Through remarkable circumstances, the last C-47 Skytrain built during WWII ended up in the Congo where it lingered on into the 21st Century.
(C-47 Skytrain. The stripes are an identification marking used during the 1944 “Overlord” D-Day landings.)
(The last C-47 Skytrain built during WWII, in Goma, D.R. Congo during December 2014. This had been Mobutu’s DC-3.) (photo by Abel Kavanagh)
As a background to the astonishing story and unfortunate fate of this one Skytrain, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at the very long and varied history of the C-47 / DC-3 in the country. The plane is somewhat unique in aviation in that it became almost symbolic of a new nation’s struggles.
the C-47 Skytrain
Douglas’s C-47 Skytrain was unquestionably the best transport aircraft of WWII. This is not surprising as it was simply the military version of the DC-3 airliner, widely considered the most successful era-adjusted airliner of all time.
The DC-3 first flew in December 1935, and was Douglas’s competitor to Boeing’s 247.
(The Boeing 247 is all but forgotten today. During WWII some served as transports in the RCAF as shown, and under the designation C-73, in the US Army. Neither used the type after WWII.)
As originally intended, the DC-3 would be a high-end “sleeper” airliner, with fold-down beds for passengers on long-distance routes in the USA. The basic airframe was a success and was adapted into a general-seating airliner for multiple customers. In this configuration it quickly became a commercial hit.
In 1937 the US Army bought 35 examples of the Douglas C-39 military transport. Despite the visual similarity, the C-39 was a separate type from the C-47.
(Douglas C-39 in pre-1942 WWII US Army markings.) (official US Air Force photo)
There was nothing wrong with this design but it didn’t offer any appreciable military advantage over civilian DC-3 which airlines were flying.
As part of the 1940 supplemental defense budget, and with WWII already in progress in Europe and China, the US Army simply began placing orders for “a military DC-3”, the C-47 Skytrain. Deliveries began in 1941, several months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This quickly became a popular plane and alongside the Curtiss C-46 Commando, was one of the two main American transports of WWII.
The C-47 Skytrain was 63’9″ long with a 95’6″ wingspan. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp air-cooled radial piston engines burning 90-octane aviation fuel, with three-bladed propellers. The maximum speed was 195 kts. The empty weight was 18,135 lbs. The whole plane was rugged and well-designed. Not only could it operate off unpaved airstrips, any suitable grass field or straight stretch of dirt road would suffice.
The C-47 was mostly of all-aluminum construction. The rudder and some control surfaces were doped fabric. The main landing gear retracted into the engine nacelles. There was no armament.
(artwork via douglasdc3.com website)
The WWII cost was $138,000 ($2.59 million in 2021 money) so considering its great usefulness, the C-47 was not particularly expensive for a multi-engine warplane.
In its most basic configuration, the C-47 Skytrain could hold 28 combat-ready troops. It could be reconfigured in any number of ways, for example all-cargo with a 3-ton capacity (the door was big enough for a Willys GP jeep or a M3 anti-tank gun) and handling hoist, 14 stretchers for medevac, staff transport with airline-type seating, and so on. The basic C-47 could be used for paratrooper drops and there was also a specialized air assault submodel, the C-53 Skytrooper, of which 380 were made. Within these versions, even more modifications were possible – both during and after WWII. For example the EC-47Q anti-aircraft calibration design, the lone XC-47C seaplane, WC-47 weather planes, the HC-47D search & rescue design, the EC-47P/Q electronic warfare version of the 1960s, VC-47 VIP transports, and AC-47 Spooky gunships of the Vietnam War.
During WWII, about a fifth of the total made (roughly 2,000) were earmarked for Lend-Lease. The RAF, RCAF, and RAAF called the Skytrain the Dakota. They were identical in all but name. In post-WWII Africa, Dakota or “Dak” was often shorthand for a C-47, irrespective of what air force any particular individual plane had actually flown for during WWII.
The C-47 Skytrain served in all five branches of the USA’s military and is also one of a limited number of warplanes to have taken off and landed on every continent.
differences between a DC-3 and C-47
Regarding differences between a “true” DC-3 and the military C-47 Skytrain, there weren’t many. The Skytrain had a slightly different tail shape to speed up production, and a truncated end to the rear fuselage so a glider tow attachment could be fitted (not all C-47s ended up getting an attachment). The most obvious difference is the doors, to allow cargo to be loaded. The floor in the military version was stronger. Otherwise, the two planes are basically identical.
A total of 607 “true” DC-3s were made, compared to 10,167 C-47 Skytrains. Of all the civilian DC-3s after WWII, the overwhelming majority were actually ex-military Skytrains / Dakotas.
After WWII, the few differences faded to irrelevancy. The inherently versatile nature of the C-47 airframe made it cheap and simple to reconfigure to the DC-3’s airline-style cabin, or, a stripped out cargo hauler. Especially in Africa, some were reconfigured back and forth multiple times.
For that reason, C-47, Dakota, and DC-3 are all used interchangeably here unless otherwise noted.
the end of production
During WWII, C-47s were built by Douglas at three factories: Long Beach, CA; Santa Monica, CA; and Oklahoma City, OK. Combined California production and the OKC factory each split the total made roughly in half. Wartime production peaked during 1944 with 4,853 being delivered that year.
The other main American transport of WWII, the Curtiss C-46 Commando, had its last 1944-budgeted orders filled in 1945. Therefore there were no cancellations of that type; Congress simply stopped ordering any more during WWII’s final year.
