What made the DC-3 such a versatile platform? Despite a gross weight of more than 25,000 pounds, the roaring 1,200-hp radial engines put out enough power to get the airplane off the ground in as little as 900 feet. The airplane by no means takes off like a rocket, however. Like an old man getting out of a couch, the big airplane slowly levitates off the ground in the same relaxed fashion as it responds to roll inputs. To any pilot who has had the pleasure of sitting at the controls, flying the DC-3 is a truly special experience.
When Donald Douglas and his engineers designed the DC-3 in the early 1930s, he was way ahead of his time, proven by the longevity and versatility of the airplane. There are hundreds of DC-3s and C-47s still flying today, more than 75 years after the introduction of the design, and with decades of operation and tens of thousands of hours logged on these massive airframes, each airplane has a rich history. The capability of serving in seemingly limitless missions has taken the twin-radial-engine airplane from airline and military service to executive and cargo transport and anything in between.
American Airlines’ leader, C.R. Smith, commissioned the Gooney Bird, as the airplane has amicably been called, as the Douglas Sleeper Transport. Smith’s mission with the DST was to carry passengers overnight from coast to coast. With a range of about 1,600 nm, the DC-3 achieved that goal, completing the trip in about 15 hours. But despite the airplane’s ability to fly above 26,000 feet, most operators chose to fly at 10,000 feet and below because of the lack of pressurization.
The DST was configured for 14 passengers, but the DC-3 was capable of carrying up to 27 airline passengers with luggage. Some reports say the DC-3 was the first airliner capable of profitable flights without being subsidized as a mail carrier. As a result, the airplane became an early favorite with the airlines. In 1939, 90 percent of airline traffic was transported in DC-3s and its older, smaller sibling, the DC-2.
But the airline legacy was only the beginning for the DC-3. Most of the thousands of DC-3s that rolled out of the Douglas factory were designated as C-47s, serving in various military capacities. These were slightly modified, with a reinforced floor and two large cargo doors, as a replacement for the much narrower air-stair door. The C-47 could haul up to 28 soldiers or about 6,000 pounds of cargo. In addition, it flew reconnaissance and psychological warfare missions, and even acted as a gunship for ground attacks.
Another unexpected military use for the C-47 was as a glider tow airplane. When an airstrip was too short for a safe landing, the C-47 could fly low and slow over the field and “snatch” the glider off the ground.
After the wartime efforts, many C-47s were converted to DC-3s and used for such varied missions as mail and cargo delivery, executive transport, flight training, skydiving and aerial tours, just to name a few. While some current operators still use the DC-3 for what it was originally intended — transport of people or cargo — many of the flying DC-3s are now owned by museums, where they have taken on a new roll as a historical platform. Whether visitors are simply there to look at the airplane on the ground or ride as passengers to either relive a past experience or to see a historic airplane for the first time, the DC-3 is a crowd-pleaser.
With the conventional gear that tilts the fuselage aft and points the nose proudly to the sky, the big props that turn the large radial engines sit well off the ground. There are not many airliners today that can land on unimproved airstrips, but the DC-3 shines on dirt and grass.
With such versatility, it is no wonder that well over 10,000 DC-3s and C-47s were built in the United States and several thousand DC-3 replicas were built under license in Russia as Lisunov Li-2s. The DC-3 may not be nimble, but it gets the job done reliably and efficiently. — P.B.