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The Douglas DC-3: The First (Successful) Commercial Plane

Written by Joshua Stanford


The modern aeronautics industry is one of the most irreplaceable industries to the economy of today. From business to transportation, the world quite literally runs on the intricate networks of flight routes and airports that cover every continent and almost every nation. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world that doesn’t have this network in place. However, it wasn’t that long ago that this massive network was barely in existence. It took several key innovations to connect the world through air travel and ultimately make international travel and long distance flights an affordable reality.

While many developments helped to drive innovation forward, one aircraft stands out far ahead of the others. The DC-3, developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company, was an airliner that changed the nature of commercial flight forever. It’s widely recognized to be one of the greatest airplanes of its time and has even been described as the most influential airliner in history. From civilian transportation to war-time use, its speed, versatile design, and durability made it a plane that every nation and manufacturer immediately wanted their own version of.

Pioneering Travel

Tickets were unaffordable for the average person and routes were very restricted. To give you an idea of just how different a trip in the 30’s would have been, it took over an entire day to travel from New York to Los Angeles. A passenger who wanted to fly that route, could expect at least 14 or 15 stops along the way. This tedious process was also priced at around $4,000. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you’re not alone. Aircraft manufacturers of the day were determined to make the process quicker, safer, and more affordable.

Donald Douglas, the founder of the Douglas Aircraft Company, had been commissioned by Transcontinental and Western Airlines (or TWA) to develop a plane design that would allow them to compete with their rival United Airlines. United had just acquired a fleet of Boeing 247’s and had a contract with Boeing that would allow them to retain sole purchasing rights until they had received their fleet of 60 planes. This meant that TWA would have to wait until after their rival was reaping the benefits of a brand new fleet of transcontinental planes. The 247 was predicted to be an efficient solution to the problem of long distance flights and would have left United in the dust in their race to corner that market.

The Douglas Aircraft Company responded to their commission with the DC-2, a powerful plane that was already an amazing feat of engineering. However, there was much room for improvement. Douglas knew that the fuselage of the DC-2 was too small to meet the popular demand for a sleeper plane that would give passengers the opportunity to rest on their long flight. Fortunately for him, American Airlines was also interested in a new transcontinental plane and requested an improved version of the DC-2. What came out of this second round of redesign was a plane that was wider, faster, more maneuverable, more efficient, had a longer wingspan, and would fly higher. This was the birth of the Douglas DC-3.


Built to Fly

Built for speed and efficiency, the DC-3 was a simple design that utilized two turboprop engines. The civilian variant used a 9-cylinder Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 and the military version used the 14-cylinder Pratt and Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engine. These two engines were fixed to the long, cantilevered wings on the plane’s all metal frame. It was the powerful engine set-up coupled with the spacious fuselage that made the DC-3 the perfect combination of speed and efficiency. What had in speed it also had in capacity, a feature that ensured its flights would be more than profitable enough to justify establishing travel routes that would sustain themselves on ticket sales alone.

This newly developed efficiency solved the long-standing issue the American airline industry had faced of not being able to make flying a profitable venture. Many wonderful aircraft designs had come and gone without much use simply because they couldn’t generate enough revenue to break even. To this day, the airline industry is still a very costly business. Planes need constant maintenance to be flown safely, fuel is never cheap, and investing in the purchase of a fleet of planes is a massive commitment, one that assumes a lot of risk. Donald Douglas took all of this into account when designing his plane, ensuring that an adequate number of passengers could fit comfortably and that the cargo hold was sufficiently large without sacrificing speed. Ultimately, it was all of these innovations combined that would propel the Douglas DC-3 far ahead of the Boeing Model 247 that it had been designed to compete with.

Teaching the World to Fly: The Beginning of An Era

On its first commercial flight, the DC-3 proved that it was a plane that would completely change the industry. Its passengers were shocked to find themselves rushing off out of the airport in one of the smoothest aircraft rides they had ever experienced. This maiden flight took place on December 17, 1935, out of Kitty Hawk, just 32 years after the famous flight the Wright Brothers had taken in that same place.

In a time when air travel was still in its infancy, the DC-3 was beginning to open up the opportunities for more flight routes than any aircraft before it. A key feature of the DC-3 was its passenger capacity. With its ability to carry anywhere from 20 to 32 passengers and to travel long routes without multiple stops, it was able to rely on only passenger fares for revenue. This was a much welcomed change for airline executives, who wanted transportation to be the core revenue source, not mail. Aircraft had relied on mail subsidies for years by carrying parcels in a plane’s hold to increase the profitability of the flights. While this practice still goes on today for airmail, it was no longer necessary to help plane routes break even. The freedom that the DC-3 gave the many airlines that were developing at the time allowed them to consider longer flights and more destinations as possible routes.


