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C-131 Convair Airliners in Naval Service

Navy’s Sigonella-based C-131s were a familiar sight at Mediterranean airports

The once familiar twin-engine Convair 240 airliner, and its many iterations up to the 580 turbo-prop version, were familiar aircraft at airfields across the country. It was one of the first pressurized airliners and was the right size for many short to medium range flights. They were operated by the military, too, in a number of roles.

Built by Convair in San Diego, Calif., they were not glamorous, but they were useful.

The U.S. Navy called their Convairs the Samaritan, which was designated as R4Y until 1962, when the Navy caught up with the U.S. Air Force and designated them C-131. Nearly all of the C-131s were based on the 240, 340 and 440 model. The basic C-131 power plant was the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engine.  Pilots and crew often referred to them as reciprocating engines, or “recips,” holdovers from a bygone era. A few received turbo-prop engines.

In an all-passenger configuration, the aircraft could carry 44 passengers.

Most Navy 131s were retired in the 1970s, but a few soldiered on in the Mediterranean, flying from the Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily. Mail, personnel and cargo could be moved around the theater to reach ships at or near various Mediterranean ports from the busy logistics hub. Like the medevac 131s that could load stretchers, the Sigonella aircraft had side-opening cargo doors and could carry both freight and passengers.

In their heyday, the Navy and Air Force 131s were used for medevac, VIP transport, trainers, even a prototype gunship. In fact, the name Samaritan stems from its “aeromedical casualty evacuation” flying ambulance role. The T-29 version was outfitted to train Air Force navigators and naval flight officers.

The U.S. Coast Guard also received a number of former Air Force aircraft, starting in 1976. The last Coast Guard C-131 flight was in 1982.

The VC-131 variant was used as a VIP transport for presidential and other senior officials. Vice President Gerald Ford’s aircraft was a VC-131 until he succeeded Richard Nixon in the White House, and inherited the “Air Force One” 707 jet that came with the presidency.

Most Navy 131s were retired in the 1970s, but a few soldiered on in the Mediterranean, flying from the Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily. Mail, personnel and cargo could be moved around the theater to reach ships at or near various Mediterranean ports from the busy logistics hub. Like the medevac 131s that could load stretchers, the Sigonella aircraft had side-opening cargo doors and could carry both freight and passengers.

C-131 at Sigonella

Sigonella is a busy logistics hub, where larger aircraft like U.S. Air Force C-141s and smaller twin-prop planes like this C-131 were common in the 1980s. Photo by Capt. Edward H. Lundquist

One of the Sigonella aircraft had previously served as the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps’ plane.

The three C-131s at Sigonella in the 1985-1986 timeframe were among the very last reciprocating engine propeller aircraft in the Navy. They were a familiar sight at such airfields as Souda Bay, Crete; Iraklion, Cyprus; Naples, Italy; Hyers, France; Olbia, Sardinia; and Palma, Mallorca, and Rota, Spain, where they would service ships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. An average flight might carry 20 passengers and 1,000 pounds of mail and cargo.

It was the kind of mission that best suited the Navy, and was best supported from Sigonella, with its strategic location in the very center of the Mediterranean.

“We had lots of last minute requirements, unusual cargoes and odd-sized loads,” said retired Navy pilot Bob Schmidt, who flew C-131s at Sigonella. “Our crews would be called upon to do just about anything, any way, anytime.”

“We had lots of last minute requirements, unusual cargoes and odd-sized loads,” said retired Navy pilot Bob Schmidt, who flew C-131s at Sigonella. “Our crews would be called upon to do just about anything, any way, anytime.”

Because Sigonella had no hospital at the time, one of the Convairs made a weekly trip to Naples’ Capodachino Airport, with all the patients who had appointments at the Naval Hospital in Naples.

“We carried lots of newborn babies back from the hospital,” Schmidt said. “Those big recips put the babies right to sleep.”

The aircraft were older than most of the sailors at Sigonella who maintained and operated them.

The aircraft had few automated features, said Schmidt. “The C-131 was a challenge to fly. You were constantly aware that your airplane was old and underpowered. It was always a challenge to find gas, or to get parts, and we were always flying in the weather. You couldn’t go around it. You couldn’t go over it. You had to go through it.”

SH-60B with C-131 at Sigonella

This SH-60B LAMPS helicopter was the first to visit Sigonella and shared the transient line with Sigonella’s C-131s, May 21, 1985. Photo by Capt. Edward H. Lundquist

As a recip, it used aviation gasoline, which was becoming harder to find. When calling at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Schmidt recalls that the crew had to buy avgas from the pump at the flying club, using an inch-and-a-half diameter hose.

They continue to operate in unusual roles that appear to be well-suited for these rugged and simple aircraft. The Beaufort County Mosquito Control (BCMC) aviation arm uses them for spraying in North Carolina. The Peruvian National Police used one to haul prisoners. Others are used as fire bombers in Canada.

“It had the aerodynamic characteristics of a cement truck.”

“It had the aerodynamic characteristics of a cement truck,” said retired Navy pilot Don Klapperich, who, like Schmidt, flew C-131s from Sigonella. “But it was a good old comfortable airplane.”

The last Sigonella C-131 departed the air base on June 20, 1986.

Editor’s Note: Author Edward Lundquist is a retired naval offer who was serving at NAS Sigonella when the C-131s were retired.

By

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-140685">

    I was a Loadmaster/Flight Attendant on the old girls from 1983-1986. I flew all over Europe on these great aircraft. They guaranteed you the best Per Diem in the Navy at the time. What I wouldn’t give to listen to those engines purr again, standing in the wheel well with the “dishpan” off watching the engines vibrate in their mounts. Ah, those were the good times!