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The introduction of service on DC-3 marked the coming of age of the passenger air industry. Twenty one passengers could be comfortably seated on the plane. All major commercial airliners descended from the DC-3 and as late 1990 there were still some in service in the world.
Douglas Aircraft built the DC-3 at the request of TWA. TWA’s rival was using Boeing 247 aircraft for passenger service, and Boeing would not sell TWA until it finished fulfilling the orders for United. I 1933 Douglas designed the DC-1 which was followed by the DC-2. Douglas was then convinced to make changes to the DC-2 so it could be a sleeper aircraft- The DST standing for the Douglas Sleeper Transport flew for the first time on December 17, 1935. It had a cabin that was 92 inches wide and could hold either 14 sleeping berths or 21 seats it became the DC-3.
607 civilian version of the DC-3 was produced and 10,048 of the C-47 and C-53 the military version were built as well. At the end of the war, many of the military planes were converted into civilian aircraft, thus providing a fleet that was the initial backbone of the significantly expanding world of civilian aviation after World War II. The DC -3 proved so versatile and reliable that many of them were still flying in the 1990’s
DC-3 Becomes Commercial Success - History
By the late 1920s, many people (all over the world) were flying. Airline companies were started everywhere. United Air Lines, Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA) and American Airlines all had major operations in the United States. Most of the airlines flew trimotors, like Fokker F-10s and Ford ATs. But the standard of those days was World War I technology, aircraft built around a wooden frame. They flew low and slow and maintenance was a pain in the whatsit. Disaster struck when in those days famous (US) football coach Knute Rockne died in a crash of a TWA Fokker F-10.
All major airlines went in search of a safer and easier to maintain aircraft and Douglas Aircraft Corporation came up with an answer they came up with an aircraft that would evolve into the DC-3, "the Plane that Changed the World".
The Douglas Commercial Type One, a.k.a. DC-1, came about as an answer to the maintenance problems the airlines were having, which were obliged to follow up on maintenance schedules described by the Bureau of Air Commerce (foreruner of the present FAA). Boeing had produced the Model 247, which did the same, but United Air Lines had ordered 60 and Boeing did not have the capacity to produce for others as well. TWA wanted a modern plane too, to the same advanced specifics (initially prescribing a 3-engined aircraft) and went to Douglas.
Douglas produced the DC-1 and roll out at Santa Monica, California happened on 23 june 1933. One difference with the Boeing 247 was immediately clear: passengers could walk upright in the cabin !
TWA had asked Douglas to produce an aircraft that would be able to take off from any TWA destination after one engine failure. Maybe not such a strange request, considering the initial request for a 3-engined aircraft and the unreliability of engines in those days. But Douglas produced the DC-1 with only 2 engines, now what about its performance after an engine failure in take off ? But they pulled it off and this was proven with a test flight on one engine between Albuquerque, New Mexico (the highest point on the TWA route) and Winslow, Arizona. A magnificent feat.
TWA took delivery of the DC-1 in December of 1933 and paid the bill for usd 125.000 (the prototype had cost Douglas $ 807.000 to produce). And TWA showed its confidence and ordered 20 "improved DC-1s" (later redesignated DC-2s).
Meanwhile the U.S. Military had shown interest in the design as well, they were looking for a modern cargo/troops transport.
As a matter of fact, the DC-1 was used by TWA and Douglas to set various speed records, including one trans-continental record of 3.107 miles with an average speed of over 272 mph this "passenger plane" was flying rings around fighter aircraft of those days !
The DC-2 was slightly longer than the DC-1, good for a total of 14 passengers.
The engines initially used were Wright SGR-1820-13 Cyclones. They were good for 875 hp on full take off setting. Except for TWA, the DC-2 was also ordered by the US Navy (5 staff transports, designated R2D-1, 3 for the Navy and 2 for the Marines) and the US Army Air Corps (XC-32 and when WW2 started, impressed (drafted) 24 DC-2s and designated them C-32As).
The US Army also needed a cargo transport and thus was the floor reinforced, all plush seating and furnishings taken out and a large door was cut in the aft portside of the fuselage for cargo loading. This model was designated C-33 and 18 were built.
The US Army also flew 2 C-34s, basically the same as the XC-32.
The C-39 was the top of the line in the military DC-2 variants, and was a cross between the DC-2 and what was to become the DC-3. It had larger vertical and horizontal tail surfaces (solving an instability problem in the DC-1/DC-2 design). The center wing section/engine nacelle assembly and undercarriage were also of the DC-3 design. It had a larger cargodoor and it was powered by Wright R-1820-55 Cyclone engines (975 hp). Deliveries started in 1939 and 35 were built for the USAAF. They were built alongside the DC-3, but the USAAF was not interested in the larger DC-3. not until the Japanese made their attack on Pearl Harbor and everyone scrambled for the DC-3s !
Originally the DC-3 was designed as a luxury sleeper airliner, dealing with the longer distances and longer flighttimes people now wanted to travel. The DC-2 was not wide enough to accommodate a comfortable berth. By a combination of berths and seats, the DC-3-DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport) was designed.
|A brand new DC-3 rolled out from the factory. |
Photo courtesy © Eric Birkeland.
American Airlines (the driving force behind the DC-3 design) introduced it into service on the non-stop New York - Chicago "American Eagle" run in June 1936 and it was an immediate success ! It was immediately followed by orders of other U.S. and overseas airlines. Air travel in the US from coast to coast was reduced to a mere 15 hours !
The big change was that previously operators were depended on mail contracts to make money on their routes, and now with the DC-3, airlines became independent from the US mail contracts as the economics of the aircraft resulted in profits. The price of a DC-3 was in a range of $ 82.000 to 110.000 and as a logical extension of the DC-2, it did not incorporate revolutionary technology, but the actual breakthrough were the economics.
The DC-3 became the standard airliner of the world and put the American aviation industry in a leading position.
The maiden flight was made on 17 December 1935 and by 1937 the production was up and running with a full orderbook, producing in December alone 37 examples.
By the time the US became involved in World War 2 in December 1941, a total of 507 DST/DC-3s had been produced (of which 434 had been delivered to commercial airlines). Many of these were drafted by the military for the war effort.
By initiative of United Air Lines, which had connections with Pratt & Whitney, the DC-3A was produced. It featured the more powerful P & W R-1830 Twin Wasp powerplants. This became the definitive version of the DC-3 for the civil and military operators. The DC-3A went into service with UAL on 30 june 1937 and with UAL too it showed a profit from the start.
Braniff Airlines followed with an order for 4 21-seats DC-3s in August 1939. Pan American Grace Airways (Panagra) in South America was an early customer, Panair do Brasil followed when they got rid of their Sikorsky S.42 flying boats and replaced them by DC-3s. Many other operators followed.
By 1938 the DC-3 was carrying 95 percent of all commercial airline' business in the US and was in use with 30 foreign airlines all over the world.
It was KLM (Holland's "Koninklijke Luchtvaartmaatschappij voor Nederland en Kolonien" under the visionary leadership of its first managing director Dr Albert Plesman) that set the pace in Europe. In 1936 KLM placed an initial order for 11 DC-3s, with 13 more to follow. It replaced the DC-2s on routes to the Far East.
Other early Douglas operators in Europe were Swissair and Air France (with both the DC-2 and DC-3), Aktiebolaget Aerotransport of Sweden, Sabena of Belgium and LOT Polish Airlines. Douglas built the DC-3s for Europe and shipped them across the Atlantic with Fokker in the Netherlands assembling them and making delivery under contract.
For the many military variants, please have a look at my page about the C-47 Skytrain.
