How can you not love that design? A classic, timeless style that seems to encapsulate all that was beautiful and glamorous about those early pre-war days of commercial aviation. While the Douglas DC-3 and its earlier brothers would gain greater notoriety in military use, the civilian version however cannot be overlooked, as it truly was the world’s first commercial airliner in the modern sense.
To follow those famous Douglas designs from the 1930’s you need to go back to the original DC (Douglas Commercial) model from the Douglas Aircraft Company, the DC-1. The DC-1 was among the first metal framed commercial airliners that wasn’t a Flying Boat. Previously, aircraft that flew from land-based airports, such as the Ford Tri-Motor, were made of wooden frames with a metal covering so as to reduce weight and make the aircraft able to fly into areas with limited space, or where a local highway was re-purposed as an airport. Flying Boats didn’t have this limitation as on the open sea there were no real limits, also their hulls had to be strengthened to accommodate the effects of the water. However, wooden designs were notable for being incredibly fragile, and the number of crashes due to structural failure was alarming, most notably the crash of TWA 599 in 1931, where a Fokker F.10 Trimotor airliner disintegrated in mid-air when the wing structure failed, later found to be due to water having seeped between the layers of the wood laminate and dissolved the glue holding the layers together.
That same year, Trans-World Airlines (TWA) began a competition for the bid to create a brand new fleet of aircraft that would replace the flawed wooden models they were currently operating. In May 1933, Boeing responded with the 247, an all-metal (anodized aluminium) semimonocoque construction with a fully cantilevered wing and retractable landing gear. However, Boeing had designed the 247 to meet the needs of their primary customer United Airlines, and thus the aircraft was ruled out of the running. What TWA wanted was a three-engined, 12-seat aircraft of all-metal construction, capable of flying 1,080 miles at 150 mph. The aircraft also had to be able to withstand flying into an airport with only one engine functioning, and also had to be flexible to extreme temperatures, an example being Albuquerque, New Mexico, which experienced severe summer heats and was located at high altitude.
Company founder Donald Douglas put forward a design for a prototype, the DC-1, in 1932, which called for an all-metal, low-wing, twin-engined aircraft seating 12 passengers, a crew of two and a flight attendant. Douglas was reluctant to join the venture, headed primarily by TWA, as he feared he was making a poor investment and that his aircraft wouldn’t sell. As it turns out, Douglas’ contribution surpassed the specifications of TWA even with two engines, principally through the use of controllable pitch propellers. It was insulated against noise, heated, and fully capable of both flying and performing a controlled takeoff or landing on one engine.
The DC-1 was a single prototype, with no intention of being put into mass-production unlike the following DC-2 and DC-3. The aircraft performed its first flight on July 1st, 1933, and entered service with Trans-World Airlines in December the same year. The DC-1 was an incredibly advanced aircraft for the time with a strong airframe, reliable engines, and, most importantly, it had the range. On February 19th, 1934, the DC-1 flew from New York to San Francisco in 13 Hours and 5 minutes. Such a feat was absolutely unprecedented, as the fastest previous time was about two to three days by plane, and up to a week by rail.
What made the DC-1 so great was its design, consisting of two Wright Cyclone SGR-1820F3 9-cylinder radial engine driving variable-pitch propellers, producing an astonishing 690 horsepower. Max speed was 210 mph, with a recommended cruise of 190, while it could also fly at up to 23,000ft and fly 1,000 miles. Small wonder then that TWA and many other budding airlines quickly whipped up the company’s following development, the DC-2.
The DC-2 of 1934 comprised of a slightly larger design, consisting of a wider cabin, more
powerful engines and the ability to carry up to 14 passengers. The aircraft, and the reputation of its predecessor, quickly put Douglas on the map, as both American and European carriers were quick to place orders for such a promising aircraft. In Europe, the aircraft were built under license by Dutch manufacturer Fokker, with earliy airlines such as KLM, LOT, Swissair, CLS and LAPE all taking orders. The DC-2 however wasn’t a major success in the UK, as we had developed the De Havilland Dragon Rapide, an aircraft which marketed speed over size.
