The Douglas LC-47H is a variant of the venerable Douglas DC-3, a twin-engined airliner and transport aircraft designed by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation in the 1930’s. The DC-3/C-47 is widely held to be one of the most successful aircraft designs ever, with over 10,000 built – some of which are still in revenue service at the time of writing in 2013. C-47’s and DC-3’s were widely used in New Zealand by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, National Airways Corporation, and other operators. 13 were even used as top-dressing aircraft by Fieldair, James Aviation and others.
The LC-47H is a variant modified for cold-weather operations. Modifications included the attachment of skis to the undercarriage, provision for JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off), and an extended nose cone to make room for a radar. 17 of these and equivalent aircraft types, including the related C-117, were operated by US Navy Air Development Squadron VX-6 (nicknamed the ‘puckered penguins’) based at McMurdo Station in Antarctica between 1956 and 1969. One of them, 12418 ‘Que Sera Sera‘ made the first ever aircraft landing at the South Pole on 31 October 1956. This aircraft is preserved at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola Florida.
17221 (constructor’s number 13319) was built as an R4D-5 by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation in 1944 and was originally delivered to the US Army Air Corps, but soon transferred to the US Navy. She was then transferred to the US Marines and was used by the forces occupying Japan after the end of World War 2. Returned to the US in 1947, she was placed in storage by the US Navy at Litchfield Park in Arizona. In 1963 17221 was modified to R4D-5L/LC-47H status by Ling-Temco-Vought and in October 1963 she was issued to VX-6. The aircraft was flown to McMurdo Station via Christchurch and Invercargill, and operated in Antarctica from 1963 until 1966, wintering over at McMurdo each year.
In 1966, 17221 returned to Christchurch for overhaul and was subsequently operated locally from Christchurch until 1969. Upon retirement 17221 was made a permanent loan from the US Government to the City of Christchurch to honour the relationship between Christchurch and the US Antarctic Programme, and was the catalyst for the formation of the Aeronautical Society in August 1971. The aircraft was towed though the streets of Christchurch to the Ferrymead Heritage Park, where it was placed on outside display.
The Aeronautical Society kept the engines in running order for some years, and the fabric-covered control surfaces were placed in storage. A purpose-built hangar was completed to house the aircraft in 2001.
Restoration of 17221 was begun by Aeronautical Society volunteer Richard Wesley in 2001. As well as providing a home for many of the local birds, the aircraft had particularly suffered from water ingress into the cockpit and fuselage during the years outside, rotting the wooden floors. Richard gave the aircraft a thorough clean, re-attached the components which had been placed in storage, and largely restored the cockpit of the aircraft. He also began some paint removal on the exterior of 17221, before being called away to work overseas.
In order to complete restoration, 17221 requires corrosion control, particularly around the wing attachments, as well as significant restoration work on the engines, and a full repaint. The February 2011 Christchurch earthquake caused damage to the hangar and to floor mounts supporting the aircraft’s undercarriage, resulting in the display area being placed off limits to the public for nearly 5 years. Building repairs have now been completed and the display area is once again open to the public.
Restoration of 17221 is currently on hold, however any donations of money or parts to help complete this project would be gratefully received. Please contact the Society via the contact page if you can help.