After the World War 2, hundreds and hundreds of airfields could be used to set up an air system, using the enormous amount of war surplus transports that became available. The C-47/DC-3 was easily adaptable for all sorts of operations and available in a generous amount. Prices for a secondhand DC-3 ranged from $8.000 to $15.000. Of course, many were scrapped and sometimes confiscated (e.g. by the Chinese Air Force).
The Douglas Aircraft Company put some 21 former military C-47s on the market, that had not been delivered. They were configured to pre-war airline standard with 21 passenger seating. The large cargodoor was replaced by a hinge-down air stair. These were the last DC-3s built, totalling 10.665 ! The last one was cn12276, delivered to Sabena as OO-AWH on 21 March 1947. It crashed in thick fog while landing at London Heathrow on 02 March 1948.
And why did the British name the DC-3 Dakota ? Ian Nel provided the explanation: Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft = DACoTA, hence Dakota !
Thousands of C-47s military transports were converted all over the world, in various configurations, suited for the task in mind. Many improvements were sought, including a four engined version of the DC-3 (a proposal by Douglas, which did not materialize). A "Maximiser"-kit was designed by AiResearch, which resulted in a 20mph increase in speed and a few other benefits.
The one program of modifications that did significantly improve the DC-3, was the Douglas DC-3S (Super DC-3). But that is another story and will be published on this website on another page.
For now, there are still hundreds of the C-47s/DC-3s about, either stored, preserved (sometimes even airworthy) or actually still making money on a commercial basis. And if it wil ever be grounded, it will not be because it went unsuitable for the job at hand, but because of unavailability of the hundred-octane fuel, fuel costs, lack of spare parts and suchlike. But for now I don't see the end of the line, yet (fortunately!).
| In the early-1950s the KLM launched an add campaign in conjunction with SPAR Supermarkets (in the Netherlands). The campaign was titled "For travel: KLM - for the housewife: SPAR". This is one image of that campaign. |
The photo depicts a scene at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and the relaxed atmosphere of people seeing travellers off or merely watching planes arrive and depart, is a far cry from the security paranoia we have to suffer these days (anno 2007)!
My short time with Bowman out of Anderson,SC I flew runs from ATL to CLT, CAE, and RDU for UPS Blue Label. I mainly flew N3BA, but also got time in N4BA (later renumbered N305SF), N18255, N12BA, and N230D later renumbered N19BA. Jake Bowman was really old school and he expected you to get the job done, no matter what, if you know what I mean. Although the loading was easier the flying was the same. I am proud that I got to be apart of the old Gooney Bird and lived to tell about it.
As a side note, my dad flew C-47's in the USAF and almost died trying to pull a gear pin out of N3433H for a souvenir. 33H was parked in a lot just off the Memphis,TN airport where we lived. It was missing wings but was standing on its gear. He forced the pin and the gear collapsed with him in the well ! A friend who was with him got the airport fire department to rescue him. I don't know how they accomplished that, but I do know he was very concerned about the plane falling further and crushing him. He was quite embarrassed over the accident, but was not charged with any criminal act by the owners, Meridan Air Cargo, who had him sign a release saying he would not sue them.
Douglas Propliners DC-1 - DC-7, by Arthur Pearcy, by Airlife (1995). ISBN 185310261X. Excellent book, recommended !.
C-47 Skytrain, in action by Larry Davis for Squadron/Signal Publications (aircraft nbr 149), ISBN 0-89747-329-0.
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The DC-3 is a two-engine, propeller-driven airliner developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company. It has become one of the most well known, and successful, airplanes in aviation history.
The Douglas DC-1
The Douglas DC-1 was the first model of the famous DC commercial transport aircraft series.
The "DC" designation stands for "Douglas Commercial".
The DC-1 had a flat-sided fuselage, a tapered wing, retractable landing gear, and twin 690hp Wright radial engines driving variable-pitch propellers. It accomodated 12 passengers.
Only one DC-1 was produced, making its maiden flight in July of 1933. But it became the basis for the design of the DC-2 and DC-3.
The Douglas DC-2
The new DC-2 was similar in shape to the DC-1 but had more powerful engines, was faster and had a longer range. Its additional 2 feet in length allowed another row of seats, increasing passenger capacity from 12 to 14. It first flew in May of 1934.
Stretching the length of the plane changed its center of gravity, so the wing had to be moved, creating a new transport. The Douglas engineers reviewed the changes and decided to name the new aircraft the Douglas Commercial 2, or DC-2.
The size of the DC-2 allowed crew and passengers to stand erect when walking through the cabin. Passengers boarded and exited on ramps pushed up to rear area of the fuselage.
In addition to its success with commercial airlines, several miliitary variants of the DC-2 were built, including the C-32, C-33, C-39, C-41 and Navy R2D1.
Design work began in 1934 on what would become the DC-3, at the insistence of C.R. Smith, president of American Airlines. Smith wanted two new planes - a longer DC-2 that would carry more day passengers, and another with railroad-type sleeping berths, to carry overnight passengers.
Up until the development of the DC-3, airplanes did not have enough passenger capacity to allow the airlines to be profitable by carrying passengers alone. It was necessary to have government air mail contracts to make up the shortfall. The collaboration between American Airlines and the Douglas Aircraft Company proved invaluable in the design of the famous Douglas DC-3.
United Airlines DC-3 "Mainliner"
The first DC-3 built was the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST), a 14-bed sleeper, also known as Skysleepers by airlines. The plane could accommodate 14 overnight passengers.
The DC-3 day plane, which became the most popular of the DC-3s, was configured in a 21 seat configuration. Included was a galley set up for full food service, including hot meals served on china plates and silverware shaped like the profile of an airplane.
The DC-3 was fast, offered extended range over competing models, was more reliable, and carried passengers in greater comfort. In the pre-WWII years, the DC-3 pioneered many air travel routes. It was able to cross the continental U.S. from New York to Los Angeles in 18 hours and with only 3 stops.
The first DC-3 "Flagship" was delivered to American Airlines in June of 1936, followed two months later by the first standard 21-passenger DC-3. In November of 1936, United Airlines became the second DC-3 customer, launching its "Mainliner" series. Eastern Airlines was another early customer, with its "Great Silver Fleet".
By 1941 the old Air Corps had been transformed into the Army Air Forces, and it selected a modified version of the DC-3, the C-47 Skytrain, to become its standard transport aircraft.
As a supply plane, the C-47 could carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo. It could also hold a fully assembled jeep or a 37 mm cannon. As a troop transport, it carried 28 soldiers in full combat gear. As a medical airlift plane, it could accommodate 14 stretcher patients and three nurses.
C-47 Skytrain "That's All Brother"
Seven basic versions were built, and the aircraft was given at least 22 designations, including the AC-47D gunship, the EC-47 electronic reconnaissance aircraft, the EC-47Q antiaircraft systems evaluation aircraft and the C-53 Skytrooper troop transport version. The C-53 lacked the reinforced cargo floor, large cargo door, and hoist attachment of the basic C-47.
The Navy version was known as the R4D.
It was also used extensively by friendly allies in World War II. The aircraft in allied forces was known as the Dakota, used by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the South African Air Force.
The Lisunov Li-2, originally designated PS-84, was a license-built Soviet version of the Douglas DC-3. A total of over 4,900 aircraft were produced of all Li-2 variants between 1940 and 1954. Several airlines, including Aeroflot, flew the variant.
During World War II, the armed forces of many countries used the C-47 and modified DC-3s for the transport of troops, cargo, and wounded.
Possibly its most influential role in military aviation, however, was flying "The Hump" from India into China. The expertise gained flying "The Hump" would later be used in the 1948 Berlin Airlift, in which the C-47 would play a major role.
