DC-3: An Airplane for the Ages

City of Portland was an early Douglas Sleeper Transport operated by United Airlines. Getty Images

First flown on December 17, 1935, the Douglas DC-3, an iteration of the DC-1 and DC-2, married reliability with performance and comfort in a way no other airplane had before.

So much greater than the sum of its parts, an apt description for an airplane that has earned the right to be called “timeless” more so than any other. The Douglas DC-3 saw service for the airlines and in wartime (World War II, Korea and Vietnam), hauling cargo and corporate officers alike in every corner of the world. Hundreds still fly today, connecting us with an aviation thread that continues on.

Douglas Aircraft Co. entered the nascent aviation industry in rooms behind a barber shop on Pico Boulevard in 1920s Los Angeles at a time when Hollywood’s tinsel had yet to sparkle, and the promise of the Transportation Age still percolated in the minds of a few critical geniuses, among them Donald Douglas. As a young aeronautical engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Douglas envisioned the triumvirate of economic efficiency, safety and passenger comfort that would make air transportation encircling the globe possible — and its fullest expression came a decade later when the first Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) went on order from American Airlines’ C.R. Smith. That “airplane that looks like a real airplane” morphed into the Douglas Commercial “3” model — or DC-3. Seven DSTs preceded that original DC-3, which became far more popular in its daytime version than the DST.

Two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engines power most DC-3s and their military variants, but early versions (including the DST) originally featured the Curtiss-Wright R-1820 Cyclones. Today, modern conversions ply the skies using Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67Rs in the Basler Turbo model BT-67. While the engines put forth a mighty roar, they provided plenty of power to fit an even greater mission than the airlines had in mind.

More than 10,000 were built in total, the majority of those military versions of the DC-3 manufactured between 1941 and 1944 in Douglas plants across the country ramping up for World War II. Most of those C-47s took on their 50,000-plus rivets at the production site at Long Beach Airport in California. Many were stitched together by the women who kept the production lines moving throughout the war. They not only built airframes but also all the parts to keep them going — and those piles of primer-green parts stockpiled during the war ensured the fleet could fly on long after the war ended.

Eighty years after its first flight in December 1935, the DC-3 remains relevant and revered because it fulfilled so many roles, carrying millions of passengers aloft for the first time, and playing a key factor in turning the tide of World War II for the Allied forces. Each mission required a tweak to the airplane’s basic capabilities: a sturdy airframe, built to withstand both the rigors of commercial transport and the abuse in far-flung climes, and a forgiving aerodynamic nature, temperate enough to suffer the ham-fisted efforts of greenhorn pilots and reward the fine-tuned handling from experts willing to coax more from its burly engines and, at times, recalcitrant systems.

The controls of the DC-3 are as robust as its talents. Getty Images

A pilot new to airline flying would first attend ground school for five or six weeks to refine his general aviation knowledge in meteorology, flight planning, aerodynamics, systems and instrument flight. Douglas introduced real-world, usable performance charts with the DC-3, an innovation that not only added to safety but also allowed pilots to most efficiently operate the airplane. Rather than having to guess the best altitude for a given flight, pilots could calculate that altitude based on actual conditions — a revelation for aviators accustomed to learning by trial and error. Douglas knew that providing these details would help the airlines make more money with the DC series — and, therefore, buy more airplanes. The business model proved highly successful up through the company’s DC-9 series.

After ground school, the fresh pilot got a few bounces in the real airplane, and then he paired up with a senior captain for his first months of flying. If he was lucky, that captain would even let him touch the controls from time to time. Eventually, he’d move over to the left seat, and then the real flying began. Pilots assigned to the airplane in wartime typically had even less training in it before taking it out on a mission. More trial and error — far from the safest or most efficient way to learn, but they had no time for anything more.

Following World War II, the major U.S. airlines moved on to bigger, faster DC models, the DC-4 and DC-6, almost immediately. Regional airlines snapped up those DC-3s that the majors sold, and cargo airlines reconditioned the surplus C-47s to create an armada of supply ships for 24/7 freight operations. The airplane’s ability to carry most anything you could fit through the broad aft door became legendary, and that capability was tested to the limit.

Douglas dressed up a handful of DC-3s into executive transportation, the airplane's polished exterior often lending a sense of occasion to business trips throughout the 1960s and 1970s. As numbers dwindled into the 1980s and 1990s, fewer DC-3s could be restored to flyable condition. Today, experts estimate roughly 100 or, at most, 200 of the grand old ladies still fly. Worldwide, societies such as the Dutch Dakota Association, the DC-3 Hangar, and countless historians and air museums keep the flame burning for the world's most iconic airplane.

Where They Fly NowThe DC-3 flies on around the world and in some places you'd least expect. For years, Four Star Air Cargo hauled odd lots of cargo at low altitudes over sunny waters between the Caribbean islands, and you can still see its sister ships at times taking off from Miami International Airport. Another island, Catalina, gets near-daily flights from California's Catalina Air Boats' DC-3, a remnant of a time when a DC-3 flew Douglas staffers between plants from Long Beach to Santa Monica.

And there’s hardly a far-flung corner of a continent that doesn’t see the last of the flying DC-3s and C-47s in action. One limiting factor lies within the engines: They just don’t make those lovely Pratt & Whitney radials anymore, and a time will come when the high-octane avgas they need to run on goes away for good. Until then, you never know when one might just fly overhead, working one more day for its keep.

While the DC-3 has been out of production since the mid-1940s, there are many beautiful examples still flying. However, with a dwindling number of usable engines and the possible end to the 100LL fuel needed to feed them, the days of this historic airplane taking flight might be numbered. Getty Images

Up from the AshesFor years the broken Dakota, F-BAIF, lay in waiting. Original construction No. 16371, she was built in 1944 at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Oklahoma City. Once a proud member of the Allied forces in World War II, she went on to fly the mail for Air France and support geophysical research in Africa. Entering her twilight, a sharp set designer picked her to feature in the musical "Soldier of Orange," but a freak accident during transport wrecked the airplane beyond use ... or so was thought at the time. The documentary Broken Dreams illustrates the airplane's story.

Now she faces a fine future: Dick Verburg and his colleagues at Multi Pilot Simulations based in Goenekan in the Netherlands saw an opportunity to provide a viable way for today’s DC-3 pilots to train realistically, with her shell serving as the foundation for a state-of-the-art flight simulator. Verburg anticipates final approval shortly from the Dutch aviation authority. Then she’ll serve as a conduit for pilots to train in the airplane’s eighth decade — in a way unmatched by prior generations.

Learn more about the history of the DC-3 and see iconic images of the classic beauty in our historical timeline and photo gallery here.

Think you’d like to take a turn flying a DC-3? There are a couple of organizations that actually offer training in the 80-year-old icon.

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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