Budd RB-1 Conestoga – An Innovative Failure

July 13, 2023

The Second World War saw air transport really come into its own with aircraft allowing combatants to deploy forces, resupply and liaise at a pace that had been unimaginable just decades before. In fact, the ability to wage campaigns by relying on air supply opened a new chapter in warfare, allowing paratroopers to be used to launch sudden attacks behind enemy defences or else to allow deep penetration attacks that would otherwise be cut off and destroyed, with the Chindits operations in Burma a great example of this.

Perhaps more notably was the costs when air supply failed, such when the Germans attempted to resupply their cut off Sixth Army in Stalingrad. The assurances that this would succeed led to the decision for the force to stay in place and fight and, when the resupply mission failed, led to complete disaster.

But while the importance of air transport was recognized even before the war began, the limitations of manufacturing capability led to major issues. After all, all the combatants needed to build combat aircraft as a priority and even the United States, whose manufacturing capacity was truly vast, had deep concerns as to whether it would be able to build enough transport aircraft for its needs.

The primary issue was in obtaining enough aircraft-grade aluminium for production. As said, this critical material was needed for fighters and bombers and so there were real concerns that not enough would be available for transport aircraft. And this led to some interesting innovations in the field of transport aircraft design, though perhaps none more so than this – the Budd RB-1 Conestoga.

For starters, it was the creation of a company that didn’t have much of a pedigree in aircraft design. The Budd Company was known for building railway passenger cars and the bodies for cars, trucks and buses. To build all these they specialised in the use of stainless steel, developing the shot weld manufacturing technique in 1932 which was far superior to using rivets and the fusion welding methods employed by other manufacturers.

The use of stainless steel was extremely limited in aircraft at the time, primarily because of the extra weight the material had over aluminium. But because of the concerns over potential shortages, and the fact that Budd had an expert workforce in shot welding available immediately for production, their idea of developing a new transport aircraft built of stainless steel was positively received by the military. In August 1942 the US Navy placed an order for 200 of the new aircraft, followed shortly by another by the US Army Air Force for 600, designated as the C-93.

Budd’s proposal, the RB-1, was not just innovative in the materials of its construction. In fact, take a second to look at it.

Yes, it might look a little odd to modern eyes, but think about what you see here. It’s essentially the same layout as adopted by pretty much every modern military cargo transport. Compare the RB-1 to the principle equivalents at the time, aircraft like the C-47 or Junkers Ju-52, and you can see that the designers really appreciated a lot of the design elements that nowadays we consider standard.

The high wing and tricycle undercarriage, which was considered a futuristic feature at the time, are now the typical on transport aircraft.

Plus, the cargo hold and loading doors are essentially the same as employed on later aircraft of the type, with a large electrically powered cargo ramp at the end of the aircraft located under the raised tail. The aircraft was also expressly designed for the hold to be the same height as the bed of the standard US Army truck, allowing much quicker unloading straight from the aircraft into receiving vehicles.

The hold itself was twenty-five feet (7.62 meters) in length and measured eight feet (2.44m) wide by eight feet high without obstruction, giving the aircraft an excellent amount of space for the day, and the RB-1 was also fitted with a hoist and a powered winch to assist with loading operations. Capacity was a maximum payload of 9,600 pounds (c.4,350kgs), and twenty-four paratroopers or stretcher casualties could be carried. Indeed, an entire one-and-a-half-ton truck could be accommodated in the hold.

And while the odd cockpit, mounted up in an almost pod arrangement above the fuselage might look a little goofy, this kept the cockpit and its crew from obstructing the cargo hold and was a feature that several post-war transports adopted.

So yes, it might appear a little strange, but if we compare it to the C-130 Hercules prototype of a decade later, well I think we can see the designers were onto something.

Of course, there were a few problems, which is why the RB-1 Conestoga is being featured in Forgotten Aircraft.

Powerplant was two of the famous Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines that produced 1,200hp each. This was the same as that used on the C-47, which was fine with them. But the RB-1, with its steel construction was about 2,000lbs heavier than the C-47, and this told on its handling.

Plus, and somewhat ironically, the prototypes and first preproduction aircraft were delayed when Budd’s had problems getting enough stainless steel to build them, meaning that flight testing didn’t begin until October 1943. By this point the United States had secured more than enough aircraft-grade aluminium and so the perceived need for the Conestoga was no longer a pressing requirement.