The C-47 also earned the informal nickname Gooney Bird in the European theater of operations.
After WWII, Douglas offered a new model to airlines: the DC-3S or "Super DC-3", which was was 39 in longer than the original DC-3. It carried up to 30 passengers, and featured increased speed to compete with newer airliners.
One hundred C-47J aircraft were re-engineered by Douglas and incorporated new wings a new, taller vertical tail modified landing gear and more powerful engines. They entered U.S. Navy service under the designation C-117D.
Total production of the DC-3 and all of its military variants totaled 16,079 aircraft.
Douglas DC-3 and C-47 Side-by-Side Comparison
The military C-47 differed from the commercial aviation DC-3 in numerous modifications that included being fitted with a cargo door, a strengthened floor, a shortened tail cone for glider-towing shackles, and an astrodome in the cabin roof (see comparison below).
Surviving DC-3 Aircraft
Today, many DC-3 remain in operation as private aircraft. Many other surviving C-47 aircraft have been restored and are on static display around the world.
Others have been maintained in air worthy condition, and can be seen on air tours and air shows. The oldest surviving DC-3 is N133D, the sixth Douglas Sleeper Transport built in 1936.
Due its reliability and ruggedness, many claim that "the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3".
Becoming a World War Legend
The onset of WWII saw the last civilian DC-3s built in early 1943. Most were pressed into military service, and the C-47 (or Navy R4D) began rolling out of the company's Long Beach plant in huge numbers. It differed from the DC-3 in many ways, including the addition of a cargo door and strengthened floor, a shortened tail cone for glider-towing shackles, and a hoist attachment. In 1944, the Army Air Corps converted a DC-3 into a glider (XCG-17), and it significantly outperformed the gliders towed by C-47s on D-Day. C-47s served in every theater.
Large numbers of C-47s were freed for use after the war, but airlines swiftly adopted larger, faster DC-4s and DC-6s for main routes. Smaller regional airlines like North Central eagerly snapped up DC-3s sold off by major airlines, while surplus C-47s became an armada of cargo freighters, building the airplane's reputation for being able to carry just about anything you could fit through the door.
Douglas made a longer, more powerful, and faster DC-3S or "Super DC-3" in the late 1940s, meeting with little airline sales success though taken up by the Navy and Marines as the R4D-8/ C-117D.
But really, the basic DC-3/C-47 configuration was so good, it needed little improvement. Its two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines produce 1200 hp each, providing thrust enough to lift 20-plus passengers and baggage or a 6,000-plus pound cargo load. Cruising at 160 to 180 mph, the DC-3 can fly about 1,600 miles, land in less than 3,000 feet, and take off again in less than 1,000 feet. Its low-speed handling and toughness made it the go-to airplane for a myriad of jobs including military special operations.
That included going back to war. In response to increased attacks by Viet Cong on rural South Vietnamese outposts in Vietnam in 1963, American Air Commandos began assisting the defense of small villages at night by using their C-47 transport aircraft to fly in circles and drop illumination flares, exposing attackers to the defending troops. The practice inspired the idea of fitting the C-47s with firepower and ultimately an Air Force effort called Project Gunship I.
The Air Force modified several C-47s by mounting three 7.62 mm General Electric miniguns to fire through two rear window openings and the side cargo door, all on the left side of the aircraft. A gunsight was mounted in the left cockpit window. Orbiting a target at 3,000 feet and 140 mph, the modified "AC-47" could put a bullet into every square yard of a football field-sized target in three seconds.
Another C-47, used as a leaflet-dropping, loudspeaker-equipped psychological warfare aircraft in Vietnam was unofficially called the "Bullshit Bomber."
Captain Ron W. Terry, an Air Force counterinsurgency warfare expert, led a team from the 4th Air Commando Squadron that flew the first AC-47 missions in December, 1964. They were the first of many between late 1964 and early 1969, during which over 6,000 hamlets and firebases came under the protective cover of AC-47s. Not one fell while the aircraft was overhead. Terry returned to the States in 1965 bringing with him information that would lead to development of the AC-130 Hercules.
The start of the jet age – 1952
The next major advance in airplane design was with the introduction of the jet engine. Development work on jet engines began in the 1930s, and the first operational jet aircraft was the German Heinkel He 178 in 1939, and then the Messerschmitt Me 262, which saw military service in Germany from 1947. And in Britain, Boeing introduced the jet-powered B-47 for military use in 1947.
The first passenger jet aircraft though, was the de Havilland Comet, entering service in 1952. While it marked a significant step forward in aviation, this early jet aircraft had a number of serious problems. Most notable were issues with its fuselage, windows, and pressurization. It was not until its fourth iteration, the Comet 4, that the problems were solved and sales increased. But, by this time, other aircraft designers had learned from its mistakes and offered competitive alternatives.
The Boeing 707
There were several successors, and competitors, to the Comet, including the DC-8, Vickers VC-10, the Tupolev Tu-104, and the Boeing 707. These were all interesting aircraft in their own ways, but the 707 stands out as the most successful.
Boeing built on its previous military success with the 707. It used the same Pratt & Whitney turbojet engines as the B-52 Stratofortress, and its original design was intended to double up as a military tanker aircraft. It first flew in December 1957 and remained in production until 1978, with 856 built and delivered to airlines.
While it was not the first commercial jet aircraft, it was the first highly successful one and is often credited as the start of the jet age. It also established Boeing as a dominant civilian manufacturer, with the 7 series continuing, of course, to today.
Boeing incorporated many design elements based on problems with earlier jet aircraft and from customer feedback. This included:
- A wider fuselage, allowing five abreast seating and better cargo payload.
- Moving engines to underwing pods was considered safer in the event of a fire.
- Changes to flap design, and fuselage strengthening.
Adapting to the market – the 737 and the A320
Since the 1950s, there have been fewer fundamental changes to airplane design. Jet engines have remained but improved in power and efficiency, and cabin and cockpit technology has similarly improved but is still based around the same designs and concepts.
Boeing’s evolution to the 737 series shows this well. Following its success with the 707 and 727, it designed a new aircraft to beat the competition and win customers. The aircraft launched in 1967 and offered several design differences from the competition:
- Two engines rather than three or four. This appealed to customers looking to lower costs.
- Engines mounted under the wings, offering easier access and allowing a wider cabin.
- A wider fuselage offering six abreast seating, and handling of standard cargo containers.
The 737 has remained with us since 1967, moving through many variants. Each of these has offered updates to meet airline preferences and demands. This has included, for example, options such as combined cargo models, and adaptions for gravel landing, and an evolving focus on new engine technology and efficiency improvements.
But the base design, fuselage structure, and wing design, for example, have remained much the same. Why change what is already working, when you can improve it instead?
The Boeing 737 has been the most sold aircraft to date, with 10,580 aircraft delivered across all 737 families (according to data from Boeing as of July 2020).
And Airbus has followed a similar model with its A320 family. Since the launch in 1987, Airbus has offered several different sized variants and evolved these to provide technology and efficiency upgrades.
It may have started later than Boeing, but it has also seen tremendous success. The A320 family now beats the Boeing 737 in numbers of aircraft ordered.
How Mail Made Commercial Aviation
On May 15, 1918, the first official U.S. Airmail Service flight took off from Polo Field in Washington D.C. The same model planes took off from Bustleton, Pennsylvania and Belmont Park racetrack in New York. The new service was scheduled to operate between Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City once a day, Monday through Saturday. Before long the service grew to include a route from New York City over the Allegheny Mountains to Chicago, Illinois. Later a route was added from Chicago through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and Nevada into San Francisco, California. During its existence, the Post Office-operated airmail service used several type of airplanes, from wooden biplanes to all metal monoplanes.
