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Douglas DC-3 C-47 60th Anniversary






The most famous, most durable and probably most beloved aircraft in the history of aviation, the Douglas DC-3 will mark its 60th anniversary of service on December 17, 1995, by doing what it does best-- routinely flying people and cargo between airports all around the world.


The aircraft that set a new standard for air travel and made it possible for airlines to make a profit in passenger service without government subsidies made its first flight on December 17, 1935 from the Clover Field airport in Santa Monica, California.


Sixty years later, more than 1,000 DC-3s are still operating, still adding to an aviation legend without equal. As with many legends, the beginning was little noticed.


In 1934, there was correspondence and telephone traffic between engineers at American Airlines and the Douglas Aircraft Company about a larger version of the Douglas DC-2 then being produced at Santa Monica. American wanted an aircraft to provide sleeper berths for 14 passengers. The talks produced an agreement between American's President C. R. Smith and Donald W. Douglas Sr. the special purpose twin engine Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) would be developed and American would buy at least 20 of them.


Douglas went into the deal with some misgiving, The times did not appear to favour introducing another new airliner so soon after the DC-2. Economic depression gripped the world. Commercial air travel was just beginning to grow thanks in large part to the passenger-pleasing features and satisfying economics of the still new Douglas DC-2, which was setting records and enjoying strong sales success in the United States and Europe.


Even before Smith was able to come up with financing to back his 20-plane order, Douglas overcame the doubts and gave a go-ahead for design work on the DST. But when the new model made its first flight on the 32nd anniversary of the Wright brothers first powered flights at Kitty Hawk, the event was so ordinary that there wasn't even a photographer on hand. No pictures record the birth of the DC-3 legend.


The DST that flew that day was the product of close collaboration between Douglas designers and American's chief engineer, William Littlewood. It was a bigger airplane than the DC-2. At 95 feet, the wing span was 10 feet greater. The fuselage was 30 inches longer. The cabin was 26 inches wider to accommodate the desired sleeping berths. It had a non-stop range more than 50 percent greater than the DC-2.


The wider fuselage and the longer range made a world of difference in aviation. Douglas saw the advantage and immediately put a day coach version into production, calling it the DC-3. No one guessed it would become history's most celebrated aircraft.


American's DST went into service in July 1936. It did exactly what C. R. Smith and Bill Littlewood had wanted to do, flying 14 passengers overnight from coast to coast across the United States in 17 hours, 30 minutes -- seven to eight hours less than the best scheduled times only a year or two earlier. But the DC-3, without berths but with 21 luxury seats permitted by the wide cabin, quickly proved to be the favoured version. With the revenue from those additional seats, it was the first airliner that could make money for operators just transporting people, independent of subsidy or mail contracts.


Airline response was swift. The DC-3 was what they needed to continue their growth; the timing was near perfect and the growth was phenomenal. From 1936 to the start of World War II in 1939, U.S. air travel increased up to 500 percent. Douglas DC-3s and DC-2s carried nearly 90 percent of all U.S. traffic.


Outside the U.S., there was a similar surge in commercial aviation. The Douglas aircraft were available to meet the need and generate profits, and were in service with 30 carriers in Europe and Asia. License agreements for building the DC-3 were granted to manufacturers in Holland, Japan and Russia.


By the time civil aircraft production was stopped by the U.S. arms build-up supporting the Allies in the war, nearly 450 DC-3s had been delivered. Another 149 ordered by airlines before the war were taken over on the assembly line by the Army and Navy, and given various military designations.


The first military derivative of the DC-3 was a single C-41, delivered to the Army in 1938 for use as a staff transport. That aircraft, restored to its original configuration, still flies in 1995 carrying tourists on sightseeing flights over San Francisco Bay for Otis Spunkmeyer Airlines. It was the first of thousands of DC-3 models built for Allied air forces.


With the beginning of war production, variants of the DC-3 designed as cargo and troop transports were designated as the C-47 by the U.S. Army and R4D by the U.S. Navy. In the armed forces of the United Kingdom and many other countries, they were known as the "Dakota".


Those who flew the C-47s and Dakotas bestowed the nickname “Gooneybird”. The origin of the label is uncertain, but the wartime performance of the aircraft is not -- it is the stuff of history and at the core of the DC-3 legend, told in numerous books.