When WWII ended suddenly in September 1945 the general concept for warplane order cancellations was on how far along any production block was, specifically how much GFE (government-furnished equipment) had been allocated to the planes in that block. This included things like bombsights and machine guns (of which the Skytrain had neither), military radios, flares, life rafts, and so on.
At WWII’s end the C-47 Skytrain was still in production. A 90-plane production lot, beginning with serial # 45-1049 which was delivered on 8 August 1945 (two days after the Hiroshima bombing), was in progress. This would end up being the final lot. As the government already had sunk money into the incomplete planes, Douglas was told to finish building them.
Of the remaining 1,405 Skytrains on order past that, only one was completed, it being added on to the production lot above. The rest were all cancelled, in some cases with long-leadtime parts already bought by Douglas. In these cases, the company ate the loss.
The very last C-47 Skytrain was a C-47B serial # 45-1139 which was handed over to the US Army on 23 November 1945, nearly three months after WWII had already ended. The C-47B submodel, which had two-speed superchargers on the engines, was one of the most common types and its production totaled about a third of all DC-3s / C-47s of all styles ever built. This one particular plane is the one featured here, which would end up having such a strange life in Zaire, in addition to being the last made during WWII.
C-47 in American service after WWII
The US Army Air Forces, which became the independent US Air Force in September 1947, continued using the C-47 Skytrain as the standard transport in its weight class after WWII. The C-46 Commando continued in limited substitute-standard service alongside it. The US Navy continued using the type under the designation R4D until the branches unified their aircraft nomenclatures in 1962.
(A US Navy Skytrain fitted with snow skis and radar pod aboard USS Philippine Sea (CV-47) in January 1947. This was part of operation “Highjump”, the US Navy / US Coast Guard expedition to Antarctica and an extremely unusual use of the Skytrain. Using RATO takeoff-assist rockets, they flew without using the carrier’s catapults.)
The last “stock” C-47 was retired from US Air Force use in mid-1975. The USAF 6th Special Operations Squadron flew a turboprop re-engined C-47 out of Duke Field, FL until 2008.
C-47s demilitarized into DC-3s
Although the C-47 was still in strong American military use in the post-WWII years and through the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War, the USA finished WWII with more than it would need in peacetime and laid some up in storage, and slowly but surely began to surplus some off via auction.
(A mid-1940s War Assets Administration sale of surplus WWII warplanes and aircraft parts, with a leftover barrage balloon being used as an marketing aid.)
The C-47 was one of the easiest articles of WWII for the United States government to sell. Besides being a profitable thing to buy, an advantage for civilian purchasers was that most “demilled” (demilitarized) WWII aircraft types needed FAA type certification and/or required modification to be permitted for use under federal law. But as the C-47 was simply a DC-3, it was already fully FAA certified and could be flown as-is from day one.
Meanwhile in Great Britain, the RAF was downsizing even more than the US Air Force and within the first half-decade after WWII, many of the Lend-Leased Dakotas were sold off, as this alleviated the WWII Lend-Lease contractual responsibility for either H.M. Exchequer to pay for them, or for the RAF to demolish them, at war’s end.
(Ethiopian Airlines was a consumer of surplused ex-RAF Dakotas. This photo shows in a nutshell why the C-47 was such a perfect plane for Africa, where for much of the Cold War era modern airports were limited.)
When WWII ended in September 1945, the continent of Africa was – less independent Liberia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and South Africa – still fully in the era of European colonialism.
the Belgian Congo
Belgium’s big African colony was about the size of western Europe combined and infinitely larger than Belgium itself. During WWII, the colonial administration continued on even as Belgium was under German occupation from 1940 – 1945.
(Brookings Institution map of the Belgian Congo after WWII. Notable cities (with their mercenary nickname and modern name) were the capital Léopoldville (“Leo” / Kinshasa), Stanleyville (“Stan” / Kisangani), Matadi, Bukavu (“Buke”), Albertville (“Aville” / Kalemie), Goma, Luluabourg (“Lulu” / Kanaga), Jadotville (“Jville” / Likasi), and Elisabethville (“Eville” / Lubumbashi).
After WWII, Belgium had no intention of giving up the Congo. Limited military aviation remained from the war, and most air transport needs were met by Sabena, the biggest Belgian airline and after WWII, a user of demilitarized Dakotas / Skytrains.
(This Sabena plane is a rarity. During WWII it was a C-49, the US Army’s designation for requisitioned prewar DC-3s with nonstandard engines – in this case, Wright Cyclones. C-49s came from TWA, Delta, and Eastern. Even before WWII ended the US Army abandoned the C-49s as sufficient C-47s were available, and returned them to their owners, who in turn usually sold them quickly after V-J Day. This particular C-49 served routes in the Belgian Congo from 1946 – 1953 and is painted in Sabena’s first post-WWII livery.)
The Belgian air force, reconstituted after the 1945 liberation, slowly began to station transport assets in Africa as well.
(Often forgotten is “Belgium’s other colony”, little Ruanda-Urundi to Congo’s east. This split into Burundi and Rwanda in 1962 as each became independent. This Belgian air force C-47 Skytrain was stationed at Usumbura (today Bujumbura, Burundi) in 1954.)
the creation of Kamina
The European part of WWII ended in May 1945. As the Belgian air force rebuilt itself, it found that certain things had changed since 1940 when it last conducted home-turf flying.
Civil aviation rebounded in rebuilding western European countries faster than expected after WWII and Belgium’s small airspace quickly became crowded. This was compounded by cross-traffic flying to the American, British, and French occupation zones of defeated Germany. Military aviation itself had changed, even trainers, and a type like the T-6 Texan (an American WWII trainer exported heavily to postwar allies) were faster and took more skill to master than a 1930s biplane.