The first plane the Airmail Service used was a modification of the Curtiss JN-4D, better known as the “Jenny.” This wooden biplane was also the first trainer plane for many military and civilian pilots and one of the first mass produced planes. While successful for military use, it had to be modified for the mail. The front seat was replaced with a mail compartment and a larger Hispano-Suiza Motor was added for more range. The ship was designated the JN-4H. Jennies were loved and hated and could be a nightmare to fly. One pilot noted that “It is best not to inspect this ship. If you do, will never get in it.” 1
The Airmail Service was originally operated by army pilots, who were familiar with the Jenny from its use as a trainer. Major Reuben Fleet, in charge of the first flights, was given six Jennies, 2 and oversaw the conversion of them from JN-4D to JN-4Hs. They were used, first by the army pilots, than beginning on August 12, 1918, by Post Office Department pilots, who continued to use them until 1921.
When the Post Office Department took charge in August 1918, they had already ordered six Standard J planes that were modified into Standard JR-1B mail planes, making them the first planes designed with airmail in mind. While only used for a short time, they proved reliable for their short stint. The Standard JR-1B was capable of holding 180 lbs. of mail and flying at a top speed of 95 mph. 3 Postal officials with their eyes now on a New York – Chicago route were already seeking planes with a longer range.A Curtis model R-4LM receiving routine maintenance, 1919.
Courtesy of the National Air and Space Archives
The Post Office Department also used the Curtiss R-4LM in their first year of operations. The R-4LM fleet was six planes strong and like the Standard JR-1B, used for a relatively short time. The Curtiss R-4LM was a modified version of the Curtiss Model R, with its front cockpit converted into a cargo hold. The R-4LM proved quite capable and could carry 400 lbs. of mail at a maximum speed of 95 mph. All three of these early planes would soon be replaced by what became the longest-lasting plane in the airmail service, the deHavilland DH-4B.
The Dayton-manufactured deHavilland DH-4 (with modifications and a name change to DH-4B) would become the aircraft that built the airmail service, with over 100 planes in use. The plane was first given by the army to the Post Office as war surplus. The DH-4 had been a successful military aircraft, but as the Post Office discovered after several flights, it needed several alterations before becoming a successful airmail plane. As an airmail plane, the DH-4 had many inherent problems, including a weak frame, poor wing fabric, and landing gear that was too frail for its new mail-carrying weight. 4 The plane was improved with a sturdier, stronger fuselage, a move of the gas tank forward for balance, and a switch of the pilot’s seat from front to back.
The changes had many advantages, not the least of which were crash survival rates (pilots were no longer trapped in crashes between an engine and exploding gas tanks in front and hundreds of pounds of flammable paper in the mail bags in the back). The deadly crash rate of the DH-4s resulted in five deaths in 1920, 5 giving it the nickname the “Flaming Coffin.” 6 The greatly altered plane was dubbed the DH-4B. The DH-4B could hold 500 lbs. of mail and fly as far as 350 miles. The DH-4B also had a lengthened exhaust pipe that kept smoke out of pilot’s faces. The DH-4B was beloved by the pilots for its reliability and control.
From its beginning the airmail service was blazing a trail into the unknown, one of the men charged with making it work was Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Prager. To accomplish this Prager needed bigger and better planes. By the winter of 1919 he was desperate to show Congress that the service could operate on a regular basis between the nation’s two commercial centers – New York and Chicago. If he could not prove that his planes were faster than trains between the two cities, Praeger risked Congressional disapproval, and the end of their willingness to finance the service. Unfortunately, Praeger’s search for faster planes led him to purchase some of the worst planes the service would use. While fast, the Martin MB-1, Twin-DH, and Junkers JL-6, as used by the airmail service were deadly mistakes.
Martin MB-1 Bomber
At first, Prager thought the answer might be in another military plane. The Martin MB-1 Bomber was well thought of by both army and civilian aviators. As used by the Post Office Department it was designated the Martin mail plane. The Martin was chosen for its massively larger carrying capacity of 1,500 lbs. of mail. The plane also had a superior range of 490 miles compared to deHavilland’s 350 miles. The plane was costly at $31,000 per plane in 1919. The cost was too much for the Post Office Department and as popular as it might be, Praeger just could not afford it. It also may not have helped that mechanic Neal Montis was killed and pilot J.P. Harris severely injured in a Martin as the plane’s motor stopped on takeoff, the plane crashing into the field in Cleveland.
Prager was convinced that the popular DH-4Bs could be modified and improved. The modified planes were known as the J-2 or Twin-DH. The Twin-DH was a DH-4B with two Liberty 400 hp motors, one mounted on each wing. The modified deHavilland was radically cheaper, at $7,000. 7 The modifications allowed the Twin-DH to hold more mail, doubling both speed and range. But it was a failure. Introduced early 1920, the Twin-DH planes could only be flown for short distances before excessive vibration problems led to snapped wings and forced landings. 8 Pilot Kenneth Stewart was killed while flying the Twin-DH. That and other crashes, fortunately not fatal, led to its retirement in February 1921. In his enthusiasm for the new plane, Praeger had ordered twenty DH-4B planes turned into Twin-DHs. He was forced to ground the remaining planes and ordered them converted back into DH-4Bs.
Courtesy of the United States Postal Service
Praeger’s third selection was a modification of the Junker F-13, an all-metal single wing aircraft successful in Europe. The plane was brought to the US by John Larson Aircraft and produced under a new name, the Junkers-Larsen JL-6. Praeger ordered eight planes for $200,000 in 1920. 9 The JL-6 used a 185 hp BMW engine, held 1,500 lbs. of mail, and flew at a speed of 100 mph. What seemed like a find would prove to be one of the biggest mistakes in the life of the airmail service. From the start the plane was plagued with problems. The airmail service’s first pilot, Max Miller, noted the plane’s excessive vibration in flight and stated that the plane was very slow. 10 The plane also suffered in test flights, with nine forced landings, four due to leaking fuel lines. 11 Despite these problems, Prager was desperate to get the plane in to service in time for the planned transcontinental routes.
One JL-6 plane crashed near Toledo, Ohio. The pilot survived with severe burns. On September 1, 1920, Miller and airmail mechanic, Gustav Reirson, were killed when their JL-6 caught fire in mid-air and crashed. The plane suffered a known fuel leak problem. 12 After that crash the remaining JL-6 planes were temporarily grounded, but returned to use the following February. Almost immediately Praeger regretted his error. On February 9, 1921, pilots Hiram Rowe, William M. Carroll and mechanic R.B. Hill were flying a JL-6 airplane when it caught fire in midair and exploded upon crashing at Lacrosse, Wisconsin. All three men were killed before help could reach them. At last the JL-6 planes were permanently grounded. No known American Junker-Larson JL-6s exist today, the rest were either scrapped or lost in a warehouse fire.Douglas M-4 painted in Western Air Express colors sits on runway in 1940 for reenactment of Western’s 1926 air flights.
National Postal Museum
Douglas M Family
The next plane purchased by the Post Office Department was the Douglas M-1. As aging DH-4Bs became more expensive to maintain, the airmail service called on airplane manufactures in 1925 for bids on a new plane. The winner was the Douglas Aircraft Company with their Douglas M-1. The plane was superior to the DH-4B as it could fly faster and carry twice as much mail. The plane was put into service in 1926. The plane was successful enough that modified versions followed - the Douglas M-2, M-3, and M-4. The Post Office ordered forty M-4s, ten M-3s, and one M-2.
