The Douglas DC-3
This week I thought I would talk about one of the most well used aircraft in the last seventy years. The Douglas DC-3, or C-47 Skytrain as it was designated by the US Military and known as the Dakota in the UK, has been in service since its first flight in 1935. It has been used as a cargo plane, troop transport, jump platform for airborne infantry, a civilian airliner and in more recent years as an aircraft for smugglers. The DC-3 has had many names, none more affectionate then the Gooney Bird. During WWII the marines in the Pacific noticed lots of Gooney Birds on the islands. When a Gooney Bird would take off it would run along the ground, flapping it’s long wings trying to get its fat body in the air. When the C-47’s were loaded the tail wheel would bounce on the ground, like the birds, and so the name stuck. The Gooney Bird.
Whatever name that it went by, it was a mainstay for the army; however, this plane didn’t start with the army. In 1933 TWA asked Donald Douglas, Douglas Commercial or DC, to design an aircraft to compete against United Airlines Boeing 247. It started with the DC-1 in 1933 and then the DC-2 in 1934, however American Airlines wanted a replacement to the Curtiss Condor II and asked Douglas to create a bigger DC-2 with sleeping berths. The new aircraft designated the DST, Douglas Sleeper Transport, first flew December 1935. The prototype was fitted with 21 seats and became the DC-3. Originally powered by its two Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9s engines, later models including most military versions were equipped with Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines, The DC-3 was able to travel eastbound across the country in 15hrs, westbound 17 1/2 hours, with three refueling stops. This was a huge improvement in airline travel compared to previous aircraft.
In all 16,079 DC-3 variants were built. In this total are 4,937 built by the Soviet Union, known as the Lisunov Li-2, and 487 built by Japan, known as the L2D Type 0 transport. American Airlines had the first inaugural flight in 1936 and almost overnight it became the most popular way to travel. Over 400 DC-3’s were ordered by various airlines which rapidly replaced the favored method of travel by trains. These airlines, American, TWA, Eastern and United, along with the DC-3 paved the way for commercial travel as we know it today. But it didn’t stop in the US. The DC-3 was so popular that planes starting flying all over the globe, including one of the longest routes at the time, Amsterdam to Sydney.
During WWII over 10,000 DC-3’s were built for the army and were licensed to several allied countries. The C-47 was the standard cargo plane with a larger two door entry system and lifting arm. The C-53 is the paratrooper model with bench seating on either side of the plane and a single, detachable rear door. Because of the ruggedness of the aircraft design and the ease of maintenance, thousands of these planes were still flying after the war and the demand for such planes has remained in existence to this day. This particular example belongs to a couple of brothers down in Mesa, AZ home of the CAF Airbase. It’s painted in a desert camouflage as would have been seen if the plane was flying out of North Africa.
Speaking of flying, since this is a multiengine plane it has, like most multiengine planes do, a pilot and copilot seat. Flying the Texas Flying Legends Museums, C-53 Skytrooper, is Casey Odegaard and with him Mark Murphy. Having had the chance to fly and talk with Casey about the C-53, I can honestly say that it is a comfortable plane to fly in and according to Casey a rather simple multiengine plane to fly. As with most warbirds, one of the greatest challenges is being able to see when taxiing, especially with a wingspan of 95ft. Despite any such challenges, the DC-3 still remains as one of the most reliable aircraft ever built. A common saying has been engrained with the aircraft, “the only replacement for the DC-3 is another DC-3.” While not many DC-3’s still fly for the airlines, many are seen at airshows. Another of the most common warbirds to frequent the airshow circuit, the C-47 is often used as a platform for sky jumpers and like most airshows where the air is hot and the sun is bright, its great wings provide shade for the masses.
After the fame the aircraft brought to the airlines, it made an even greater impact on historical events as it took part in several famous WWII battles. Two of the most noteworthy were of course the Invasion of Normandy and Operation Market Garden. Both of these operations have become so well known in todays generation in part because of series like Band of Brothers. The C-53, army designation, supplied the transport of paratroopers that dropped behind enemy lines in both operations. At one time the sky was filled with hundreds of these planes and thousands of men were jumping out of them.
Prior to the invasion of Normandy, every aircraft that was going to take place over the French coastline, was painted with black and white stripes so that ground personnel would be able to distinguish between enemy aircraft and friendlies. However due to the secrecy of the mission planes were not painted until the night before the invasion. In a handful of hours, every ground crew, pilot and officer grabbed brushes and mops to paint on the stripes to every aircraft. These included not just C-47’s but P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts, to name just a few.
At EAA Airventure, Oshkosh in 2013, the Texas Flying Legends took their freshly painted C-53 and with the help of over a dozen reenactors, painted the invasion stripes on the wings and the fuselage. In under thirty minutes they were able to paint, “The Duchess of Dakota” (above), with all the markings needed. While at a distance the stripes look perfect, close up they show the crookedness of the brushes, the dirt, bugs, and bristles of the brushes. In all it was pretty amazing to behold and to think about how many other planes that same treatment had to be applied to. The end result was a sky filled with aircraft like this C-47, “Whats Up Doc” from Palm Springs Museum (right), being seen below from guys on the ground.
The Gooney Bird has remained a fan favorite of the aviation community ever since it’s conception. It can be seen across the country at various museums and remains an attraction to all.