In 1946, only one year removed from WWII, an answer seemingly presented itself in the Belgian Congo. The colony’s southern region had year-round clear flying weather and an unlimited amount of vacant airspace. The ground terrain was flat and amenable to both intermediate flight instruction and paratrooper training.
In 1948 a committee made the final selection, a plateau near Kamina in Katanga province. To put Congo’s huge size into perspective this location was 970 air-miles away from the colonial capital Léopoldville (today, Kinshasa), about the same distance as Belgium’s capital Brussels was from the Soviet city of Minsk.
There was very limited road access to Kamina and in 1949, a small grass airstrip was cleared allowing C-47 Skytrains to fly in equipment to build the new base. In October 1951 Kamina air base was partially operational and the whole facility was completed in May 1956.
(2021 image via Bing)
There were two 8,858′ runways arranged as a backwards Ζ shape with the hangars, control tower, apron and taxiway as the center of the Z. Despite its name Kamina airbase sits by the village of Lumwe about 8 miles northeast of Kamina, which has its own civilian airport. The airbase was subdivided into a flight school with T-6 Texans and a paratrooper barracks with C-47 Skytrains.
(Belgian air force C-47 doing paratrooper training at Kamina in the 1950s.)
(Kamina-based C-47 transport in 1958.)
The Belgian air force C-47s at Kamina flew there themselves. Because of the distances involved, getting T-6s there was more problematic. Some were flown in disassembled by C-119 Flying Boxcars. That was expensive and some later Texans at Kamina came via a company called Intair which brokered & delivered surplus WWII warplanes.
A small technical school for ethnic-Congolese groundcrew was established. During WWII the entire aviation field had been off-limits to non-Europeans. No flight training was offered to them as it was considered that as Belgian rule was to be permanent; there was no need for such.
The base was fully completed 7 years (almost to the day) after Belgium joined NATO. Belgium pitched this expensive facility as “NATO’s Africa Headquarters”. By the mid-1950s, public opinion in some NATO members was souring on colonialism. The alliance kept its distance from the project.
Kamina was very expensive for Belgium to build and unfortunately for them, their rule over the Congo would soon be ending.
C-47s in the Katanga era
Led by Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese people wanted independence after WWII. During the spring of 1960 a conference was held on the colony’s future. It’s hard to imagine the conference going any worse than it did.
On the Belgian side, the plan was for a gradual process which would span decades. The Congolese wanted full independence immediately, literally, as in that afternoon. A compromise was agreed upon, and after a chaotic turnover period of 25 rushed weeks, Belgian rule ended and Congo became independent on 30 June 1960.
Some of Sabena’s DC-3s continued to fly routes in the now-independent Congo. The new country itself also began operating the type.
(A governmental C-47 used as a VIP transport.)
(Many newly-independent African nations after WWII established “flag carriers”, a subsidized national airline that was a symbol of nationhood, even if the market did not support it. This Air Congo DC-3 was formely a Sabena airframe (it still had Belgian registration) and before that, a RAF Dakota during WWII.)
(By 1960, a decade and a half had passed since WWII’s end and surplused C-47s were easier and cheaper to come by. The history of small, often ragamuffin mini-airlines (some with just one or two planes) in Congo / Zaire began. One was Confrigo which flew for a few years and was already bankrupt in 1970. Especially later under Mobutu, the army farmed out transport work to these little airlines – called “nonskeds” or non-scheduled carriers – whereas in anywhere else, the air force would handle it.) (photo via Paris Match magazine)
Issues with Katanga (the southern province, where Kamina was) started quickly. As expected in the first election, Patrice Lumumba’s MNC party (the only one with any nationwide appeal) won, but without a majority. It was stymied by an array of pipsqueak parties catering to local tribal interests. They were individually insignificant but together, muddied up the election.
An exception was Moise Tshombe’s Conakat party in Katanga. While MNC sought a unified republic, Conakat sought a sort of federation between Katanga and the rest of Congo. Nationwide, Conakat came in second as far as total votes but in Katanga it won an overwhelming landslide. Buoyed by this, Tshombe simply declared Katanga to be a fully-independent country.
(Sign in 1962 in Elisabethville or “Eville” as mercenaries called it. This was Katanga’s capital.)
(Tshombe (holding hat) with a C-47 Skytrain in the background.)
Katanga is very rich in resources and Belgian companies retained a huge presence there, even as Congo became independent. In Belgium, it was quietly considered that an independent Katanga could be even better than a colonized Belgian Congo had been: Belgian companies could continue to make money, but, Belgium would no longer have to go through the motions of building roads, schools, etc.
(This Sabena DC-3 served the interests of Union Minière, a massive Belgian mining company in Katanga.)
With Congo’s independence, training at Kamina ended but some T-6 Texans and C-47 Skytrains remained, and Belgium did not immediately relinquish the airbase. There were also Belgian infantry in Elisabethville who ignored Lumumba’s order to leave and stayed on at Tshombe’s request.
A hapless attempt by the Congolese army to subdue the province failed, and a request was made to the United Nations for assistance. At the same time, Katanga was building up an army of its own (aided by mercenaries) and even a small air force called Avikat. It had three modern Magister jets and a small menagerie of other types, the main combat asset being eight T-6 Texans (called Harvards, the WWII RAF Lend-Lease name) armed with rockets. Some of these were barely flightworthy and others destroyed, replaced by ten more Harvards from a Belgian company called Cogea.
Avikat flew out of Luano airport near Kolwezi. It was commanded by a South African mercenary, Col. Jerry Puren.