The planes were the last ones ordered by the Post Office Department. The Air Mail, or “Kelly Act” of 1925 signaled the end of the government controlled airmail service. 13 It paved the way for the growth of commercial airlines and planes that would carry not just mail, but also passengers. The Douglas planes were used by the Post Office until private contractors began taking over in 1926 and 1927. Many of the Douglas mail planes were sold to private mail carriers such as National Air Transport (NAT) and Western Air Express.
The commercial airmail routes were designated by number and known as Commercial Airmail (CAM) Routes. The first five CAM routes were contracted in 1925 to Colonial Air Transport, Inc. (Boston and New York) Robertson Aircraft Corp. (Chicago and St. Louis) National Air Transport, Inc. (Chicago and Dallas) Western Air Express, Inc. (Salt Lake City and Los Angeles) and Walter T. Varney (Elko, Nevada, and Pasco, Washington). Contracted airmail service proceeded slowly over the next two years. The Post Office retained control of the transcontinental New York – San Francisco route, making its last flight on that route on September 9, 1927.
The new companies hired some of the government pilots to fly the routes and purchased many of the government planes. But as the companies looked to expand their routes and add passengers, they began ordering new aircraft, sparking a growth in the nation’s aircraft industry.Curtiss Carrier Pigeon sits in the snow ready for a night flight in winter of 1926.
National Postal Museum
Curtiss Carrier Pigeon
The Curtiss Carrier Pigeon was designed specifically for airmail service. It was one of the first aircraft built with night flying in mind. 14 Ten Pigeons were purchased by National Air Transport (NAT). The Carrier Pigeon was slower than the Douglas M-2 but capable of carrying the same amount of mail. It was used on NAT’s nighttime CAM routes. The plane helped NAT succeed on their CAM 3 route beginning on May 12, 1926. 15 The Carrier Pigeon was used again by NAT to open their second route, CAM 17 in September 1927 between New York and Chicago. 16 The Carrier Pigeon was retired in 1929 and replaced with faster Curtiss models.A Ford 5-AT sits on an airfield runway with its cargo door open, taking mail from a waiting mail truck. The large plane had three motors and a single wing across its top.
National Postal Museum
The Ford 2-AT was an iconic plane of the interwar period in airmail history. In 1924 Henry Ford announced that his Ford Motor Company would enter the airplane business. Ford had purchased Stout Metal Air Plane Co. and with their lead engineers produced the Ford 2-AT, an all metal monoplane. The plane utilized elements from earlier planes (such as the infamous Junkers JL-6) to produce its successful design. The plane was nicknamed the “Tin Goose” by the newspapers for its metal corrugated skin. 17 The 2-AT could carry as much as 1280 lbs. of mail and fit six passengers comfortably. 18 The 2-AT was mainly used by Ford for their two CAM routes, CAM 6 (Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan to Cleveland, Ohio), and CAM 7 (Detroit and Dearborn to Chicago). They were used on these routes from February 16, 1926 until July 1928 when Ford sold the routes to Stout Air Company. The 2-AT was replaced by its bigger brothers the Ford 4-AT and 5-AT. The Ford 4-AT, introduced in 1926, was based on the 2-AT but with the addition of two motors placed on the wings, giving it the distinctive nickname “Tri-motor.” The plane was a commercial success. The Tri-motor could carry 1725 lbs. of mail and 11 passengers. The 4-AT had the advantage of over 900 hp thanks to its three Wright J-6 Motors. 19 The plane was used by several airlines, including Trans World Airlines, Texas Air Transport, American Airlines, United, Ford’s own airline, and Pan American World Airways. It was one of the first planes to be commonly across the airline industry.A Waco 9 at National Air and Space Museum storage at the Paul E. Garber facilities in 1972.
Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum
The Waco 9 put Waco Aircraft Company on the map with its large production run of 276 planes. It was favored by barnstormers and for general purpose flying. 20 The Waco 9 was a slow plane, considered underpowered with a 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 motor, and known to roll over on its back very easily. 21 Despite these problems the plane sold well and led to later models such as the Waco 10. The plane had a range of 375 miles and could carry 385 lbs. of mail. Clifford Bell used three Waco 9s on his CAM 11 route (Cleveland, Ohio to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). The Waco 9s were flown as late as 1934.
The Swallow OX-5 biplane, also known as the “New Swallow,” was first introduced in 1924 by the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Company. The plane was small, with a 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 motor, could carry only 360 lbs. of mail, and had a range of 500 miles. 22 The plane was used extensively by Walter T. Varney for Varney Air Lines. His company used six Swallows on CAM 5 (Elko, Nevada and Pasco, Washington). The Swallows began flying the route on April 6, 1926 and were used until it was acquired by United Airlines. 23
Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum
Pitcairn PA-5 Mail Wing
The Pitcairn PA-5 Mail Wing was the first of the Mail Wing series. The plane was used by the Post Office at the end of their operations in 1927. Private contractors operating some of the new CAM routes purchased some of the planes, including Texas Air Transport (TAT) for CAM 21 (Dallas and Galveston, Texas), and CAM 22 (Dallas and San Antonio, Texas). The Pitcairn Company also ran its own mail routes and used eight PA-5s on CAM 19 and 25. 24 The PA-5 was also used by Eastern Airlines after they acquired Pitcairn’s CAM routes in 1930. Eastern retired the planes in 1934. A few PA-5s were used by NAT on CAM routes 3 and 17. As its name suggest, the Pitcairn PA-5 Mail Wing was built as a mail plane. It could hold 500 lbs. of mail, which was less than some of its competitors at the time. It could reach a speed of 130 mph. The plane would lead to later Pitcairn models such as the Pitcairn PA-7 Mail Wing.
Boeing Model 40
The Boeing Model 40 was constructed as a mail plane in 1925, intended to replace the Post Office deHavillands. It was used on Boeing’s CAM 18 (Chicago, Illinois and San Francisco, California). Boeing Air Transport also used the next plane in the series, Model 40A, on CAM 18 between 1927 and 1934. 25 The Model 40A had a 525 hp single Pratt and Whitley “Hornet” motor and could carry 800 lbs. of mail and passengers for 535 miles on a tank of gas. A later model, the 40B had a bigger cabin and could carry four passengers. Thirty-eight 40B planes had been built by 1929. The planes were produced until 1932 when newer models such as the Boeing Monomial and Boeing model 80 were built.This “Woolaroc” Travel Air 5000 plane won the 1927 Dole air race.
Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum Archives
Travel Air 5000
A more obscure mail plane was the Travel Air 5000, introduced in 1927. The plane was built by the Travel Air Manufacturing Company and only 14 were produced. The plane was mainly used by National Air Transport, which bought five planes for use on CAM 3 in 1927. The plane had an impressive 675-725 miles range and could carry 750 lbs. of mail along with five passengers. 26 One of the Travel Air 5000 planes, nicknamed the “Woolaroc,” gained fame for winning the infamous 1927 Dole Air Race 27 from Oakland to Hawaii. It survives today as one of two Travel Air 5000s. National Air Transport retired its Travel Air 5000 in 1930.
Pitcairn PA-7S Mail Wing
In 1930 Pitcairn improved their PA-5 Mail Wing with the PA-7M. The PA-7M, also known as the Super Mail Wing, could carry 636 lbs. of mail and flew faster than the PA-5 at 135 mph. The plane used a J6 Wright 240 hp motor. Pitcarin used the PA-7M on CAM 19 (New York City and Atlanta, Georgia). Only eight PA-7Ms were made. Their production was cut short by the production of the new PA-8 only a few months later.
