyalists in Spain and with the Finns during the Russo-Finnish War. He also flew Spitfires for the Brits..."
The corporal interrupts, "He's the best pilot on the base. I'll go up if you don't want to go."
"I want to go so I'll have something to write home about."
Kirkwood meets the flight crew and hands Major Carson the aircraft form. Carson reads the form then asks, "How's the airplane, Kirk?"
"It's got a new engine and just came out of a 100 Hour Inspection."
"Have one of your men checkout a chute and climb aboard."
"I've got a new man that wants to go. Will that be OK, major?"
"Has he ever flown before?"
"He came over on the Fireball Express."
"OK but make sure he knows how to use a chest pack."
Minutes later, the Betty G heads down the runway. The test flight lasts less than an hour and, after landing, Carson releases the airplane for flight. Kirkwood checks the Form 1 and there are no squawks to clear. While his crew tops off the fuel tanks, Kirkwood walks to the maintenance shack. He tells the maintenance clerk to update the status board and turn the Betty G over to Operations. Outside he spots the line chief's Jeep parked at another C-46 and walks over.
"How'd it go, Kirk?"
"We didn't have any squawks so I turned the machine over to Operations."
"Sounds like you did a good job. I'm going to need you to relieve the crew on 541; they ran into one problem after another."
"How long have they been working?"
"Close to fourteen hours. They finally got the engine hung and checked out. All you need to do is take the bird through test flight."
Kirkwood and his crew walk across the ramp to a C-46, tail number 541, and relieve the engine change crew. Minutes later Major Carson's engineer, Frank Reynalds, arrives and starts his preflight inspection. When Reynalds is through, he joins Kirkwood and his crew who are sitting in the shade under the wing. While they wait for the pilots they watch as 55 gallon gasoline drums are loaded aboard the Betty G.
A military police Jeep pulls alongside the Betty G's cargo door. Two MPs watch as the loading crew removes a wooden box from the Jeep then ties it down in the rear cargo compartment. An MP walks over to the Betty G's pilot and hands him a clipboard. The pilot checks that the wooden box is securely tied down then scribbles something on the clipboard and hands it back.
Minutes later, a Jeep drops Major Carson and his copilot off at tail number 541 as the Betty G taxies toward the runway. They make a quick walk around inspection then start the engines. Out of the corner of his eye, Carson sees the Betty G accelerate down the runway then lift off on its way to Kunming.
Flying the Hump, September 1944
The Betty G climbs at 300 feet per minute and circles the airfield twice to gain altitude. The pilot heads southeast toward the Naga Hills at 15,000 feet climbing steadily. An hour out of Chabua, the Betty G reaches 18,000 feet. When they level off, the indicated airspeed increases from 145 to 180 miles per hour.
The ranges they fly over are anywhere from 14,000 to 16,000 feet high. Although it is near the end of the monsoon season the weather is perfect; there isn't a cloud in sight. While the Betty G can cross the main range of the Himalayas at 18,000 feet the pilot decides to climb higher to cross the Santsung Mountains. When he sights the Salween River in the distance, the pilot calls for climb power and gradually climbs to 20,000 feet.
Three and a half hours later the Betty G lands on Kunming's gravel runway. Chinese laborers push two worn-out aircraft tires under the main cargo door. Other laborers board the Betty G and roll the gasoline drums out the door onto the tires. The gasoline drums make a soft landing on the tires and are loaded onto trucks. Minutes later the Betty G is unloaded but the wooden box remains onboard. The pilot and copilot walk to Base Operations while the rest of the crew remains at the airplane.
The pilot's orders are to turn the wooden box over to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's personal representative and no one else. As a recognition signal he was given a signet ring that hangs from his dog tag chain. The generalissimo's representative is supposed to meet the Betty G on the ramp and hand the pilot a duplicate ring that he is to bring back to Chabua. The copilot files a clearance while the pilot talks to the Operations Officer, "I was supposed to deliver some cargo to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's representative but I don't see him."