(This Katangan Harvard was one of the T-6s bought through Cogea.)
C-47 Skytrains were another WWII type represented in Avikat. Two were on military charge, and at least one flew for the new nation’s would-be flag carrier airline.
Katanga had aspirations for more WWII types in Avikat. An attempt at getting P-51 Mustangs failed, and a B-26 bomber impounded at O’Hare in Chicago was suspected of being illicitly headed to Katanga.
The early United Nations involvement in Katanga (1960 and early 1961) was supposedly neutral and intended to stabilize the situation, which was not achieved.
On 4 August 1961, the U.N. secured Kamina, which they then turned into their own main airbase. On 28 August 1961, operation “Rum Punch” was started, this having a goal of expelling all “third party” participants (ie the Belgians and the mercenaries) out of the conflict. A partial success, “Rum Punch” did achieve some of its goals. One innovation was a “no fly zone”, this meant to throttle down the massive airborne arms smuggling (much of it in private C-47s) keeping the Katangan military afloat. Katanga was rife with arms dealers, be they major players or wannabes, throughout the secession.
In mid-September 1961, operation “Morthor” began. The U.N. had by now abandoned any veil of neutrality and the objective was now just to destroy Katanga and return the breakaway province to Congo. This ended in December with the collapse of the breakaway nation and Tshombe fleeing to exile.
Patrice Lumumba was not around to see this. During the summer of 1960, a rivalry developed between Lumumba, the prime minister, and the titular president Joseph Vasu-Kuba. Both sought the favor of an ambitious army officer, Col. Joseph Désiré Mobutu. In early September, while Lumumba was abroad, Vasu-Kuba dismissed him as prime minister. Upon his return, Lumumba sought to regain power.
On 14 September 1960, Col. Mobutu led a coup which reaffirmed Lumumba’s dismissal and also deposed Vasu-Kuba as well. Mobutu took no real action against Vasu-Kuba but issued an arrest warrant for Lumumba. In 1 December 1960 he was arrested, and on 17 January 1961 Lumumba was executed.
(A very young Col. Mobutu (left) with Vasu-Kuba in 1961.)
The United States had a positive first impression of Mobutu. A professional military officer, he was intelligent, well-spoken, and reasonable to negotiate with. He was ardently anti-Soviet. Mobutu promised to return Congo to civilian rule and (this first time) kept his word.
C-47s and the Simbas
A new internal conflict was already brewing. In Congo’s east, a rebel group commonly known as the Simbas (lions) rejected the government’s rule. In Stanleyville an “alternative” national government was formed. The Simbas were created from local tribes in the east and Congolese army deserters. Grotesquely barbaric in nature, their rebellion soon spiraled out of control and was marked by constant atrocities.
The poorly-led Simbas started out badly equipped, with either leftover WWII guns or occasional battlefield captures. None the less, the Simbas soon swelled their territory to nearly a third of the country.
The Congolese army performed poorly on the battlefield and were not helped any by ineffectual civilian leadership.
In a situation too bizarre to have happened anywhere but the Congo, as a last-ditch effort Moise Tshombe, the exiled leader of the failed Katangan secession, was given amnesty and made leader of Congo. This unprecedented event was backed by Belgium and the USA, who by mid-1964 felt there was no other competent Congolese alternative. Tshombe re-equipped the army, and also made use of mercenaries, just as he had in Katanga several years earlier when he tried to dismember the nation he was now in charge of saving.
The best known mercenary group was Mad Mike Hoare’s 5 Commando. During WWII Hoare had fought in the British army in the CBI theatre, Well-disciplined and well-led, 5 Commando’s mercenaries routed Simba units several times larger than their own.
5 Commando only accepted applicants of white ethnicity and (in theory) only those with prior military experience. Americans were not accepted, due to a CIA request to Hoare. Of applicants originating in “the white south” (Rhodesia and South Africa), a refresher basic training course was done at the old Belgian airbase in Kamina. From there C-47s took them to wherever the regular Congolese army was in trouble.
There was another mercenary effort happening, this one in the skies. The nearly-useless Congolese air force was bolstered by a unit of anti-Castro Cuban pilots organized and funded by the CIA. The planes were WWII T-6 Texans and B-26 Invaders, along with a few Cold War-era T-28 Trojans. Officially, the planes wore Congolese markings and were designated the Congolese air force’s 211th Squadron. In reality the whole thing was American-run. The planes themselves were USAF, “loaned to other government agency”, and were supported by groundcrew of Anstalt Wigmo, a fictitious company run by the CIA.
The operation was logistically supported by one C-47 Skytrain and three of its WWII stablemates, the Curtiss C-46 Commando.
Congolese C-47s – both civilian and military – continued to support cut-off villages deep in Simba territory, which was not uniformly controlled.
One less savory thing the C-47 took part in was looting. Looting had been a part of the Katanga conflict, but during the Simba era it really became ingrained into Congolese military culture. Even after Tshombe’s restructuring of the army, paychecks were often late and one way the Congolese army kept morale high was turning a blind eye to the looting of towns liberated from the Simbas. The mercenaries were better disciplined but not always angels themselves, and some of 5 Commando’s subunits had a “safe cracker” who would visit banks in liberated towns.
C-47s running supplies to frontline units would also bring cash from black marketeers in Léopoldville, and load up on the return leg with looted goods. Worldwide bans on ivory did not begin until the 1980s, and during the mid-1960s fighting there was also a decent amount of elephant poaching, with the tusks then flying via DC-3 to Léopoldville for export abroad.
