DC-3, A Real Man's Airplane | Flying Magazine

DC-3, A Real Man's Airplane

One woman's look back at how the Douglas has lived to fly for 75 years.

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DC-3 Flagship Detroit

Bonnie Kratz

In the early '60s, when I went wrong and started hanging out at the aerodrome, common wisdom was that the DC-3, while a grand old airplane, had outlived its usefulness to the military, the airlines and even corporate operators. Its death knell was tolling to signal the time had come to relegate these antiques to the boneyard. Fortunately, before last rites were administered, a slew of "Gooney Birds" escaped from old-airplane homes and, in some configuration or another, are alive and well today.

So what can I possibly add to the millions of print words, websites, fan clubs and semireligious cults dedicated to every detail of the airplane's design, iconic history and idiosyncrasies? When he gets a type rating, every DC-3 driver assumes he's now an expert and, given the slightest chance, will pontificate on incredibly obscure details of its plumbing, wiring, engine operation and reproductive system. He will, of course, also tell you how to fly one. But I kind of respect that; a hopeful who doesn't know the "right stuff," the stories — like how to start one with an inoperable fuel pump (straddle the cowling and pour a can of avgas in the intake as the engine's cranking), how to eyeball the tailwheel strut to see if someone has loaded 8,000 pounds instead of 6,000, or what the F-bolt is — probably won't pass the check ride.

All I can offer are memories of my 25-year love affair with the freighters — big, dirty, smelly, cantankerous collections of cannibalized parts that haul everything from baby chicks to white tigers, auto parts and peanut-butter-machine pistons. A love affair, yeah, but it's not all misty-eyed and gooey about the "romance" part; this is a lumbering and labor-intensive flying truck. My friend Kevin Uppstrom, who flew "Douglas Racers" for 20 years at Miami Valley Aviation, answered a reporter who had asked what it was like to fly one with one word: "slow." And somebody else nailed it when he said it was like dancing with your great aunt. More than just cumbersome and balky, a Gooney that senses you're a little too comfortable, cocky or complacent will humble you at best and, at worst, hurt or kill you.

In the '60s and '70s not too many women flew or were interested in flying this old "big iron." And, no, for heaven's sake, it wasn't about discrimination; lots of female persons were flying jets for airlines and corporate flight departments in the frenzy to "diversify." But DC-3s by then were pretty much the stuff of freight haulers, Hell's Angels parachute clubs and dopers — enterprises not densely populated with lady aviators. There were and still are a smattering of "painted ladies" (that's airplanes, not female aviators) duded up by wealthy aficionados to re-create plush corporate DC-3s and iconic airliners of the past.

The truth is that a "real" working DC-3 is a man's airplane — incredibly grungy inside and out; dripping black stuff; reeking of Mil-5606 hydraulic fluid, engine oil and 100LL; with leaking relief tubes, dead animals and body odors of the unwashed freight dogs who fly it. You're likely to find tins half-full of tobacco juice, decades-old candy bar wrappers and rusty soda pop cans, sometimes full of cigarette butts, on the cockpit floor. DC-3s are unwieldy on the ground and demand considerable muscle taxiing in a wind. Stable in smooth air, they rarely feature autopilots, so you don't lounge there, occasionally caressing the trim, lightly pressing a button or adjusting the bug on a dial. You plant your feet on big pedals and grasp a massive wheel with both hands and sometimes with forearms and elbows; you pull hefty levers through big arcs and yank on valves that don't want to move. The throttles, props and mixtures are long knobs sprouting from an oily quadrant, rarely anywhere near "even" when set. And if you don't tighten the friction lock so that it's painful to make power adjustments, the controls slide back where you definitely don't want them to be.

In summer, the windshield wipers don't deflect much rain (most of it leaks inside onto your lap), but they do effectively smear decades of smashed bugs into an unholy mess on the windscreen. In winter, if the ice is bad enough, you open the side window and stick out your arm, using an ice scraper to make a peephole in the frozen windshield.

Douglas engineers didn't exactly shine when it came to designing the Gooney's "environmental" system. So the pilots don cold-weather gear in the winter and get as near naked as possible in the summer, flying with the windows open. On night flights, or on any trip longer than an hour and a half, one of you goes back to sack out on the floor in a filthy sleeping bag or to pee or to find a can of hydraulic fluid to fill the reservoir — or maybe to open the emergency exit window to see if that bad-ass right engine is belching smoke, leaking oil or shaking more than usual. The airplane emits unearthly whooshing, squealing and creaking noises, and no headset made will protect your ears from the glorious roar of those engines. DC-3s don't soar. They buck and wallow and defy attempts to hold an altitude until you acknowledge defeat, ask for a "block" and hang on for the ride.

Yeah, a man's airplane … and it's wonderful.