However, this doesn’t mean that the DC-2 was a sluggish beast of burden, it certainly had a bit of spice when it came to flying. Powered by 2 tuned Wright GR-1820-F53 Cyclone 9-cylinder radial engines producing 730 horsepower, the DC-2 could fly at 210 mph and had an increased distance of 1,050 miles, 50 miles further than it’s predecessor. KLM certainly had faith in it, as they entered the DC-2 into the October 1934 MacRobertson Air Race between London and Melbourne. Out of the 20 entrants, it finished second behind only the purpose-built de Havilland DH.88 racer Grosvenor House. During the total journey time of 90 hours, 13 min, it was in the air for 81 hours, 10 min, and won the handicap section of the race.
The DC-2 proved to the world that air travel could be fast, comfortable, reliable, safe and a viable alternative to either the steamship or the railway, it cemented the concept of modern air travel. Back then though it was a plaything for the elite, an excursion for the rich, and as such it was marketed to that demographic. Volume air travel for the masses was still a long way off, but it did give the aspiring public an extra aspiration, to fly aboard the Douglas DC-2.
But Douglas weren’t finished yet, as they had another development ready up their sleeve to launch into the world of (then) modern aviation. Noting room for improvement on the DC-2, the Douglas Company had a very lengthy phonecall from budding national carrier American Airlines, who required an upgraded version of the DC-2 to replace older models, but also be large enough to be configured as a sleeper for overnight, long-distance flights, either within the USA or for those Trans-Atlantic hops. American Airlines would eventually place an order for 20 aircraft, and thus Douglas set to work.
The design of the new aircraft was among the first that made it compatible to be fitted with engines from multiple manufacturers. Early-production civilian aircraft used Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9s, but later aircraft (and most military versions) used the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp, which gave better high-altitude and single-engine performance. Five DC-3S Super DC-3s with Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasps were built in the late 1940’s, three of which entered airline service.
The prototype, the DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport) first flew on December 17th, 1935 (the 32nd anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk). Its cabin was 92 inches wide, and a version with 21 seats instead of the 14–16 sleeping berths of the DST was given the designation DC-3. There was no prototype DC-3; the first DC-3 built followed seven DSTs off the production line and was delivered to American Airlines.
Immediately, the Douglas DC-3 was lauded for its design and performance, bringing the idea of trans-continental air travel to the forefront of aviation. While the DC-2 has proven the concept, the DC-3 perfected it. Eastbound transcontinental flights could cross the U.S. in about 15 hours with three refuelling stops; westbound trips against the wind took 17 1⁄2 hours. A few years earlier such a trip entailed short hops in slower and shorter-range aircraft during the day, coupled with train travel overnight.
American Airlines inaugurated passenger service on June 26th, 1936, with simultaneous flights from Newark, New Jersey and Chicago, Illinois. Early U.S. airlines like American, United, TWA, Delta and Eastern ordered over 400 DC-3s. These fleets paved the way for the modern American air travel industry, which eventually replaced trains as the favoured means of long-distance travel across the United States. A nonprofit group, Flagship Detroit Foundation, continues to operate the only original American Airlines Flagship DC-3 with air show and airport visits throughout the U.S.
However, as this new age of air travel began to bloom, all their hopes and dreams were abruptly put on hold by the start of World War II in 1939. Civilian construction of DC-3’s continued during America’s peacetime, but upon the USA’s entry into the war after Pearl Harbour in 1941, all manner of construction was dedicated to the war effort, and the DC-3 was no exception. The result was the cessation of DC-3 construction in 1942, with only 607 examples produced.
In the horrifying 6 years that encompassed the conflict between the Allied and Axis
powers in all corners of the globe, many symbols of our technological might came to be the stuff of legends; the Lancaster Bomber, the Bismark, the V-1 Rocket, but one of the more recognisable images you’ll find is that of the Douglas DC-3, or at least in its military guise as the C-47 Skytrain.