The looting was rampant but perhaps more importantly, it became a permanent fixture in Congo / Zaire’s army culture which would haunt the country for decades.
The mercenaries, both on the ground and in the air, never numbered more than a few hundred at any given time. Yet they enabled the Congolese to defeat the Simbas by late 1965. They were not totally wiped out and isolated pockets continued to be an issue for years afterwards. Some who fled to Burundi later caused havoc in that country. One of the Simba’s hangers-ons, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, continued on in with his revolutionary ambitions and would have monumental implications decades later.
In November 1964, Mobutu orchestrated a second coup, ousting Tshombe. This time, he had no intentions of stepping down.
C-47s / DC-3s after the Simba War
This WWII design continued in importance as Mobutu settled into power. Besides the damage caused by the two internal wars, Congo’s ground transportation infrastructure had not seen much improvements since the Belgians left and in some cases, since WWII.
An example is the gold-panning town of Shabunda, on the Uindi river in central-east D.R. Congo. It is basically an “island” on land, not connected to any road. The only connection for the town (which lacks electricity, sewers, and just about everything else) to the outside world is a small airstrip for which planes like the DC-3 are ideal.
Modern travelers reach Kinshasa through N’djili Airport, which was started at the end of the colonial era and gradually expanded over the decades. The city’s (still as Léopoldville) original airport was Ndolo, built during WWII with American assistance. The above mid-1940s photo shows a C-60 Lodestar of Sabena, one of the ex-US Army WWII types the airline flew in Africa, at Ndolo. In the background is indeed a Junkers Ju-52. Prior to WWII, in addition to being the Luftwaffe’s standard transport, this was a popular airliner. When WWII started in 1939 it was obviously unsafe to fly Ju-52s on routes over Allied countries so most were relocated to out-of-the-way locations like central Africa. A few were still flying there after WWII ended.
Even when N’djili IAP opened it was barely enough to swallow Congo / Zaire’s huge aviation appetite and Ndolo airport remained in use for domestic routes. In the 1960s it was often packed with DC-3s. As of 2021 Ndolo is still in use for domestic charter flights, but now with weight restrictions on its single runway.
The cvilian side of the C-47 / DC-3 in Congo began to shine, as it was often more economical to move things and people via DC-3 than overland. Militarily, the type continued in Congolese air force service as well.
It was also during this time frame that the final C-47 ever made entered the picture.
As the usefulness of WWII “stock” C-47s waned in the Cold War-era US Air Force’s transport role, some were converted into VC-47 VIP shuttles.
For the conversion, the interior was treated with insulation glued on to the inside of the exterior skin, and then enclosed with airline-style cabin paneling. Cushioned seats were installed in the abreast airline style. There was no hard-&-fast set rules and the layouts might differ slightly.
Sometimes the radio and navigation fit was changed, and there could be some minor mechanical alterations. For example with the removal of the supercharger’s high blower, a WWII C-47B could reemerge as a VC-47D.
“VIP” is subjective and typically these were used by squadron or wing commanders, subcommands, etc; not four-star generals. They were appropriate when an officer, inspection team, or visiting delegation needed transport without having to sit on the sideways-facing “rumble benches” of WWII.
(Mobutu and his wife on a Belgian C-47 Skytrain in the early 1960s, presumably before JFK’s gift was delivered.) (photo by PA Images)
On 31 May 1963, President John F. Kennedy hosted Mobutu in Washington DC. During the meeting, Mobutu expressed a wish that the US Air Force might provide him with a modest jet to fly around his country. All things considered this wasn’t an outrageous request and JFK agreed, and said that a jet (phrased “command plane” in State Department archives) would duly be provided.
However this did not happen. When the instructions to provide a plane got passed down the chain of command, a USAF colonel (apparently on his own accord) decided to downgrade the type to a VC-47. By a strange twist of fate, the particular VC-47 provided had originally been a C-47B, serial # 45-1139, the last one built during WWII. This was coincidence and the colonel may have not even known about it.
This VC-47 was in active USAF service at the time but its exact provenance is uncertain. A version that it was with the Idaho ANG is apparently untrue. Based on records submitted in Congressional testimony, it may have been the one VC-47 assigned to the MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) at the US embassy in Léopoldville. In that case, it was already in Congo.
Privately Mobutu was not pleased with the gift. None the less, it was accepted and he thanked the United States. Mobutu was also keen to illustrate (at least, at that point in time) that he would not be wasteful with American aid, and made it known that he would use the plane. Mobutu had the VC-47 further remodeled inside to a truer VIP experience. There are no known photos of the interior, but based on how other leaders remodeled VC-47s, it was probably a nice look.
Even from the start, Mobutu made limited use of the VC-47. To fly cross-country north to south took 5½ hours each way, and it was more preferable to just use commercial airliners.
The VC-47 was originally in Congo Air Force markings with the tail # 139. This was later changed to the civilian registration 9T-JDM, as aviation bureaucracy being what it is, it was easier to get overflight and landing rights with a civil registration. The registration’s suffix was Mobutu’s initials.
Mobutu mentioned the VC-47 several times. During a 1976 meeting with Henry Kissinger, he used it as an example of how the USA gave Zaire short shrift when it came to military aid, alluding to his feeling that it had been an inadequate gift. However in 1979, he told the American ambassador to Belgium that he was pleased with it.
the 1970s and 1980s
Whereas on the cusp of Congo’s independence Mobutu was viewed as a reasonable partner in Africa, this notion faded in the 1970s. Clearly he had no intention of restoring democracy but with the Cold War at its height, the USA viewed him as a friendly tyrant, irritating and sometimes politically embarrassing, but preferable to anybody else.
