The wings were rigid, and if any part of the plane moved, the whole plane moved, Jeb Stewart recalls. It was solid, he adds, a touch of appreciation apparent in his voice.
And during the final two years of World War II, Stewart was a pilot of C-46 aircraft, ferrying them across North Africa and the Middle East, sometimes carrying human and other military cargo.
“It was nothing fancy, nothing heroic,” Stewart, 91, of Greenwood, S.C., recalls. “It was a job -- like the Pony Express.”
Stewart recently visited the Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport to see Tinker Belle, which aviation enthusiasts say is the last of the 3,181 war-era C-46’s still airworthy. The cargo plane has been bought by Warriors and Warbirds, a nonprofit organization, and given a home at the Monroe facility.
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On Saturday, the public is invited to view the plane and enjoy an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, to help raise funds to restore the plane. Stewart plans to be there.
“It costs money to keep the Tinker Belle flying,” says Lee Myers, former longtime Matthews mayor, a private pilot, and a Warriors and Warbirds member. “Donations and volunteer time are critical for the upkeep.”
Stewart says he plans to make the trip up to Monroe this weekend. He’ll travel by car, as his flying is limited to passenger status these days. But he is still a regular at the airport near his home and says he continues to work on planes.
He was a member of the Army Air Corps, and later the U.S. Air Force, from 1942 to 1950. Stewart says he logged more than 5,000 flight hours in 14 different aircraft, including the B-17 and B-24 bombers. But much of his time was spent in the cockpit of the C-46, which was known to pilots as the Whale.
“They were workhorses,” Stewart says of the plane. “And we were aerial truck drivers.”
The C-46 flew in several theaters but is best-known as the aircraft used by the United States to ferry badly needed supplies over “The Hump” -- the Himalayas -- from India to China. Those supplies enabled Chinese forces to hold off the Japanese during the war.
Stewart says he originally was ticketed for Asian duty. “But when we got to Miami, they told us to fly east,” he recalls. “There was a war on. We did what they told us to do.”
He spent much of his time in Libya but also was stationed in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. He says the C-46 was reliable, for the most part. “I had a couple incidents where I lost an engine, but I always brought it in,” he recalls. With a chuckle, he adds, “It was good to fly a plane with more than one engine.”
Stewart is a Maryland native who moved to South Carolina about 20 years ago. He plays golf twice a week, bowls regularly, and goes square dancing once or twice weekly.
“I stay busy,” he says. “And if I get tired, I take a nap.”
Stewart says the last time he saw a C-46 -- prior to inspecting Tinker Belle last week in Monroe -- was in North Africa in September 1945. He says the plane is much as he remembers it.
“Like I said -- nothing fancy,” he says. “But it did the job.”