Douglas made several changes to the DC-3 passenger transport to meet the military needs. Among them were a large double cargo door, a sturdier floor, folding bench-type seats along the sides and stronger landing gear. Designed for a payload of 4,200 pounds, the C-47s / Dakotas routinely flew with heavy overloads while showing a rugged reliability and durability that won a permanent place in the hearts of crews and passengers.


Originally designed for a maximum takeoff weight of 24,000 pounds the aircraft often flew with wartime loads pushing the gross weight to 30,000 pounds, and sometimes reaching 35,000 pounds. The maximum passenger capacity was 32.


On one occasion, in the China-Burma-India theatre, a C-47 flying refugees from a combat area took off with 73 people and landed with 74; a baby was born en-route, giving the aircraft a 228 percent load.


The demands of war also brought out the versatility of the DC-3 design that gave it much of its fame. It was and it is “a go anywhere, do anything" aircraft.


C-47s were pressed into service as paratroop carriers, tow vehicles for gliders, and for air dropping supplies to combat units isolated from roads or airfields. Typical tasks included ferrying men and supplies between bases and evacuating the sick and wounded from forward areas to rear echelon hospitals. Cargoes were always heavy, often hazardous, including munitions and gasoline. Sometimes jeeps, and even pack animals, were loaded to carry the supplies forward from remote air strips.


For some missions, C-47s were fitted with skis to operate in deep snow, or with large pontoons for flying from lakes and rivers. A few were flown with small rocket motors mounted on the belly to assist takeoffs with heavy loads on short fields.


After World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower listed the C-47 as one of the four pieces of military equipment most vital to the Allied victory. Douglas had built more than 10,000 of them, for service in every part of the world.


As the war ended, thousands of C-47s became surplus to military needs. Many were sold to airlines or consigned to foreign governments; others went into storage. Scores returned to service a few years later to serve in the Berlin Airlift. And thousands continued flying in military or civil service. Converting C-47s to passenger transports was, briefly, a big business. The ex-military planes were the core of expanding civil fleets in the late 1940s and early 5Os.


Douglas developed its own major modification of the aircraft, with a new wing, empennage, more powerful engines and other refinements. Called the DC-3S or Super DC-3, it gained limited airline acceptance, but the U.S. Navy was a quantity buyer as 100 R4Ds were transformed to the R4D-8 Configuration and used extensively in Korea and Vietnam.


DC-3 / C-47 production closed down in 1946. The last one off the line -- rebuilt from a plane that was started as a C-47 -- was a DC-3 delivered to Sabena Airlines of Belgium. As larger, faster, more modern aircraft became available, the DC-3s carried the smaller volume of traffic on less travelled routes. Many found new duties as corporate aircraft: others were used in oil exploration, fire fighting, pest control, scientific research, and other diverse services.


Through the decades, several enterprising companies have introduced successful programs for updating the DC-3 with advanced systems and new turboprop engines. With or without such changes, both civil and military operators keep DC-3s flying today.


As the “grand old lady” of the skies approaches her 60th anniversary, more than 1,000 remain in service, including some 300 in military use. The South African Air Force operates 40 C-47s, many now equipped with turboprop engines, in coastal patrols and other services.


The largest fleet of civilian DC-3 Dakotas is flown by Air Atlantique, based at Coventry in the United Kingdom. The airline has 13 planes, with all operational. In addition to passenger service, a number of them are fitted with spray systems for aerial application of dispersant chemicals to break up oil slicks from tankers at sea.


The second largest civil operator is Miami Valley Aviation in Middletown, Ohio, in the United States, a cargo hauler with nine DC-3s.


Several companies use their DC-3s for tourist and sightseeing flights -- including Otis Spunkmeyer Air and operators in the Los Angeles area, in Florida, in The Netherlands and New Zealand. Hundreds of other DC-3s are in daily use as rugged, reliable, economical transports for passengers or freight, all over the world.


With such a hard-working observance of its 60th anniversary, the DC-3 clearly appears destined to fly on into the next century, alongside the current and future McDonnell Douglas jet transports that share its heritage. The legend continues to grow with each new operation, providing the story material for four new 60th anniversary books published this year, adding to a list of more than 20 previous books.


Submitted by: Media relations Department - Douglas Aircraft Company - Don Hanson (1995)

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