Today, 85 years ago, the DC-3 first lifted into the sky and changed the aviation industry forever. The DC-3 is one of the single most iconic aircraft to grace the skies, an aircraft who’s fame is only rivaled by the 747 and Concorde. Today, the Douglas DC-3 turns 85 years old.
Today, I will explain why the DC-3 is quite possibly the greatest aircraft of all time, how it came to fruition, and how it changed air travel forever.
A United Airlines DST named the “City of Portland.” Photo Credit.
Douglas had the DC-2 sitting on its lap, it’s money-making airliner that was one of the best of its era. It had a capacity of 14 passengers, and the best engines in use at the time. The DC-2 could outperform the Tri-Motors in an engine-out situation, and it was also an improvement over the Boeing 247. But something wasn’t right. Pilots reported it was hard to land in some situations with its heavy aileron movements, directional instability, and fin and propeller icing among other problems. And even though it fared better than other aircraft with an engine failure, a training crew experienced a nearly-fatal spin and crash from a go-around. Douglas fixed the DC-2 for the moment, but people were convinced they needed a new design.
By May 10, 1935, Arthur Raymond had produced the “Douglas Aircraft Report No. 1004.” The report was based on the recommendation by the American Airlines team and it outlined design characteristics of the new transport aircraft. When C.R. Smith read the report, he called Donald Douglas with the proposal. Smith knew what type of aircraft American needed, it was to be bigger and more comfortable than the Condors and Fords, and better than the Boeing 247. The new transport must also be bigger than the DC-2. These were also outlined in the report by Raymond.
When Donald Douglas heard the proposal, he was skeptical. The DC-2 was already in full production and it had 90 more orders, and making a new model would create potential problems and headaches. Who would fly at night in a new sleeper transport? Condors were small and cramped and the Tri-Motors were loud. But with some convincing, the sleeper transport that would become the DC-3 was a go with much skepticism.
The original plan was to use almost 80% of the original DC-2’s design in the new DC-3. As design went on, the aircraft evolved, and Donald Douglas didn’t like that one bit. But with the proposed idea of a wider “super DC-2,” Douglas came around and saw some potential. The new sleeper transport would have a larger tail section as well. They even went on a Curtiss Condor to study the sleeper berths to make improvements on them for the new sleeper transport. C.R. Smith came up with a new concept for passenger comfort, and a way to standardize airline operations. Putting the main door on the right side of the plane, so the passengers wouldn’t be hit with the prop wash and wind generated from the propellers when boarding the aircraft (since the left engine was always started first).
”We made the DC-3 without a computer to test it. There was plenty of data from the DC-1 and DC-2 to formulate the design. Often we got down on the floor and worked things out ourselves. There was personal ingenuity, and application, and we made things happen overnight.” Ivar Shogran ; Chief Power Plant Engineer “; Douglas Aircraft Company
Then, the big day came. On December 14th, 1935, the new sleeper transport was rolled out. This new transport was called the DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport). Despite the original plan to use almost 80% of the DC-2’s design, the DST evolved so much that in the end, only 10% of its parts were interchangeable with the DC-2. It had a wider fuselage, larger tail, stronger landing gear, greater wingspan, and more powerful engines than the DC-2. And the new DST could seat a whopping 21 passengers in its original configuration. Other configurations could carry 28+ passengers.
NC30000, a DC-3A. It was built in 1941 and was briefly used as Douglas’s company aircraft. Photo Credit.
The first flight
The morning of December 17, 1935 was just like any other morning in Santa Monica, California. The left propeller of the DST slowly started turning as the plane started up, followed by the right propeller. A few engineers and others who worked on the DST watched as it slowly taxied out to the runway. The aircraft sat on the runway for about 5 minutes with the engines running, then the DST began rolling with its engines at full power. The DST gently lifted into the air, and from that moment on, the aviation industry was about to be changed forever.
The historic flight lasted from 3:00 to 4:30, and pilot Carl Cover said that everything went smoothly. And co-pilot Frank Collbohm called it a “routine” flight. The media didn’t cover much of anything unlike with later aircraft, and there are no photographs of the event. And none of the company executives took time off either. Both pilots and Arthur Raymond couldn’t imagine that it would mark the start of an era, they could hardly recall the event, as it was a routine test flight and there was nothing too special about it. But the first flight of the DST was a game-changer.
Just to clarify, the DST and the DC-3 are the same base design. The DST is the purpose-built sleeper, and the DC-3 is the non-sleeper passenger variant (a majority of these were built at C-47’s in WWII).
The first Douglas DST operated by American Airlines. Photo Credit.
How did the DC-3 change the aviation industry?
The DC-3 effectively changed the aviation industry forever. With household-name airlines using the type, such as American, KLM, Braniff, Eastern, and so many more airlines. It became widely popular, easily outperforming its predecessor the DC-2 in sales. The DC-3 became the mainline aircraft for airlines before and after WWII. And during WWII and the Vietnam war, the DC-3 was used both as a cargo plane, and a gunship. The DC-3 was used as a charter and business aircraft before private jets took to the skies.
Why was the DST/DC-3 so successful for airlines? In the days before the DC-3, a trip from New York to Los Angeles was a long journey. Often with 10 or more stopovers, switching planes almost 3 times, and flying on multiple airlines. And it took upwards of 25 hours. After the DC-3 came around, it could be done with only 3 refueling stops. The DC-3 was quiet for its time and was more spacious and way quieter than other airliners of the 1930’s, and it was one of the fastest too. It could do New York to Chicago nonstop, one of the original things it needed to be able to do.
But if the DC-3 was an airliner, why was it used in wars like WWII and Vietnam? It’s a simple answer, the DC-3 is the perfect all-round airplane. Even though it wasn’t as big as the C-46, the DC-3 was a good cargo hauler too. The DC-3’s were built as C-47’s in WWII and it served as a cargo aircraft ferrying supplies for the allies, and it was also used as a gunship. In the Vietnam War, the C-47 “Spooky” variant was a C-47 that was modified as a gunship. And the C-47’s were used to drop leaflets and carry cargo in Vietnam as well.
The DC-3 continued on in active service after WWII; both militarily and commercially until aircraft like the Lockheed-1049 Super Constellation “Connie” came into production. Some airlines even operated DC-3’s up until the jet age. But even then, some airlines refused to get rid of their DC-3’s. And airlines like Buffalo Airways thrive on the DC-3, it’s the main workhorse of their fleet. Other operators use it to carry supplies to remote communities too. The DC-3 is used at airshows and on tours, and it’s also still used as a private plane that people fly around in. Airlines have them as memorial aircraft or museums, and the Commemorative Air Force has a fleet of C-47’s/DC-3’s as well.
This DC-3 was originally delivered to American Airlines, now it wears the Breitling livery. And it still flies to this day. Photo Credit.
There are over 300 DC-3’s still flying today. A testament to the DC-3’s success, fame, and mystique. No other aircraft designed before WWII has that many examples still flying. Just goes to show, the DC-3 continues to fascinate us, even 85 years after its first flight.
Today, December 17, 2020, is the 85th anniversary of the first time the Douglas DC-3 took to the skies. 85 years ago, the aviation industry moved into a new era, and changed forever.
Cheers to the DC-3, and its lasting legacy! 🍾
Sources of information.
And my good friend @KDEN.
Here’s a virtual cookie if you made it to the end. 🍪