In 1971, Mobutu renamed Congo to Zaire, and also renamed any city with a Belgian name to an African name and changed the national flag. The air force was renamed Force Aerienne Zaïroise (FAZ) accordingly.
Mobutu himself became more eccentric, dressing in an abacost and leopardskin hat, and carrying a carved cane, as in the 1975 photo below.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Mobutu began his career as the king of the world’s kleptocrats, embezzling not only from the national treasury but also from an array of companies owned by family members or friends, along with foreign companies. To this end, the DC-3s in the country – governmental and the many “nonsked” small-time operators – played a role.
One route of graft was to issue arbitrary licenses to the foreign firms doing heavy construction in Zaire. A flunky was dispatched in a DC-3 to this or that civil works project, with a newly-invented license to be paid. The DC-3 returned with cash (almost always, physical currency), which went to Mobutu. The French, Belgian, or American companies accepted this corruption as a cost of business in Zaire.
(During WWII the engineering company Morrison-Knudsen built many American military bases. In the 1970s, it had contracts from Mobutu to build electricity line towers and other things, and operated its own C-47 in Zaire.) (photo by Sterling E. Weaver)
Simple bribery was another method. In 1967 the old colonial Belgian concern Union Minière became Gécamines which by 1980 was not only Zaire’s biggest company but the biggest copper provider in the hemisphere. A DC-3 would be dispatched to visit Gécamines executives; if the executives valued their careers they would offer the DC-3 cash they themselves siphoned off of Gécamines. Sometimes cash was not even needed; for example a DC-3 would fly to gemstone hub Kisangani (the renamed Stanleyville) and return with suitcases of raw diamonds.
The army was another source of embezzlement. Zairians sometimes joked about Article 15, referencing Mobutu’s 14-article constitution, the morbid joke being that there was an unpublished 15th article allowing the army to steal whatever it wanted. This apexed in 1991 and 1993, when unpaid troops went berzerk in the capital Kinshasa, looting anything not nailed down. Troops in the huge country went unpaid for months, getting by via looting towns they passed through. When they were paid, it was via duffel bags full of cash flown to them. Zairian army generals ran “phantom platoons’ (a form of martial corruption not unique to Africa) where made-up names were added to roll calls, with their pay then pocketed less some put in a suitcase in a DC-3 on its way to Mobutu.
Mobutu knew about all this and was not bothered. To unpaid troops, Mobutu once told them “You have rifles, so you pay yourselves”.
FAZ suffered from this corruption too, seeing little improvement over the years beyond a few new C-130 Hercules transports to take some pressure off the WWII Skytrains. A squadron of modern, expensive Mirage fighter jets was bought from France and based at the old Kamina base (which by now was decrepit), mostly flown by mercenary pilots. Several crashed and when others were in Europe for overhaul, a Zairian general sold them and pocketed the money.
The above 1975 CIA memo shows that Mobutu still had wile in dealing with the USA. The main topic is the proposed supply of FIM-43 shoulder-fired missiles to UNITA rebels in Angola (whom Mobutu also supported), but halfway down is a paragraph on how Mobutu felt he could not support WWII C-47 Skytrains in Zaire any longer. Naturally, this was a lie, the Zairian air force still had nine in use and many more were in civilian use. The C-47s in question were ex-South Vietnamese which had fled to RTAF Udorn in Thailand when Saigon fell in 1975. As Mobutu did not want them, these WWII planes were later given to Thailand.
Other than the showcase airport of N’djili in Kinshasa, little money was put into airport construction. This made the DC-3s still valuable, as they could use any open grass field or straight stretch of road.
C-47s also allowed Mobutu to control his army. When he wanted a unit to redeploy somewhere, he would radio the location as where overdue pay would be made good, ensuring the unit obeyed the movement order. A DC-3 would be waiting for the troops, filled with duffel bags of cash.
(Cash was king in the Zairian military; troops were paid in cash and bribes remitted in the same. This Ƶ20,000 banknote was worth 41¢ of American money by the 1990s. The post-Mobutu government was too poor to print new cash so Mobutu’s face was just punched out in 1997.)
Troops learned to play the game too. Unpaid units in the vast country would locate some rag-tag, insignificant small rebel group (of which there were numerous ones) and engage in a borderline-mock skirmish, then radio a dramatic report in. Mobutu would dispatch a DC-3 with bags of cash to ensure they didn’t desert with their weapons.
the gifted final C-47 in this time
Mistrustful of his own airmen, in 1964 Mobutu requested an aircrew from the United States for the plane. The nine-man team was led by USAF Maj. Jay Meester, a veteran pilot of WWII and the Korean War.
Maj. Meester returned to other duties by the decade’s end so it is fairly safe to assume the VC-47 was no longer being used by Mobutu by then.
Now unabashedly kleptocratic, Mobutu bought a Boeing 707 (above), and later a Boeing 737 and a Puma VIP helicopter. When these were unsuitable, he simply commandeered a 747 jumbo jet from Air Zaire. This 707 outlived Mobutu; it was marooned abroad when he fell and was finally scrapped in Portugal around 2006.
The grandest folly was Gbadolite. Once a mud-hut hovel in northern Zaire, Mobutu declared it his hometown and built a pair of ornate palaces with a faux European estate. Besides the palaces was a military garage (he ended up using this for his fleet of Cadillacs), a hydroelectric dam, a Coca-Cola bottling plant, a luxury hotel, and the only nuclear-resistant bunker inbetween the Sahara and the Veld. In the 1990s Mobutu looked to gradually move the capital to this fantasyland, and when he was deposed several government ministry buildings were under construction.