The Gooney Bird

While it may have a long reputation in the private sector, the DC-3 Douglas saw more than its fair share of combat as well. The military variation was named the C-47 and was proven to be one of the most reliable transport planes of its time. With its cargo ranging from people to supplies, the C-47 was customized to accommodate a wide variety of purposes. While different models of the plane were called the Dakota or the Skytrain, military personnel gave it the nickname“Gooney Bird.” The reason for this moniker was its resembling the long-winged Albatross that flies over the North Pacific.

In an interesting turn of events, the Empire of Japan began to manufacture their own version of the C-47. The Mitsubishi Group purchased the rights to manufacture the design in 1938. As the Japanese military expanded its influence across Eastern Asia and the Pacific, the design of the C-47 was one that they had a lot of use for. It was the ideal plane to make multiple island hopping trips in a short amount of time. One of Japan’s primary plane manufacturers, Nakajima Hikoki, began to produce their own version, called the L2D2. The irony of this production was that the L2D2 would continue to be used opposite the C-47 in the coming World War. This only goes to show how revolutionary and in high demand Douglas’s design was.

Operation Market Garden

Operation Market Garden was one of the largest airborne operations during WWII. The brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, this operation was executed immediately after the D-Day invasion of Normandy against the German forces that were occupying the Netherlands at the time. The operation was designed to be an airborne assault, executed by over 40,000 British, Polish, and American troops parachuting deep into enemy territory. Such a large-scale attack required the use of over 1,438 C-47’s of a number of different variations. The planes were used to transport paratroopers and supplies, but their use wasn’t just limited to their fuselage’s capacity. Many of the C-47’s used in the operation were dragging behind them gliders that were released over key drop points. These gliders carried paratroopers to their destinations and allowed them to have greater control over where they landed. While these gliders were an effective and often much safer means of transportation, they were not without risk. Lightly armored and without any way to protect themselves against enemy FLAK guns, many were destroyed before they reached the ground or crashed upon landing, injuring many of the troops inside.

Unfortunately for the allied, Operation Market Garden was an unfortunate blunder, one that was flawed from the beginning. Hundreds of C-47’s and their gliders were destroyed in the operation along with staggering numbers of casualties on the side of the allied forces. Even with this massive loss, the C-47 was still a vital part of the operation, one that would be utilized several more times in the war as both a supply plane and airborne troop carrier. One offensive in particular found the C-47 in a critical position to drastically turn the tide of a battle.

The Battle of the Bulge

It was Christmas morning, 1944, in the besieged town of Bastogne that Allied troops looked up and were able to see clear skies. The infamous Battle of the Bulge had begun several weeks before and had been the bloodiest days of combat on the Western Front. The airborne and armored divisions of the US Army had been surrounded on all sides and were facing imminent annihilation at the hands of the German Army. During the days of this drawn out battle, the skies had remained cloudy and snowy, preventing any effective air support on the side of the allies. Supply drops were also made impossible as an inaccurate drop would land crucial supplies into the hands of the Germans. It wasn’t until the clear skies finally allowed supplies to be dropped to the Allied troops who had been low on ammunition and rations.

While the supply drops were not what won the battle, they made the path to victory much clearer for the surrounded American troops. Finally, the repeated attempts of Allied reinforcements to break through the German lines were successful, something that was made possible by the resupplied troops in Bastogne and the surrounding area. This was hardly the last time the C-47 made a massive impact on the course of an American conflict. It would continue to be a staple of the United States Airforce’s fleet for many more years and conflicts to come.


Puff, the Spooky Dragon: A Lethal Variation

One variation of the C-47, the FC-47, became a lethal part of the Air Force’s air superiority. Over the jungles of Vietnam on the 23rd of December, 1964, the sound of a repeated whirring pattern caught a Viet Cong force off guard. Their attack on the Tranh Yend Special Forces outpost had been successful as they continued to gain ground. Suddenly, hundreds of rounds in a matter of seconds began to rip up the ground around their feet and tear their comrades into pieces. Over the next 30 minutes, the fire from miniguns mounted on a circling C-47 would spray over 4,500 rounds into the front of the Viet Cong, sending them into a full retreat.