Quickly put together for the purpose of transporting troops and supplies to the frontline, military versions of the Douglas DC-3 included not only the aforementioned C-47, but also a series of license built versions including the Lisunov Li-2 from the USSR, and, before hostilities began between the two nations, the Showa/Nakajima L2D from Japan. The C-47 however was the most numerous, with 10,000 examples built and delivered to all of the Allied nations. Known as the Dakota in the RAF, both these, and USAF Skytrains, lead the way for many tactical situations in the European Theatre, including taking part in the D-Day landings and the Battle of Arnhem. Production reached its peak in 1944, with over 4,000 examples constructed that year alone.
Sadly however, just as many were lost in the field of battle. The DC-3 had been built to carry passengers across great distances, not to dodge flak and enemy fighters. As such, the humble C-47’s and its derivatives suffered terribly at the hands of the enemy, being destroyed by the thousands as they were unable to outrun, outgun or outmanoeuvre the intercepting forces. On the plus side though, their sheer numbers combined with a good fighter escort meant they were able to deliver thousands upon thousands of troops into the battlefield, such feats having never been possible in previous conflicts. The ability to do this removed the consequence of trench warfare, as experienced in the bloody devastation of World War I.
Following the end of the war, the surplus C-47’s and their many variants were quickly converted into civilian use, and many major airlines, as well as smaller, regional services, used the DC-3 and C-47 as the footing to create their own series of services. However, the DC-3’s time in the true limelight had long since passed by the time the war ended in 1945. Advancements in technology that had created superior bombers that could fly faster, further and higher meant that compared to the new stock of Boeing 377’s and Lockheed Constellations, the DC-3 was now something of a relic. As such, the aircraft would never dominate the forefront of aviation again as it had done before World War II.
However, this doesn’t meant the DC-3’s time in commercial aviation was over. Aside from continued military use, initially as a reserve transport and later as a training aircraft, the DC-3 remained part of major airlines across the globe even into the 1980’s. The highly flexible and extremely reliable nature of this aircraft has made it an ideal choice for many startup airlines or charter services operated by only a handful of people. Even today, 80 years after the first ones flew, you can still find Douglas DC-3’s in revenue earning service all across the globe, while more still are in the operation of research firms who use them to reach remote and inhospitable places such as Antarctica.
So, what of the other Douglas DC’s?
The DC-1 was sold to Lord Forbes in the United Kingdom in May 1938, who operated it for a few months before selling it in France in October 1938. It was then sold to Líneas Aéreas Postales Españolas (L.A.P.E.) in Spain in November 1938 and was also used by the Spanish Republican Air Force as a transport aircraft. Later operated by Iberia Airlines from July
1939 with the name Negron it force-landed at Málaga, Spain in December 1940 and was damaged beyond repair.
Of the 198 DC-2’s that were built between 1934 and 1939, only 7 are known to still exist, though some are still airworthy and cared for by groups of devoted enthusiasts.
As for the DC-3 and it’s derivatives, as mentioned, there are approximately 400 DC-3’s and converted C-47’s are still flying to this day as a testament to the durability of the design. On top of those still flying, hundreds are scattered around the world in museums, mostly C-47’s that are used to demonstrate the flying capabilities of the Allied Forces or to commemorate D-Day. However, none of the Japanese-built Showa/Nakajima L2D survived long after World War II, and of the Soviet-built Lisunov Li-2, only one is officially known to still be flyable, though rumour has it several are still used in North Korea by their armed forces.
Nevertheless, when Donald Douglas put pen to paper and designed the DC-1 back in 1932, he could not have imagined the impact his reluctant plane would have on the aviation industry. This is by far one of the most influential aircraft of all time, an aircraft that proved to the world that reliable, safe, comfortable and speedy air travel could be a reality, and from then on airborne travel has only gone on to develop the proud legacy of this magnificent aircraft.
What a hero!