What most people probably remember is the 10,499′ runway he had carved out of the rain forest. It could land any airplane on Earth. Several times Mobutu privately hired a Concorde out of Gbadolite, in what was an unimaginably expensive way to travel.
(Air France Concorde by the arrivals hall at Gbadolite.)
There was no longer any need at all to keep JFK’s gift of a WWII transport plane. On 30 April 1984, Mobutu sold the VC-47 and just pocketed the money. The new owner was Lukim Air Service aka LUKAS and the registry was changed to DC-3, 9Q-KAM. A ragamuffin airline, LUKAS normally flew DC-8s which it leased from Liberia World Airlines. Liberia at the time was ruled by MSgt. Samuel Doe and air travel was the last thing on most Liberians minds. One of these DC-8s came painted white with a red cheatline, and the DC-3 was thus repainted that way, wearing that color scheme the rest of its existence.
(Mobutu’s former plane in new colors.)
LUKAS hangared the DC-3 at N’djili IAP in Kinshasa. Inside, it was still decked out to Mobutu’s specifications and LUKAS planned on using it for the city’s wealthy elite. This did not pan out, as Kinshasa’s small elite could afford much better air travel while the majority of the city could not afford air travel at all. LUKAS went bankrupt in 1988. At the time, the DC-3 was parked at Goma in Zaire’s extreme east. This would end up being its final resting place.
(The ex-Mobutu DC-3 at Goma.) (photo via dc3dakotahunter website)
On 30 November 1991, rights to the parked WWII plane were acquired by Virunga Air Charter. Founded in 1978, CEO Ngezayo Kambale’s airline flew Cessnas out of several airports in eastern Zaire (including Goma) and as its name implies, was charter only, having no scheduled routes. The 9Q-KAM registration was retained. The plane was apparently a fairly popular charter in Zaire’s Great Lakes region, retaining its opulent interior.
In the late 1980s, the ageing Mobutu had become a walking talking punchline, a symbol of everything wrong with Africa, at least in western eyes. Riddled by corruption, Zaire’s economy collapsed. In Kinshasa, workers in skyscrapers had to walk up stairs every morning as many buildings no longer had functional elevators. The national telephone system failed. Highway 1, the main route eastward, had decayed to a gravel trail. Many of the country’s bridges dated to WWII or even before and were falling apart.
(Readers in central Africa may perhaps recall this; in the late 1980s / early 1990s the nightly newscast Zaire Actualités began with Mobutu descending from heaven, drawing a parallel between himself and God.)
Zaire’s army was one of the world’s worst and the air force barely flew, with most aviation funding going towards keeping the country tied together with DC-3s and other types.
(C-47 Skytrain of SNEL, Zaire’s national electric company in the 1990s.)
Mobutu lost interest even with the basic concept of territorial integrity. As long as he controlled profitable things like the south’s copper mines; he no longer cared if some rebel group ran a tract of rural jungle or if foreign armies took shortcuts over Zaire’s borders.
In 1986 President Reagan considered making Kamina an overseas American military base, to wring some value from the relationship with Mobutu. At the time, it was being used to smuggle weapons to UNITA in nearby Angola. Mobutu leased the old Belgian airbase to Tepper Aviation, a Florida-based company and its only visitors were unmarked DC-3s (probably of the CIA) or Boeings of St. Lucia Airways, an airline later mentioned in the Iran-Contra Scandal. USAF Gen. Richard Lawson inspected the base in 1986 and estimated that the cost of rehabilitating it to minimum safety standards was $100 million. Reagan abandoned the idea. That same year, Zaire itself abandoned Kamina.
the coming of the Rwandans
During a 3½-month span of 1994, Rwanda’s ethnic Hutu militia Interahamwe led an unspeakable genocide against that country’s Tutsis, finally ended by an armed Tutsi army. The Interahamwe were adept at horrendous slaughter but were not very good on the battlefield. The Tutsis were. The nightmare ended with a Tutsi-led government in Rwanda and a victorious mostly-Tutsi army.
In Zaire, Mobutu’s final undoing was beginning. The Banyamulenge were one of Zaire’s countless minority tribes, and had started a small insurrection; the kind of which Mobutu no longer concerned himself with unless it endangered a source of his graft.
After the Rwandan genocide the remnants of the Interahamwe fled across the border into Zaire’s Kivu region in 1994, along with 500,000+ Hutu civilians who feared a counter-genocide by the Tutsis. Many ended up around Goma, the city where Mobutu’s former Skytrain now was. Also still in the area were thousands of Tutsi civilians, who themselves had fled across the border during the original genocide.
(The last Skytrain built, at Goma. The airport was partially used as a refugee area.)
The Tutsi-led Rwandan army decided the remnant Interahamwe across the border would be a threat unless eliminated, and that is what was decided upon. The Interahamwe were indistinguishably mixed in with Hutu refugees. It is unknown if the notion of just wiping the whole lot out in a smaller, revenge counter-genocide was considered a risk or a bonus, but in any case, that is what ended up happening.
Rwanda’s “foot in the door” would be the Banyamulenge who already were fighting in the Great Lakes region and could be used as a springboard. Rwanda wanted to put a Congolese face on their invasion, and the figurehead they found was Laurent-Désiré Kabila. The ex-Simba had led an insignificant Maoist faction that was an occasional nuisance to Mobutu over the years. An avid occultist, Kabila spent as much time lecturing his men on sorcery as he did Maoism or military tactics. Inbetween guerilla warfare, Kabila dabbled in ivory smuggling and running taverns. His force dwindled in the 1980s and in 1988 he was believed to have already died. But, obviously he had not.