This had been one of the most successful missions that the newly named FC-47 gunship had flown to date. Since the new modifications had been added to fit three minigun systems pointed out of the left side of the aircraft, several missions had been flown, all to varying rates of success. The three M134 miniguns, firing 7.62 mm rounds, had proven to be incredibly effective. They could fire at a rate of anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 rounds per minute. This modification gave birth to a gunship that would rain terror down on the Viet Cong for years to come and would leave the Vietnam War with the boast that not a single outpost it guarded ever fell in combat.

This new model of the DC-3 was renamed the FC-47, or the “Spooky” gunship. As pilots commonly used fiery tracer rounds to direct friendly gunfire, the gunship earned the nickname and radio call sign “Puff” or  “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” after the hit song by the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. While not known to frolic in the autumn mist, it did leave a considerable mark on the Viet Cong throughout the course of the Vietnam War.

The simple tactic employed by the pilots of the Spooky was to circle their target with the plane titled so that its gun system pointing out of its side could be aimed down from an angle. Controls on the console then allowed the pilot to both aim and fire the three miniguns until it was replaced by the larger and more heavily armored AC-130. This weapon was just one of many ways the sturdy design of the DC-3 was put to use throughout its long tenure.

Building An Era: The DC-3’s Many Years of Service

In its custom form, the DC-3 was used for many years by militaries and governments for many different uses. As the C-47, it was quickly noticed by many governments across the world, who were quick to either develop their own variation of the design or to simply purchase their own aircraft and rename them with a different model number. In the years following WWII, these different variations were largely the result of the US Air Force selling or giving portions of their fleet over to allies of the US. Anyone interested in air force history has likely seen the C-47 flying under the colors of dozens of nations like Greece, Israel, Columbia, and Pakistan. The widespread demand for the popular design only goes to show just how reliable of a design it was.

It is one of the oldest aircraft in history still in use, with many DC-3’s still flying at 80 years old. The construction is simply and easily customized. Past models of the plane have even had luxurious beds and given the passengers a chance to sleep on longer routes, a necessity during the long routes the planes would fly in the earlier parts of the 20th Century. Its use has extended to fighting forest fires, skydiving, and aerial spraying. Through its long years of service, it’s been its durability and versatility that have made it useful in so many different industries.


They Don’t Build Them Like They Used To

While quality workmanship has helped the remaining models stay in good shape, the DC-3 also owes much of its longevity to the fact that many of its surviving models are not pressurized. Most airliners of today face tremendous strain at the hands of the pressure changes that their fuselages experience throughout the course of a flight. As most DC-3’s wouldn’t operate no higher than 16,000 feet, about half of the altitude of the average jet airliner, there was simply no need to make this modification. This has made it one of the most well preserved planes of its time, with over 160 still flying on a regular basis. Several are even used in regular commercial flights, albeit only after they’ve been thoroughly refurbished.

There is a kind of cult following that the DC-3 has gathered from a number of plane enthusiasts and aviation purists who make it a hobby to collect memorabilia of the historic plane, or the planes themselves. Many insist that the only thing that can replace a DC-3 is another DC-3. Many individuals still choose to fix up and own a DC-3 for private use, much like a vintage car. It is also still a popular choice for flights into underdeveloped areas without paved runways. Due to its durability and ability to land and take off from rough terrain, it is ideal for these environments and for shorter airstrips. The oldest of these vintage DC-3’s is a DST, or Douglas Sleeper Transport, that resides in Punta Gorda, Florida. This plane was originally built in 1936 and has been refurbished a number of times since then.

A Legacy: The World After the DC-3

It’s probably hard for any of us to imagine a world without international travel. There are industries built on the existence of intercontinental travel that would never have existed if it were not for the way the DC-3 made long distance flights a possibility. The wing and engine design that made its historical flights possible went on to inspire the designs of many other aircraft. It was through highly coveted efficiency and durability that the DC-3 became a design that was widely replicated and imitated. Not only was it a successful airliner with years of service, but it was also the inspiration for the majority of airliners to this day.

There have been many airliners that have advanced the airline industry since the 1930’s. However, no one can deny the impact that the DC-3 had on aviation. Its development spearheaded a series of aircraft innovations that would transform the way the world traveled and brought people across continents. Now, with years of development and progress having gone by, the flight from New York to California that would’ve taken the DC-3 18 hours to accomplish takes a mere 5 hours without a need for any stops along the way. It’s fair to say that without the Douglas Aircraft Company showing the world this route was possible, it would likely not have developed into a reality so quickly. Even with the innovations seen in the many different airliners that have come after it, the DC-3 still holds a place in history as an industrial endeavor that lasted for decades to come. It revolutionized the nature of air travel almost single-handedly and opened the door for a whole new world of opportunities for the air travel industry and for mankind.

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