Cold War, Two Minute Read

XC-120 Packplane – An Experiment in Modular Aviation

In the depths of aviation history, few aircraft are as distinctive or as daring as the Fairchild XC-120 Packplane.

Developed in the mid-20th century, the XC-120 was an experimental transport aircraft that sought to revolutionize logistics and cargo transportation.

While not ultimately a commercial or military success, the XC-120 remains an interesting study in innovation and the possibilities of modular design in aviation.


Design and Development

The XC-120 was conceived and developed by Fairchild, a renowned American aircraft manufacturer.

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The genesis of the XC-120 came from an idea that was, at its core, both simple and revolutionary: rather than having a permanent, built-in cargo bay, why not make the cargo bay detachable?

The XC-120 featured a unique ‘pod-and-boom’ design, where the fuselage was split into two main components.

The packplane with the fuselage being removed.
The packplane with the fuselage being removed.

The first was a slender boom that housed the cockpit, engines, wings, tail, and landing gear. The second was a removable cargo pod that could be attached beneath the boom.

This design allowed the cargo pod to be detached, loaded or unloaded independently of the aircraft and then reattached for flight.

Theoretically, this would speed up logistics operations and allow for greater versatility, as different pods could be designed for different cargo types.

The C-119

The XC-120 was not developed from scratch but was, in fact, a modification of the existing Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, a military transport aircraft.

The C-119 Boxcar.
The C-119 Boxcar.

The C-119 provided a solid foundation for the XC-120, with its proven performance, reliability, and robustness.

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The main modification was the removal of the lower fuselage, replaced by a set of attachment points for the cargo pod.

The engines, wings, and tail were essentially unaltered, ensuring the aircraft retained the C-119’s flight characteristics.

Operational Use

Despite its innovative design, the XC-120 never progressed beyond the experimental stage. Only one prototype was built, which underwent flight testing in the early 1950s.

These tests demonstrated the feasibility of the pod-and-boom design and showed that the aircraft could successfully fly with and without the cargo pod attached.

However, the practicality of the design was less convincing. In operation, the process of detaching, loading, and reattaching the cargo pod proved to be more time-consuming and complex than anticipated.

A close up of the XC-120.
A close-up of the XC-120.

Furthermore, the demand for specialized cargo pods for different cargo types was limited, undermining one of the key proposed advantages of the design.

Ultimately, the U.S. Air Force, which had sponsored the project, decided not to proceed with production, and the prototype was eventually scrapped.

General Characteristics

Despite its short life, the XC-120 was an impressive aircraft.

The cargo pod had a length of about 30 feet and a diameter of 7 feet, providing ample space for cargo or personnel.

The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engines, each producing 3,500 horsepower and propelling the XC-120 to a maximum speed of 296 mph.

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In conclusion, while the Fairchild XC-120 Packplane may not have been a commercial or military success, it remains a fascinating chapter in aviation history.

Its innovative design and daring attempt to redefine logistics operations offer valuable lessons for aircraft designers and remind us of the continual drive for innovation in aviation.

Check out our article on the aircraft the XC-120 was based on, the C-119.

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  • Crew: Five (pilot, copilot, flight engineer, two loadmasters)
  • Capacity: 20,000 lb (9,090 kg) (2,700 cu.ft)
  • Length: 82 ft 10 in (25.25 m)
  • Wingspan: 106 ft 6 in (32.46 m)
  • Height: 25 ft 1 in (7.65 m)
  • Empty weight: 16,195 lb (7,386 kg) (without container)
  • Gross weight: 51,646 lb (23,426 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 64,000 lb (29,030 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major radial engines, 3,250 hp (2,420 kW) each for takeoff
  • Maximum speed: 220 kn (250 mph, 400 km/h)
  • Range: 1,990 nmi (2,290 mi, 3,690 km) 
  • Service ceiling: 23,900 ft (7,300 m)