With Kabila as its figurehead, this force (officially named Alliance of Democratic Forces / ADF) consisted of the Banyamulenge, various Congolese bands (incredibly even, a few aged Simbas who had never given up), ethnic Tutsis in Zaire, Zairian army deserters, mercenaries from Burundi and Uganda, and above all Rwandan Tutsi commanders leading Rwandan army artillery and logistics units and even some Rwandan army infantry units. Such a hodge-podge would normally be a failure, but by 1996 Mobutu’s army was an undermanned, under-equipped, poorly-led, and often unpaid wreck.
(map via Magellan)
Starting in early Autumn, the ADF began seizing tracts of far eastern Zaire, all the while liquidating any Hutus they crossed. Bukavu (“Buke” as white mercanaries had called it decades before) fell on 31 October 1996. By Christmas Eve, the ADF controlled eastern Zaire from Lake Tanganyika south of the Burundi border all the way past the entire Rwandan border and up northwards along the Ugandan border. The Rwandans were frankly stunned at how easy it had been and how pitiful the Zairian army had become.
Now Mobutu, who was ill with cancer, realized this was the most serious threat to his rule and went back to his old playbook, hiring white mercenaries. Unlike 5 Commando in the 1960s, the group of Serbs and Romanians he hired in 1996 were not enough to turn the tide.
Goma, where Mobutu’s former DC-3 was, fell early on 1 November 1996 with barely a battle.
(ADF rebels massed on the runway of Goma airport in 1996. It is doubtful they realized that the old WWII-era DC-3 there had once been Mobutu’s VC-47, in any case, they probably would not have cared.)
As they butchered fleeing Hutu refugees, the Rwandans also discovered the plunder of the Congo. Mines of gold, tantalite, and wolfram could be plundered directly (ore was trucked to Rwanda to get an export certificate there) or indirectly (the mine’s non-Zairian owner was identified and contacted, and a lease agreed).
The ADF now pressed deeper into Zaire, as Mobutu’s army wilted. Incredibly even in this dire time, his generals were still stealing soldier pay, which was still being done sporadically anyways via DC-3 cash flights.
On 1 March 1997, the banks of the Congo river were reached for the first time. On 15 March 1997, the ADF captured the gemstone hub Kisangani (the former Stanleyville, famous from the Simba war). Everybody in Zaire except Mobutu now knew the gig was up. If the dictator wouldn’t or couldn’t defend his cash cow diamond-trading city, he could not defend anything else.
On 31 March 1997, the ADF captured the now-shambolic former Belgian airbase at Kamina, cutting off the copper mines to the south, which were Mobutu’s last source of revenue. By now, people in Kinshasa with money (or a traceable connection to Mobutu) wanted out, and on 15 April a DC-3 was hijacked at N’djili airport.
Lubumbashi (nee Elisabethville), once breakaway Katanga’s capital, was taken in late April. Here an American diplomatic team established first contact with Kabila. After WWII, the airport here was used by DC-3s of Sabena and then later still, by Katanga’s short-lived air force. Now it was packed with Learjets and Gulfstreams belonging to western companies, keen to cut deals with Kabila before he even finished winning the war.
On 16 May 1997, with Rwandan artillery within earshot of Kinshasa, the gravely ill Mobutu resigned and flew out of the city to Gbadolite. There, he was distraught to find looting already underway. He shortly took off again, headed for exile where he died later that year. As he left, the small band of troops still loyal to him fired at his plane to no effect, furious that they were being abandoned to their fate. Kabila took over Zaire and renamed it Democratic Republic of Congo. He himself was later assassinated after turning on his Rwandan benefactors.
Virunga Air Charter (which later went bankrupt in 2009 after it was blacklisted world-wide for poor safety) still owned the DC-3 at Goma. It is not thought to have flown any after 1997.
After the turn of the millennium, aviation historians researching the final C-47 Skytrains built during WWII discovered that amazingly, the very last one was still around. Naturally there was a desire to preserve it, but this was not to be.
In 2009 a person interested in buying the plane visited Goma and found that it was in bad shape, but still extant. By 2012, the cabin windows were busted out and the cargo door was falling off its hinges. The doped fabric portions of the plane (rudder and control surfaces) need periodic care and without that, they had started to rot and come apart in the wind.
In 2012, it was desired to move the plane further away from Goma’s passenger terminal and to that end, the wings were removed to make it easier to push on the ground.
(The plane in late 2012.)
(photo by Ivan Godfroid)
(photo by Ignacio Hennings)
By 2015, anything of value in or on the wingless airplane had been looted. An effort to save it failed and in late 2019, it was scrapped at Goma.
The D.R. Congo underwent an even more horrific war, sometimes called “the African World War”, between 1998 – 2003. The DC-3 / C-47 did not factor in much.
As of 2021, there are still civilian Skytrains flying in limited numbers in the D.R. Congo.
(After the WWII engines wore out, this Skytrain of Air Kasai was refit with Russian-made ASh-62IR engines and four-bladed propellers.) (photo by Alex Cheminade)
(A “Turbo Dak” of the International Red Cross at Luena, D.R. Congo in 2009. These are WWII Dakota / Skytrain airframes refit with modern turboprops, new electronics, and other improvements. Companies in the USA and South Africa perform these conversions.) (photo by Lionel Healing)
The last C-47 built is not among them, as it has already been scrapped as described above. By 2021, an entire generation of Congolese has reached adulthood, having been born after the country’s longtime ruler was overthrown.
(photo via dc3dakotahunter website)