The issues with the aircraft, which included greater fuel use than expected and some questionable handling characteristics led to the Army cancelling their order and the Navy reducing theirs to a total of twenty – three prototypes and seventeen production aircraft.

These were all delivered by March 1944, but the RB-1 was obviously an odd duck and never got into an operational squadron. Indeed, there were serious questions about the safety of the aircraft.

One of the prototypes was lost in a crash in April 1944, which killed one crewman, while of the production aircraft that actually flew with Navy crews six suffered accidents in just five months.

To be fair, this is probably to be expected from a design created by a company with very limited experience and which was a rush job as well, and in defence of the RB-1 its tough construction meant that often crews suffered only minor injuries from these incidents.

But the Navy quickly concluded it neither needed nor wanted the RB-1, and so in January 1945 they were put on the disposal list for sale at a price a fraction of that which had been spent on them. Indeed, they were only a quarter the price of C-47s, a pretty good indication of the US Navy’s desire to get shot of them. The fourteen available Budd’s were snapped up by National Skyway Freight, a new cargo airline that was established by former volunteer flyers with the famous AVG “Flying Tigers” fighter group.

This airline would soon change its name to the one it was more famous for throughout the Cold War were it undertook critical defence contracts supporting US goals – Flying Tiger Line.

Some of the RB-1’s were immediately sold on to other users, while the others were soon employed in Flying Tiger contracts…where they soon showed why the Navy had been quick to get rid of them.

The Conestoga’s proved to have a number of issues, though the one that seems to have caused most comment was the fact that the engine exhausts would often fall off in flight, leading to engine fires. A number were quickly lost, with several fatalities, and the Flying Tigers would also palm them off to other companies as quickly as they could.

As a result, the subsequent history of the Conestoga’s is a somewhat murky, but they seem to have bumbled around for a short period, normally crashing because of their design flaws. Indeed, the sheer number of crashes involving the type has led to speculation that a cunning saboteur may have been at work on the production line, though an FBI investigation into this during the war led to the conclusion that faults identified were through poor workmanship.

What is true is that the RB-1’s stainless steel construction does mean that they proved remarkable durable even post-crash, with several wrecks apparently repurposed as buildings, including one that served as a burger stand for many years.

But now only one remains, a hulk that survives at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona. And it must be said, though the aircraft is stripped down to a shell, the stainless-steel construction still appears to be holding up well, enabling generations of visitors to wonder what this odd, shiny bulb is to this day.

Sources/Related:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budd_RB_Conestoga

https://www.nhahistoricalsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/1945-C93-Budd-Heslop-4-AAHS-1.pdf

XFC-130H Hercules – Barely Credible!

The Blackburn Beverley; Bulbous But Effective and Perhaps Soon to be Lost

Bristol Bombay – The Forgotten Work Horse

 

Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers

Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers

Was lucky to be able to pin down Dave and get an hour or so from his busy schedule to talk about his remarkable life and the situation in Myanmar (Burma).

The Short SA.4 Sperrin; Britain’s Back-Up, Back-up Nuclear Bomber

The Short SA.4 Sperrin; Britain’s Back-Up, Back-up Nuclear Bomber

The V-Bombers; Britain’s cool and quirky answer on how to drop atom bombs on the Soviet Union. This trio of aircraft not just represented Britain’s entry into the nuclear power’s club, they also demonstrate the evolving ideas and technologies that were developing in...

Decomposing Behemoth; The Convair XC-99

Decomposing Behemoth; The Convair XC-99

You know, quite a few people have said to me: “Hey Ed, you should cover the Convair B-36 bomber. That’s a Forgotten Aircraft.” And truth be told, I probably will do something on the B-36 one day, because it really was such a beast. I mean, look at in in comparison to...

Engineering Division TP-1/XCO-5; The US Army’s Final Fighter

Engineering Division TP-1/XCO-5; The US Army’s Final Fighter

I’ve written in the past about the US Navy’s Naval Aircraft Factory, which was created in 1917 to help design and build aircraft suitable for maritime use. Indeed, I’ve already covered one of their most famous and enduring creations, the NAF N3N. The reason for the...

Vought SBU Corsair; The ACTUAL Second One!

Vought SBU Corsair; The ACTUAL Second One!

Everyone knows the Corsair II, right? Built by LTV, the successor to the legendary Vought company, the A-7 Corsair II was the replacement for the also legendary A-4 Skyhawk and served, rather remarkably, with the US Navy, Marines AND Air Force. Indeed, I’ll get around...