From the Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of Department of Wingspan, we bring you the Budd RB Conestoga.


(US Navy)

When we hear the term “conestoga wagon,” we often think of intrepid American settlers moving westward in search of land and fortune. But the conestoga wagon was actually never used in westward expansion because it was too heavy to cross the prairies. The first time history records the use of the conestoga wagon is in 1717, and the large, boat-shaped wagons first appeared in Pennsylvania, where they were used to haul as much as six tons of cargo, and even float if they were caulked properly. It’s no wonder, then, that the Pennsylvania-based Budd Company took the name for the innovative cargo aircraft they built for the US Navy.

Founded in 1912, the Budd Company made its money chiefly in the production of rail cars and automobiles, pioneering the use of stainless steel for auto bodies in 1913. The company also invented the shot weld process of joining sheets of stainless steel. Budd’s expertise in the use of stainless steel came in handy when the US Navy started looking for a new large transport and cargo aircraft. At the time, demand for aluminum was high, and the Navy wanted to explore the use of other materials that were in greater supply.

Loading an ambulance onto a Budd RB-1 Conestoga (National Air and Space Museum)

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Though known for cars and trains, Budd already had experience building stainless steel aircraft, having built and flown the Budd BB-1 Pioneer in 1931, the world’s first aircraft with a framework built entirely from stainless steel. For the Conestoga, Budd worked with US Navy engineers to design a truly innovative aircraft. Not only did it use primarily stainless steel, it also incorporated other new features that set the template future cargo aircraft. The Conestoga had tricycle landing gear, a raised tail with clamshell doors at the rear, and a deck that was at truck-bed height to facilitate loading. It also had a one-ton hoist for loading heavier cargo. The cockpit was placed on top of the fuselage to provide unobstructed space for cargo, and the large hold could carry 24 paratroopers, 9,600 pounds of cargo, or a 1.5 ton truck. It could also hold the largest ambulance in the US military inventory. The Conestoga was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engines that gave it a respectable cruising speed of 165 mph, but a disappointing range of only 700 miles.

A Budd RB-1 Conestoga at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland in 1944 (US Navy)

The Conestoga took its maiden flight on October 31, 1943, and the first three aircraft underwent testing of various kinds. The Navy had initially ordered 200 aircraft, and the US Army Air Forces placed an order for an additional 600 designated C-93, but delays in production caused by difficulties in the welding of the stainless steel, plus increased availability of aluminum, led to drastic cuts in the order sheet. The Navy decided to take just 25 aircraft, and the Army canceled their order altogether.

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An RB-1 Conestoga of the Flying Tiger Lines (Ed Coates Collection)

Though the Conestoga came too late to serve in WWII, it did provide carry out some cargo duties for the US Navy, and the aircraft were eventually retired from service in 1945 and transferred to the War Assets Administration for sale to the private sector. After being passed around between various interests, a handful of Conestogas became the nucleus for the Flying Tigers air cargo line, named after the famous American Volunteer Group of WWII. And a single Conestoga was sold to the Tucker Motor Company to transport the Tucker 48 sedan to auto shows around the US. Today, only a single Conestoga remains. It resides at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona, where it is displayed minus its engines and many other bits. But the stainless steel fuselage looks as good as new.

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