The Douglas DC-3 — the aircraft that changed the world
Call it the DC-3, C-47, Dakota, Gooney Bird, Old Fatso or simply Doug. Nakajima of Japan produced it under license as the L2D - code-named ‘Tabby’ by the Allies. Even the Soviets built them and rather prosaically, called it the Passazhirskiy Samolyot -84.
It flew on every continent and with pretty much every airline that could get one, through the 1950s and ’60s. The DC-3 and its variants is still the most produced aircraft in the world, with more than 16,000 built in the USA alone, plus many more overseas. It still flies in commercial service in some parts of the world. If there ever was one aircraft that changed the world — surely this must be it?
Aviation in the United States in the early 1930s was on the cusp of major change. Thanks to the US Post Office’s airmail initiative in the 1920s, airlines had found they could operate at a profit. But they were almost entirely reliant on air mail. Flying passengers alone was not commercially feasible — without the airmail contracts subsidizing the operation, the nascent airlines of the era would be bankrupt in a matter of months. The airlines were looking for a new design — one that was safe, economical, easy to maintain and profitable to operate.
United and Boeing lead the way
Boeing and United Airlines had a symbiotic relationship. As the only airline part-owned by an aircraft manufacturer, United was able to have aircraft designed to its own specifications and needs. The first major design that sprang from this was the Boeing 247 in 1933. With an all-metal fuselage, two powerful engines (not three as the Ford tri-motor) and retractable wheels, Boeing’s Model 247 was a huge leap forward. All the US airlines wanted them, but Boeing had promised the first 60 to United Airlines exclusively.
As a result of this, American and TWA approached Douglas Aircraft to design a rival machine. Donald Douglas, the founder of the company, promptly did so with the Douglas Commercial - known as the DC-1. After much input from TWA, an updated model was designated the DC-2.
The Boeing 247 and DC-2 represented a quantum leap in performance. The Boeing was quicker at cruise speed than the fastest fighter the US Army Air Force had at the time, Boeing’s own P -12. Both the B-247 and DC-2 participated in the famous London to Melbourne Air Race of 1934. The de Havilland Comet racer went onto to be the clear winner as mentioned in an earlier column,— but it was a dedicated performance aircraft only carrying two pilots. A production version of the DC-2 flown by KLM pilots carrying passengers came second and a Boeing 247 third, showing how astonishingly fast they were. But for C.R. Smith, the dynamic CEO of American Airlines, this still wasn’t enough.
American and Douglas Aircraft reply
CR relentlessly pushed Donald Douglas, to make the aircraft wider and faster, until the DC-3 was produced with a wider, 92-inch (230 cm) cabin. This was the widest cabin in service and allowed three-abreast seating. An extra row of seven seats was squeezed in, the DC-2 only having two seats per row. The 2+1 seating arrangement was revolutionary, allowing people traveling together to have adjoining seats. For comparison, a modern Boeing 737 has a cabin of 139 inches (350 cm) not that much wider, with six-abreast (3+3) seating.
So confident was CR that he had the right aircraft, that he ordered 20 of them for American before Douglas had even committed to build it. The aircraft was an instant success and was largely instrumental and making air travel to be seen as a practical and efficient means of transport. More importantly, the seven extra seats CR had insisted on, meant that the aircraft could be operated profitably carrying only passengers. By flying the DC-3, airlines were no longer reliant on the subsidy provided by mail revenues. Over 400 DC-3s were sold to US airlines in the 1930s, an unprecedented number for that time.
A worldwide game changer
The DC-3, known as the C-47 by the US military and the Dakota by the British, deserves to be the most famous propeller aircraft of all time. It became the transport backbone of not only the Allies in the Second World War, but also the Japanese in the same conflict.
As most readers will know, the legendary Dakota (as it was popularly known in Britain and the colonies) would be the aircraft that launched Air Ceylon in 1947 — the headline picture of this column. A fine example can be viewed at the Sri Lanka Air Force museum in Ratmalana.
So capable was this classic design that many DC-3s were fitted with turbine engines. Both the original and re-engined versions are in active commercial service to this day, all over the world.
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.
A shorter version was originally published at https://surenratwatte.com on February 14, 2020.