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Douglas propliners – Part 1

The DC-4 & DC-5

Early dominance

The DC-3 is undoubtedly the greatest passenger aircraft of all time. By the early 1940s there were around 300 aircraft of several types operating as ‘airliners’ in the USA — all but 25 were Douglas DC-3s. With the onset of the Second World War, the ‘Three’ received another huge boost, becoming the most prolifically produced aircraft in the history of aviation.

What is often overlooked, though, is that this was only the start of a long period of dominance by the Douglas Aircraft Company. Donald Douglas was a young man from New York who abandoned a career in the US military, dropping out of the Annapolis Naval Academy to pursue an engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Moving to California, by the early 1920s he had formed the eponymous airplane-manufacturing firm in Long Beach.

Douglas DC-3 picture credit Getty Images

The breakthrough design was the ‘Douglas Sleeper Transport’ (DST), which evolved from a solitary prototype example of the DC-1 (‘DC’ standing for ‘Douglas Commercial’), and the moderately successful DC-2, into the DC-3. The latter type was made wider than its DC-2 forerunner at the behest of American Airlines CEO C.R. Smith, who wanted a third row of seats in the fleet he was ordering. This made the DST/DC-3 the first aircraft capable of paying for itself by carrying passengers, freeing the airlines from the tyranny of government airmail contracts.

The next step

With the success of the DC-3 and its military C-47 version assured, Douglas began planning a successor. Four engines, a pressurized fuselage, air-conditioning, powered controls and tricycle landing gear were initial requirements. An early design with triple-finned tail and named the DC-4E (‘experimental’) didn’t make the transition from prototype to production. A slightly smaller, unpressurized version with ‘conventional’ single-fin tail was then developed, named the DC-4, just as the USA was entering the Second World War.

Donald Douglas had long been preaching the ‘gospel’ of a coordinated manufacturing effort, to grow an industry making small batches of bespoke aircraft into a much more efficient assembly line-focused enterprise capable of mass production. With the Americans joining the Allies to fight the Axis powers, Douglas was able to realize this goal.

War production

The focus having now shifted to the military’s requirements, Douglas Aircraft moved to rapidly ramp up production of the new four-engine aircraft, which was re-designated the C-54 Skymaster. An impressive total of 1,163 C-54s were built for the armed forces in only three years. Although the DC-4/C-54 was overshadowed by its ‘little brother’, the C-47 (or Dakota, as the DC-3 was dubbed by Britain’s Royal Air Force/RAF) — more than 10,000 examples of which were built in the USA alone — the four-engined ‘Douglas’ proved to be the backbone of the long-range logistical effort needed to keep US forces in the European and Pacific theatres supplied.

Even while the war raged, Douglas’s engineers found time to plan civilian variants, and 80 DC-4s were built for the airlines when hostilities came to an end. This was in addition to hundreds of C-54s that were modified for civil use by the company, mirroring the careers of war surplus DC-3s/C-47s/Dakotas.

The DC-4 and C-54 were the backbone of the famous Berlin Airlift, with at least 300 of the type flying supplies into the former (and present) German capital during the Soviet blockade of the city in 1948/49.


Air Ceylon/ANA DC-4 at Heathrow. Picture credit RT Collection

In the USA, Pan American Airways, Northwest Airlines, National Airlines and Western Airlines were early US customers for the DC-4. KLM, Sabena, SAS, Air France, Swissair and Iberia operated the aircraft in Europe. Elsewhere, Cubana, Avianca, Aerolíneas Argentinas, Aeropostal of Venezuela, Australian National Airways (ANA) and South African Airways flew DC-4s, as did Air Ceylon which launched international services in 1949 using two examples in a partnership with ANA that lasted until 1953.

Canadair produced a variant of the DC-4 called the DC-4M North Star, with Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled V-12 engines (in lieu of the Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasp air-cooled radials of the original), a pressurized cabin (in most examples) and several other modifications. The Merlin was famously the engine that powered Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighter ’planes, the US-built North American P-51 Mustang fighter, the RAF’s Avro Lancaster bomber and de Havilland D.H.98 Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft, in addition to several other military airplanes. Powerful though it was, the Merlin was extremely noisy and would emit flames from its exhaust during engine start, terrifying passengers when in airline use. Later modifications included a crossover exhaust system that reduced the noise levels and flames to some extent.