When someone asked Mohican Airlines' Don Paolucci how a man so slightly built could handle a DC-3, he replied that he didn't carry it, he just flew it. And he was right on; at slightly north of 100 pounds, I can wrestle one around with the best (no, there's no such thing as rudder lock). I taxi without locking the tailwheel because Kevin would laugh at me if I didn't, but, OK, I can't taxi on one engine like the real pros can. I can hold altitude in a 55-degree banked turn with one finger on the control wheel, because that's what trim's for, and haul the nose up to demonstrate an approach stall without trimming the elevator below 100 knots. I can fly it by myself, managing the gear by pumping up plenty of hydraulic pressure and unlatching the mechanical doohickey before rolling down the runway (not an approved procedure). And I can put it in a big-ass forward slip with full flaps to keep from reducing the power below 20-inch MP when I screw up an approach.

For all that, I'm not a real freight dog. Like, damn it, I never could do the running-leap-up-onto-the-wing thing to check oil and fuel. And I can't — at least anymore — chin myself on the engine cowls to check for wrenches left by careless mechanics — something I doubt ever happened, but it was a major-cool maneuver. Most of my affairs with a couple dozen freight haulers were pretty sanitized because I was a "fed." I saw only carefully computed weight and balance forms, "creative" but credible flight and duty time records, meticulously worked manifests, pages of blank squawk sheets that showed absolutely nothing had quit or malfunctioned in years, up-to-date training records and, when I was along on a working trip, freight that was carefully weighed, stowed and secured.

Sure, I knew a lot of this was a fairy tale, but if the operators weren't always lily-white legal, I cared deeply that the pilots were competent and safe. I probably have a record for handing out more "downs" on type rides and Part 135 competency/proficiency checks than any FAA inspector does. But I'd move heaven and earth to get the pilot retrained and in the air as soon as possible. Once in a while, usually with the sleazier outfits, there were impassioned pleas that "I'll lose my job if I bust this." That's a hard one, but I knew it was far better for him to lose his job than his life. And, in those 25 years, nobody I flew with ever hurt themselves or anybody else in a DC-3, except one. And that one haunts me.

It was Condor's second or third attempt to get a Part 135 passenger-carrying certificate with two beautiful DC-3s in the Chicago area. The two lawyer-owners had cycled through several flight crews and, once again, I went to Aurora Airport to do type rating and initial 135 check rides for a new chief pilot. Condor's principal inspector in the Chicago Flight Standards District Office, who called, told me this would be no big deal. The new chief pilot was a lady who'd been an airline pilot and, before that, had military experience in the C-47.

Only after we'd hung up did it occur to me that the only women flying C-47s in the military were WASPs from the early years of World War II, which put this gal at somewhere north of 70. Should be interesting.

She wasn't anywhere near 70, and the explanation was, well, complex. She had flown as a copilot in some military outfit and then for Eastern Airlines as "Ken" but somewhere along the line became "Karen." It was, I believe, the first air-carrier flight crewmember sex-change event, and I recalled the furor in the Chicago FAA office when I was a fledgling inspector.

Truth was that she'd been away from flying for a while, so I worked hard with her, which, of course, wasn't my job; I was supposed to simply administer the prescribed check rides and issue a "pass" or a "fail." But I think I was trying to overcome my discomfort and, yeah, my prejudice, so I spent several days "ground-schooling" and flying with her to get her up to speed to pass the check rides.

She passed, but still the certification process dragged on until some months later, when she brought the airplane to Lunken with newly hired pilots, cabin attendants and the owners on board. I flunked the copilot (who was rather well-known in aerobatic circles but didn't know squat about DC-3s) and then sent the airplane back to Aurora on a ferry permit with a screwed-up hydraulic system. Since that meant everybody except essential crew — one pilot and a copilot — had to find another way home, I was not too popular with the Condor management persons.

A few weeks later Karen was training a retired DC-3-rated United captain, with another pilot on the jumpseat, for check rides I was scheduled to give before they could be certificated. They were near the Aurora Airport and probably practicing the "approach to stalls in the landing configuration," a required maneuver. Witnesses — and there were several in the air and on the ground — reported they were high, above 5,000 feet, when the nose pitched up with the gear and flaps extended. A wing dropped, the airplane rolled, and suddenly it was spinning, which had to be an incredible sight. It appeared to recover at about 3,000 feet only to abruptly enter a spin in the opposite direction, impacting the ground and killing everybody on board.

There were no communications, no "black boxes," and the cockpit was totally destroyed on impact. And while no positive determination for the cause of the crash was ever established, the trim assembly in the tail was semi-intact and indicated full-up elevator trim had been applied.

Karen and I had talked about and practiced this maneuver. I had warned her about initiating a recovery at the first indication of an imminent stall and about how quickly the '3 will roll and spin if you let things go too far. Trimming below 100 knots to help with the really heavy elevator forces is a very bad idea because it makes recovery, lowering the pitch while applying maximum power on the engines, a real bitch.

We talked about that. I'm sure we did. …

I guess all I can say is I did my best. And I know that after 25 years of messing around with this 75-year-old airplane, despite a significant hearing loss, countless pairs of grease-stained jeans and oil-spattered T-shirts, sore thigh and shoulder muscles, ruined hairdos, a frostbitten toe and a few moments of stark terror, the love affair survives. … But then I've always had a thing for older men.

Martha continued as an FAA-designated examiner in the DC-3, giving type-rating and other checks, until last January, when she scaled back to a check airman in the airplane. She continues to give FAR 135/121 checks. — Ed.

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