Boeing 221 Monomail
Boeing took a leap into the future of aviation in 1930 with the Monomail. This aircraft was ahead of its time, with retractable landing gear, a smooth streamlined body, and single wings set off from the bottom of the fuselage. The remarkable design, however, was more advanced than the engines or propellers of the age. Only two Monomail planes were ever built, models 200 and 221. The Monomial 200 was an all-cargo mail model that could carry 2280 lbs. of mail at 158 mph. 28 The Monomail 221 carried six passengers and 750 lbs. of mail. 29 Both planes had 575hp Pratt and Whitney “Hornet B” motors, a lit instrument panel, and shock absorbers in the landing gear.
Both the 200 and 221 Monomail planes were converted into model 221A for transcontinental passenger services. That model could hold eight passengers. The original Monomail 200 had been converted into a 221A before it crashed in 1935. The other plane was likely retired and scrapped by Boeing after 1933.
The Sikorsky S-42 was one of the first commercially successful seaplanes. The US Navy experimented with the seaplanes and private manufacturers for years and a few were used in early flights between Florida and Cuba. The S-42 was introduced to the public by Pan American airways in 1934. The plane was quite powerful thanks to its four 750hp Pratt and Whitney motors. 30 A Sikorsky S-42 could carry 2,000 lbs. of mail along with 36 passengers. 31
The plane was used by Pan American World Airways on routes between Miami and South America on their Foreign Airmail (FAM) 5 (Miami and Central and South America) and FAM 17 (Baltimore, Maryland and Bermuda). These planes showed how luxurious flying could be. The S-42 had full sized beds for passengers, a complete kitchen and staff who could cook three course meals. 32 The plane could reach 190 mph and set a flight record between Hawaii and San Francisco, California of 17 hours and 57 min on a survey flight to China in 1935. 33 No S-42s survive today. Six have crashed and sank and the other four were scrapped by Pan Am after the adoption of later clipper models such as the Martin M-130. There are a few cousins of the S-42s in museums across the US such as the Sikorsky S-39s, S-40s, and S-43s.
The Douglas DC-3 is an iconic plane that marked the explosion of commercial air travel in the US and the final transition for airlines from a reliance on mail to passengers for paying their bills. The Douglas DC-3 originally flew in 1935 and was quickly adopted by airlines across the country. The plane demonstrated how far Douglas had come since the M-2 and how rapidly aircraft technology had evolved in ten years. The plane could carry 28 passengers and 2083 lbs. of mail at 183 mph. 34 American Airlines purchased 37 DC-3s as the foundation of its iconic “Flag ship Fleet” in 1937. 35 Pan Am used the DC-3 for its North American routes. United Airlines had six DC-3s that were used as late as 1956. By 1938, 95 percent of the planes flying in commercial air traffic were DC-3s. 36
By 1936 the aims of the Kelly Act finally came to fruition. What had begun in 1918 as a government operation to move mail across the country faster had transitioned in the late 1920s and early 1930s to the government, through the Post Office, assisting private companies in a quest to create a steady and broad commercial airlines service. Airlines that could barely survive in their early years found that airmail contracts not only kept them alive, but provided the funding to explore bigger and better airplanes, airplanes that could finally rely on passengers for the bulk of their revenues. Without the Post Office and its mail contracts, the nation’s commercial aviation system and airline manufacturers would not have become the giants of American industry that they are today.
1) Stites Sam. March 15, 1935. NASM Archives AC-901948-01
2) Leary, William M. Aerial Pioneers: The U.S. Air Mail Service 1918-1927. Smithsonian Institute Press. 1985. Pg. 33
3) Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Archives AS-782090-01
5) Nielson Dale. Saga of The U.S. Air Mail Service 1918-1927. Air Mail Pioneers, INC. 1962. Pg.99
6) McAllister Bruce, Davidson Jesse. Wing Across America. Round Up Press. 2004. Pg 114.
15) Liberman Alan, American Air Mail Routes Catalogue. Vol. 1. 7th Edition. National Air Mail Society. 2016. Pg. 23.
16) Liberman Alan, American Air Mail routes Catalogue. Vol. 1. 7th Edition. Pg. 96.
23) Liberman Alan, American Air Mail routes Catalogue. Vol. 1. 7th Edition. Pg. 36.
24) Liberman Alan, American Air Mail routes Catalogue. Vol. 1. 7th Edition. Pg. 112
25) Liberman Alan, American Air Mail routes Catalogue. Vol. 1. 7th Edition. Pg. 102
27) Of the eight planes that were in the race, two crashed on takeoff, three went missing during the race. Only two planes landed safely in Hawaii.
Douglas C-47/DC-3 “Cheeky Charlie”
Twin-engine Military Transport and Cargo Aircraft with a Crew of Three
Figure 1: The Cheeky Charley in Hawaii, in Military Camouflage Source: www.oldprops.ukhome.net
- The C-47 “Gooney Bird” was a military version of the Douglas DC-3, which entered service in 1936. The DC-3 is one of the most important transport aircraft of all time.
- More than 16,000 civilian and military versions of the DC-3 were built.
- C-47s could carry 28 passengers or 6,000 pounds of cargo, at a cruising speed of 160 mph, over a range of up to 1,600 miles. Civilian DC-3s normally served 21 passengers in seven rows of seats, with two on one side an isle and one on the other.
- C-47s were used everywhere in World War II. They hopped among in the Pacific to fly long distances. They also flew supplies “over the hump” from India to China.
- After World War II, most C-47s and other military variants were sold as surplus to airlines, making the DC-3 dominant for short and medium routes for decades afterward.
- In Vietnam, some C-47s were converted into AC-47 “Spooky” gunships. Each Spooky had three 6-barrel 7.62 mm miniguns that fired out the side of the aircraft. Each minigun could fire up to 6,000 RPM or 4,000 RPM, depending on the model. Spookies flew pylon turns around ground targets.
- Our aircraft served in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945. One of its names was “Cheeky Charley.” Afterward, it was used by a series of Australian airlines. When used by the Australian National Airlines, it was called “Tarrana” (Kangaroo). In 1972, Charley flew to Hawaii to handle commercial cargo service. While here, it had cameo roles in two movies—Pearl Harbor and Outbreak. During its time at Genavaco Corporation, it was used for interisland cargo operations in 1976. Genevaco called her “Tyranna.”
- By the end of its war service, this aircraft had flown a little over 3,000 hours. By the end of her civilian life, this was 55,000 hours. In April 2012, Charley was towed from the Honolulu International Airport to its new home, Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.
The Boeing website states that the Douglas DC-3 “is universally recognized as the greatest airplane of its time. Some would say that it is the greatest of all time.” Certainly there is no doubt that passenger versions of the DC-3 introduced new levels of speed, comfort, and range. Beginning in 1936, DC-3s carried people across the U.S. continent with “only” three refueling stops and in less than 18 hours. When World War II became imminent, production shifted to military versions. The main USAAF variant was the C-47 Skytrain, which the British Commonwealth called the Dakota. Over 16,000 civilian and military versions of the DC-3 were built, including 607 civilian DC-3s, over 10,000 C-47s and other U.S. military variants, almost 5,000 Lisunov Li-2 in the USSR, and even 487 Showa L2Ds with Mitsubishi Kinsei engines in Japan.
Figure 2: Japanese Showa L2D Source: Wikipedia, Showa/Nakajima L2D
The DC-3 Emerges
Douglas introduced its DC-2 in 1932, with encouragement from TWA. (Only a single DC-1 prototype was built). The DC-2 could carry 14 passengers or 3,600 pounds of cargo. In comparison, the competing Boeing 247 could only carry 10 passengers. Figure 3 shows that the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 shared a strong family resemblance.