BOAC Argonaut — note the Merlin engines. Picture credit Wikimedia

Canadair North Stars were built for Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA; later Air Canada), Canadian Pacific Airlines (CPA; later CP Air), the Royal Canadian Air Force (which flew unpressurized North Stars), and British flag-carrier BOAC. Confusingly, CPA called its aircraft the ‘Canadair Four’, and BOAC dubbed their C4 variants with the type name ‘Argonaut’. BOAC’s Argonauts served the airline well, operating to numerous destinations including Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

The ungainly Carvair- picture credit Jetphotos

As a testament to the original DC-4 design and its structural soundness, commencing in 1961 a total of 21 examples were converted to car-carrying freighters by Aviation Traders (Engineering) Ltd. in the UK, a company owned by Freddie (later Sir Freddie) Laker, the sometimes controversial British airline entrepreneur. Named ATL-98 Carvair, the ungainly-looking aircraft had a bulbous front section replacing the DC-4’s original nose and forward fuselage, with the flight deck mounted on top. A side-hinged clam-shell nose door permitted easy loading and unloading of up to five standard-sized cars, or other items of bulky cargo, while a cabin aft of the cargo deck accommodated 22 passengers. The Carvairs, one of which was a former Air Ceylon/ANA DC-4, served numerous airlines and specialist cargo carriers with distinction in many countries, including the UK, USA, Canada, several European nations, South Africa, and Australia.

Meanwhile, the DC-4 and North Star continued to fly for many years with secondary airlines and cargo companies around the world. The last commercial DC-4 operator appears to be Buffalo Airways based at Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories, which this writer has flown over many times on the Polar Route to the USA.

The last remaining DC-4s in flying condition are in South Africa. Picture credit Airways

The only DC-4s remaining in flying condition are the pair of superbly preserved airplanes belonging to the South African Airways (SAA) Museum Society at its base at Rand Airport in Germiston, South Africa.

The HARS Aviation Museum is currently restoring a DC-4 to flying condition at Shellharbour Airport NSW, seen here in Qantas livery.

The short story of the DC-5

The story of Douglas’s ‘DC’ series of piston-engine airliners would be incomplete without mention of the short-lived oddity that was the DC-5. A twin-engined, shoulder- or high-winged, tricycle gear design that first flew in February 1939, the DC-5 was intended to replace the DC-3. However, the popularity of the ‘Three’ and the advent of the war meant that only a dozen DC-5s were built.

Bill Boeing reputedly used the prototype as his personal aircraft. Seven were ordered by the US Navy, designated R3D-1; one crashed before delivery, and the USN operated two. The US Marine Corps used the remaining four, designated the R3D-2, for cargo and paratroop operations.

The DC-5 of which only 12 were built. Picture credit Geoffrey Goodall

Separately, C-110 was the retroactive military designation applied to three former Indonesian-registered DC-5s of KNILM (Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij; Dutch for Royal Dutch Indies Airways) that had been bought by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) for service in Australia on behalf of the Allied Directorate of Air Transport.

That transfer came about when the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1942. Of KNILM’s small fleet of four DC-5s based in Batavia (now Jakarta), one was captured and used by the Japanese forces during the conflict. But the remaining three escaped (with civilians on board) to Australia, where they were flown by Air Ceylon’s future international partner, Australian National Airways (ANA), on behalf of the Allied military.

The last surviving DC-5, one of the ANA trio, was sold to two private individuals in Sydney in January 1948; after being used for immigrant flights and other unspecified purposes it eventually wound up with the newly-formed Israeli Air Force. In IAF markings this DC-5 saw service during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 as a bomber (with the rear loading door removed, bombs were rolled out of the opening aided by a shove from a crewman’s foot!) and on transport missions, before ending its days on a Tel Aviv scrapheap in the 1960s.

Considering the small number of airframes built and the type’s brief history, the DC-5 certainly had an interesting variety of owners and operators with whom it fulfilled an equally varied number of roles.

The story continues with the DC-6 & 7 here. This is part of a series on the propliners of the 1950s and the slow transition to the jet age. It all began with the DC-3 of course, and my columns move through the other Douglas propliners, the Boeing 377, Lockheed’s Electras and the elegant Constellation. The Brabazon Committee which sparked such a wave of innovation in the UK with the Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Britannia and the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Many other significant aircraft, such as Avro Canada’s innovative but aborted C-102 passenger jet and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, which led us into the start of the Jet Age have columns too.

A few quirky segues I couldn’t resist: the ‘Double Sunrise’ flights between my two homelands Ceylon and Australia; the wonderful Carvairs and that very British habit of taking your car on holiday. I also had to write a paean to my beloved A380 and all my pilot friends in the Gulf as COVID ended that little dream.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I have relished writing them. My special thanks to my old friend, mentor, editor and repository of knowledge Roger Thiedeman, for all the encouragement and support throughout this project.




This journal pays homage to those amazing early airliners and the intrepid pilots who flew them at the start of the ‘Age of Airlines’ from the 1920s to the beginning of the jet age.

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Suren Ratwatte

Suren Ratwatte

I love airplanes. As an airline captain I flew many including the A380 and Boeing 777. But wish I’d had the opportunity to fly some of these old propliners.

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