Hélène and I flew a Dakota DC3 in Cuba, 05-01-1990, from Isla de Pinos to Havana in one of the last Dakota DC3 that were build in 1945. It was still in service with Caribbean Airlines in 1990, a bit modernised to extend their capabilities and installation of some new avionics. But that old magic was still there, with the increased roaring sound of the two Pratt & Whitney R-1830-S1C3G Twin engines coming through the fuselage, we started to move forward and shook violently. We climbed steadily to an altitude of about 10,000 feet and set course for Havana. It was a beautiful day and we were very lucky to be able to experience a flight like this!
The venerable DC3 is without a doubt one of the best known aircraft in the world today. A legend in her own time, The Douglas DC3 airliner ranks amongst man’s greatest developments in this century. With around 1500 to 2000 in service at the 65th anniversary of her first flight, she is one of the most enduring. Our DC3 started life as a C47B. It is 65 years since the first flight.
The first flight of the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) – soon to be known as DC3- was on the 17th of December 1935 which was the 32nd anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Both flights proved to be major milestones in aviation history and each went virtually unnoticed at the time. At Santa Monica in California it was an understated beginning for a legend, there was not even a photographer on hand to record the event. The earliest DC3 pictures were taken on a later flight.
The first DST/DC3 was a fourteen passenger luxury sleeper transport built for American Airlines on their non-stop New York-Chicago run. The seven lower berths converted into large comfortable adjustable seats for the day travel while the seven upper berths folded into the ceiling. There were two dressing rooms and lavatories located in the rear of the cabin. A galley up front provided hot meals. There was also a honeymoon cabin up forward. In the railroad oriented thinking of the time this was a flying Pullman Car.
The C47 had many names and countless functions. Known as the Skytrain, Skytrooper, Dak, Dakota, Tabby, Spooky, Puff the magic dragon, the Doug and the most endearing the Gooney Bird.
The Douglas designers were quick to realize that the wider fuselage, compared to the DC2, permitted three or four abreast seating which gave double the passenger capacity in a cabin length the same as a DC2. So the DC2 became the DC 3 and before production ceased, over 800 had been built as commercial aircraft and 10,000 as military versions. Licensing agreements to produce DC3’s outside the US had been granted to Fokker in Holland, Mitsui Busson in Japan and Amtorg Trading Company in Russia. Quantities were manufactured in the USSR and Japan but Fokker only assembled and serviced Douglas built aircraft.
The first military derivative of the DC3 was a single C41 delivered to the US Army Corps in October 1938 for use as a staff transport. With the beginning of war production, military derivatives of the DC3 were designated C47 in the USAAC and R40 in the Navy and Marine Corps. Many civil DC3/DST aircraft were impressed by the US forces directly from the airlines, following the outbreak of war to help meet military transport demands. To make the DC3 passenger transport into the C47 cargo plane, Douglas designed modifications that included a large double cargo door with an integral passenger door, a beefed up floor with tie down fittings, folding bench type seating along the sides, a navigational astrodome aft of the flight compartment and stronger landing gear. Other changes were made as an aid to mass production to keep up with the military demand and additional assembly lines were set up at new factories At Long Beach in California and Oklahoma City. Production at the combined factories accelerated rapidly and reached 18.5 planes per day
The DC3 was popular for many reasons: she was larger, faster and more luxurious than previous planes, more economical to operate and safe. Stories of DC3 durability are legend around the world. Perhaps no other aircraft has been so historically abused and come off so well. Maybe the reasons the DC 3’s are still flying as no-one has yet designed a better aircraft for the particular job being done. It is often said the only replacement for a DC3 is another DC3.
Operating in all battle zones and throughout WWII the C47’s performed a variety of supporting roles such as cargo hauling, staff transport, training and communications, medic al evacuations- airlifting supplies and troops being the principal jobs. The Skytrans and Skytroopers of Troop Carrier Squadrons took part in all major airborne operations including Sicily, New Guinea, Normandy, Holland and Southern France. She became just as familiar to the tribal villagers of Africa, Asia and the South Pacific as she was to be the sophisticated pre war traveler. She was often the only link between the isolated combat units and their supply bases- the legend of the Gooney Bird grew on the exploits of overworked aircraft and their crew surmounting obstacles of terrain, weather and the enemy fire to complete near impossible missions.
For thousands of servicemen the C47 is remembered as the first aircraft they ever flew in carrying them between duties, to combat, to military hospitals or home from the war. For thousands who were pilots, navigators and ground crew, the C47 was the aircraft in which they learnt the aviation trade. To them it was and will be the most rugged, the most reliable, a most forgiving, the most useful -THE BEST- aircraft of all time.
As the war ended in 1945, thousands of C47’s became surplus to military needs and sold to airlines or foreign governments and others were put into storage. Scores returned to service a few years later to serve in the Berlin Airlift, over 100 being used for the year long operation.
In the United States, South America, Africa, Asia and throughout the Pacific, DC3’s that had seen military service became the mainstay of new and growing civil fleets. It was the aircraft that put many operators in business as air carriers.
Larger faster aircraft were being produced, the four engined DC4 and DC6/ DC3 production ended, the last off the assembly line was for Sabena Airways of Belgium in 1946. Now the DC3’s carried the smaller volume of less traveled routes. Many found new duties as corporate aircraft, exploration work for mining companies, fire fighting, crop dusting, scientific research and eco tourism.
She also became an amphibian with very large floats and retractable wheels, she was the first to land at both the North and the South Poles with skis attached and has done a JATO (Jet Assisted Takeoff) from an aircraft carrier with JATO pods on her belly.
More than 11,000 DC3s were built between 1935 and 1946 in the USA, Japan and Russia. The familiar streamlined profile heralded the jet age. After 1945 many entered service with fledgling commercial airlines. VH-TMQ is presented with the ambience of a bygone era and is one of the finest examples of a truly beloved aircraft, with approximately seventeen operating in Australia and only 800 left operating in the world today.
Many thousands of hours were expended in refurbishment, resulting in an aircraft resplendent in lavish 1950s style livery, and surveyed by the CASA for passenger charter operations. Our DC3 seats 28 passengers and is crewed by two Captains and a Hostess, additional crew can be requested. The aircraft cruises between 5000 and 8000 feet, flying at 150 knots. In 1940 a DC3 could be bought new for US$80,000