Figure 3: Douglas DC-2 Source: Wikipedia, Douglas DC-2
Surprisingly, the DC-3 almost did not get built. American Airlines pushed Douglas to produce a larger aircraft that could carry more passengers and have sleeper berths. Douglas was reluctant to do so given the success of the DC-2 and uncertainty about the commercial viability of a larger aircraft. However, Douglas relented when American guaranteed an order for 20 of the aircraft. This became the Douglas Sleeper Transport.
Figure 4: Douglas Sleeper Transport Source: California State College
Douglas then extended this design to be the iconic DC-3, which carried 21 passengers with traditional seating in 7 rows of 3. A legend was born.
Figure 5: DC-3 Seating Source: California State College
Figure 6: DC-3 Cockpit Source: Paul Phelan, Aviation Advertiser
Today, we think of the DC-3 as a relic. When it came out, however, it was the latest and greatest thing in passenger speed, comfort, and range. A Douglas advertisement placed a DC-3 by a Cord Speedster to show their similar lines and to emphasize the new airplane’s performance.
Figure 7: Douglas DC-3 and Cord Speedster Source: Boeing
Figure 8: Norwegian Douglas DC-3 at the Duxford Air Show, 2007 Source: [email protected]
From its introduction in 1936, the DC-3 revolutionized the air transport industry. It was an advanced design with multi-cellular wings and an autopilot. Its innovative design won the Collier Trophy that year. The president of American Airlines said that the DC-3 was the first airliner that was profitable with passenger carriage alone, without government subsidies. Other airlines were quickly sold on the $160,000 DC-3 as well. By the beginning of 1939, an astounding 90% of the world’s passengers were flying on DC-2s or DC-3s.
The C-53 Skytrooper
As war came closer, the USAAF began to take over DC-3s originally destined for the airlines. The first of these military DC-3s was the C-53 Skytrooper, which was little-changed from the DC-3. It was designed to carry 28 paratroopers into combat.
Figure 9: Paratroopers U.S. Library of Congress, fsa.8e0022.
Figure 10: Paratroopers Deploying Source: Imperial War Museum, 4700-30 BU 1162.
The C-53 was also designed to tow gliders. Normally, the glider would trail the aircraft at take-off.
Figure 11: C-47 Taking Off, Towing a Glider Source: Imperial War Museum, 4700-06 EA 37974.
For field recovery, the C-53 would snag a tow line, yanking the glider into the air. It was even possible to tow a pair of gliders.
Figure 12: Retrieving a Glider U.S. National Archives, 342-FH-3A20143-82467AC
The Definitive C-47 Skytrain
Given the cargo limitations of the C-53, the USAAF purchased only about 380 Skytroopers. Then production began on the improved C-47 Skytrains. Douglas built more than 10,000 C-47s. However, the first C-47 did not fly until just after the Pearl Harbor attack, so civilian DC-3s and C-53s had to hold the line until massive numbers of C-47s began to appear.
Figure 13: C-47s in Flight Source: U.S Air Force Photo
Compared to DC-3s and C-53s, C-47s had strengthened floors for carrying cargo and stronger landing gears. However, their most visible feature was their double-wide doors designed to facilitate cargo loading and unloading. It was even possible to push a ramp up to the door and drive a jeep inside.
Figure 14: C-47s and R4Ds in the Berlin Airlift Source: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation
Figure 15: Driving a Jeep into a C-47 Source: USAAF Photograph at Lonesentry.com
More versatile than the C-53, the C-47 quickly became the standard model, even taking over paratroop insertion. Soon, the C-47 “Gooney Birds” were everywhere in the war. They were especially important in the Pacific, where they island-hopped to fly very long missions. They especially also critical in moving supplies “Over the Hump” from India to China after Burma fell.
For wounded soldiers, its ability to do medical evacuation was literally a life saver. The situation inside was crude by modern standards, but the C-47 was the only option in most theaters.
Figure 16: Medical Evacuation Source: United States Army Air Forces
The Navy version of the C-47 was the RD4. In the World War II Navy designation system, R stood more-or-less for transport, and 4D indicated that this was the fourth transport aircraft from Douglas.
Figure 17: Navy R4D Source: United Kingdom, public domain.
After the War
After the war, the armed forces dumped most of their C-47s and other military versions of the DC-3 on the civilian market. Airlines quickly converted this flood of aircraft into civilian cargo and passenger airplanes. Although DC-3s lacked the range of the new four-engine civilian aircraft that were becoming popular for longer flights, their extremely low cost, high reliability, and ability to land everywhere made them a natural for almost everything else. DC-3s dominated the civilian aircraft market for many years, and the aircraft’s lifespan was lengthened by such extensions as turbofan engines. Quite a few DC-3s are still in use.
Vietnam EC-47s and AC-47s Spooky
Although the Air Force reduced its C-47 inventory after World War II, it continued to use Gooney Birds heavily. In Vietnam, in addition to C-47s providing passenger and cargo services, EC-47s took on electronic warfare tasks. They quickly became known as the “Electric Gooneys.”
More dramatically, the C-47s were finally given guns and redesignated AC-47s. Three six-barrel 7.62 mm General Electric miniguns would fire out the left side of the aircraft. One fired through the open door, the other two through windows. These AC-47s were called Spookies or Dragons (after Puff the Magic Dragon).
Figure 18: AC-47 Gunship with Its Three Miniguns Visible Source: Marine Aviation Museum
In action, the C-47 flew a pylon circle on the targets. Initially able to fire up to 6,000 rounds per minute from each minigun (later up to 4,000 rounds per minute to conserve ammunition), the AC-47s could fire a devastating volume of bullets into any target that lacked strong anti-aircraft defenses. The pilot was the actual gunner, controlling the weapons through a button on the control yoke and using a camera viewfinder attached to the left window to aim the gunfire. AC-47s were soon joined by the much more powerful and more heavily armed AC-130 gunships.
Figure 19: AC-47 Gunship Pass Source: Marine Aviation Museum
Figure 20: AC-47 Gunship in Pylon Turn Source: Marine Aviation Museum
Our C-47, which was called Cheeky Charley during its World War II career, had a distinguished service record in the Pacific. Afterward, it operated in Australia until 1972, when it was transferred to Hawaii. It came to Pacific Aviation Museum in April, 2012. It’s service life exceeded 50,000 flight hours.
Our C-47 was completed at the Douglas Long Beach Plant in October 1943.
It was built as a C-47-A-65-DL.
Douglas serial number was 18949.
USAAF serial number was 42-100486.
Service in World War II
Delivered to the 5 th Air Force at Brisbane on December 12, 1943.
Operated by 40 th TCS as “Cheeky Charley” with nose number 32.
Also operated by the 6 th TCS, the 67 th TCS, and the 68 th TCS.
How The DC-3 Changed Air Travel Forever
The Douglas DC-3 is widely regarded as one of the most important developments in commercial passenger aviation. Entering service way back in 1936, the Douglas DC-3 immediately showed its capabilities as a passenger aircraft. Alongside its military counterpart, the C-47 Skytrain/C-53 Skytrooper, the Douglas DC-3 remained in operation in many different capacities for decades. Below we’ll explain why the Douglas DC-3 was so important.
The Douglas DC-3 was developed at the request of American Airlines CEO, C.R. Smith. Smith wanted a long-distance sleeper aircraft which would allow American Airlines to transport passengers across the US.
The Douglas DC-3 was developed on the existing platform of its predecessors, the Douglas DC-1 and DC-2. It was larger than these previous models, coming in both 21-seater ‘daytime’ airliner and 14-16 berth sleeper versions.
Immediately upon release with American Airlines on 26 June 1936, the Douglas DC-3 proved itself to be a step above any other commercial passenger aircraft released to date.
Other airlines in America, Europe and even further afield soon recognized the DC-3’s capabilities.
By the time the second world war broke out, the DC-3 was in use around the world.
What made the DC-3 such a success?
Before the DC-3 came along, airlines were still struggling to make long-distance passenger aircraft a commercial success.
The Douglas DC-3’s predecessor, the DC-2, had made good progress towards airlines’ goal of an aircraft which could transport more than 10 passengers over considerable distances. But it still wasn’t ideal.
One problem with the DC-2 was the size of its cabin, which was too narrow to fit side-by-side berths.
The Douglas DC-3 was built with an extra 60 cm of cabin width, which allowed airlines to fit in more seats and sleeper berths for long-distance journeys.
It was also fitted with much more powerful Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines, which each produced 1,200 hp. By comparison, the DC-2 was fitted with two engines ranging from 710 to 875 hp.
The upgraded engines allowed the Douglas DC-3 to cruise at 207 mph which, although sluggish in today’s terms, was very impressive for an airliner of its size back in the 1930s.
The Douglas DC-3 could also operate on short runways and had a range of 1,500 miles. This made it perfect for transcontinental flights across the US and Europe.
The Douglas DC-3’s military career
Because of its reliability, simplicity and adaptability, the Douglas DC-3 was soon called into action when World War Two broke out.
The DC-3 was modified for military use, primarily as the C-47 Skytrain. A specialized troop transport version, called the C-53 Skytrooper, was also built.
The C-47 Skytrain served extensively for the Allies during World War Two, transporting cargo, troops and various other supplies.
But the C-47 Skytrain’s military career did not end with victory in World War Two. It went on to serve in the Vietnam War, where some examples were modified to operate as minigun-equipped gunships.
Remarkably, the C-47 Skytrain remained in service with the US military until 2008, when the 6 th Special Operations Squadron retired its last C-47, a British-made C-47 Dakota.
While the C-47 Skytrain has left military service, there are many Douglas DC-3s still in operation in a civilian capacity around the world.
In 1947, AVCO sold its controlling share Convair to American investment firm, Atlas Corporation. Seven years later, in 1954, Atlas Corporation would sell the company to General Dynamics, where it would become the Convair division of General Dynamics.
Over the course of developing both the CV-880 and CV-990, General Dynamics had sunk a fortune into both aircraft, with the combined 102 copies sold not even covering a fraction of the jets’ development costs.
Not wanting to ever repeat this again, General Dynamics forbade Convair engineers from designing new aircraft in its entirety.
On the surface of things, it appeared as though Convair had gotten out of the aviation game, instead focusing on producing military aircraft. In reality, however, Convair had simply removed the risk.
You see, General Dynamics accountants had realized that the commercial aviation industry was growing at a rate far greater than they’d expected, with aircraft manufacturers having far too many orders to fulfill.
Having the production lines and trained staff (who’d built the CV-880 and CV-990), General Dynamics’ Convair subsidiary soon began negotiating contracts to become a sub-contractor for civil aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas.
Although it occasionally did other sub-contracting jobs, Convair’s specialty was manufacturing aerostructures and airframes, building the airframes for the 747-100, 747-200s, Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, DC-10 and MD-11.
This is something it would do from 1965 until the subsidiary’s dissolution in 1996.
Douglas R4D-8 (Super DC-3)
The Douglas R4D-8 emerged from an unsuccessful attempt by Douglas to extend the commercial lifespan of the aging DC-3. At the end of the Second World War a vast number of DC-3s, C-47s, C-53s and Dakotas flooded onto the commercial market, but by the end of the 1940s many of these aircraft were threatened by increasingly strict Civil Air Regulations in the United States, and the looming expiry of their airworthiness certificates in 1952.
Douglas responded by developing a modified version of the DC-3, the DC-3S or Super DC-3, which could be produced by upgrading existing aircraft. The new aircraft had a stronger longer fuselage, with room for 30 passengers. The passenger door was moved forward, and the door itself could be used as the boarding stairs. Both the vertical and horizontal tail surfaces were enlarged, and given square tips, improving the single-engine performance of the aircraft. The engine nacelles were modified so that they could carry either 1,475hp Wright Cyclone engines or 1,450hp Pratt & Whitney R-200-D7 radial engines, and to allow the wheels to be fully enclosed. Finally the outer panels of the wing were shortened, and 4 degrees of sweepback was added to the trailing edges.
The first modified aircraft made its maiden flight on 23 June 1949, and was a technical success. Payload increased, while top speed went up by 40mph and cruising speed by 44mph. Unfortunately the aircraft was a commercial failure. Despite its improved performance, the Super DC-3 still trailed behind newer aircraft (most notably the Convair Liner series), which appealed to the larger airlines, while smaller airlines were eventually able to get their DC-3s recertified. Only four commercial aircraft were sold.
An attempt to interest the USAF was no more successful. The first prototype was evaluated as the YC-47F (after a short spell as the YC-129), but was rejected in favour of the Convair C-131, based on the Liner. The aircraft was then passed on to the Navy, and finally found a customer.
After evaluating the aircraft during 1951, the US Navy awarded Douglas with a contract to convert 100 of their existing R4D-5s, -6s and 7s to the new standard, with the designation R4D-8. They retained this designation until 1962, when under the combined Department of Defence system they became the C-117D.
Three special versions of the R4D-8 were developed &ndash the R4D-8T (TC-177D) trainer, the R4D-8Z (VC-117D) staff transport and the R4D-8L (LC-117D) cold weather aircraft.
The Navy&rsquos R4D-8s saw combat in Korea, where they were used for night drops and as flareships, to illuminate areas under attack at night. In Vietnam most were used as conventional transport aircraft, but some were used as electronic monitoring aircraft.
Engines: Wright R-1820-80 x2
Power: 1,475hp each
Crew: Three plus 33 passengers
Wing span: 90ft
Length: 67ft 9in
Height: 18ft 3in
Empty weight: 19,537lb
Maximum weight: 31,000lb
Maximum speed: 270mph at 5,900ft
Cruising speed: 251mph
Maximum range: 2,500 miles
McDonnell Douglas Corporation
McDonnell Douglas was formed in 1967 through the merger of Douglas Aircraft Company with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Douglas Aircraft originated in 1921, when the American aircraft designer Donald Douglas established Douglas Company as a successor to a company he had cofounded the previous year. Douglas Company built its early reputation with the World Cruiser, a single-engine biplane that, in 1924, became the first aircraft to fly around the world. The company was restructured in 1928 as Douglas Aircraft Company, and a few years later it began building its “DC” (Douglas Commercial) series of passenger planes. The twin-engine DC-3, first flown in 1935, became the model for future commercial aircraft through its unprecedented level of comfort, reliability, high speed, and, above all, low maintenance cost. Together with its military derivative, the C-47 Skytrain transport, the DC-3 became the best-selling commercial airframe in history, with a production run of 10,300. During World War II Douglas Aircraft contributed some 29,000 warplanes, one-sixth of the U.S. airborne fleet.
After the war the company continued to dominate the commercial air routes with its piston-engine DC-6 (first flown in 1946) and DC-7 (1953), whose range made possible nonstop coast-to-coast service. It also developed a number of military jets and missiles, including the A4D Skyhawk (first flown in 1954), a compact, carrier-based attack bomber the Nike series of antiaircraft and anti-ballistic-missile missiles in the 1950s and ’60s and the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile (first launched in 1957), which later became a first-stage space launcher and gave rise to the Delta family of launch vehicles. In 1965 Douglas first flew its twin-engine DC-9 short-haul commercial jetliner, which became the company’s most successful transport since the DC-3.