The Douglas DC-3 Legacy

The Douglas DC-3 Legacy

By Henry M. Holden

American Airlines’ "Flagship San Francisco Skysleeper” (DST NC 28325, c/n 2263) was sold to Transcontinental & Western Air and later became a C-49E with the USAAF.

American Airlines’ “Flagship San Francisco Skysleeper” (DST NC 28325, c/n 2263) was sold to Transcontinental & Western Air and later became a C-49E with the USAAF.

Before his death on Feb. 1, 1981, Donald W. Douglas created thousands of military airplanes as well as 10 generations of successful commercial airplanes. Of the Douglas DC-1 through DC-10, the most famous and beloved of this line is the DC-3.

Dec. 17, 2005 marks the 70th anniversary of the plane that changed the world. The Douglas DC-3 was a revolutionary airframe that with some interior reconfiguration became a comfortable sleeper transport called the Douglas Sleeper Transport.

It was the first airplane that could make money flying passengers, without relying on the generous mail subsidy the government provided to commercial carriers. It had safety features unheard of, propeller feathering technology, adjustable pitch props, cabin insulation from weather and noise, hot meals and more. It gave the public a feeling of safety and comfort and fostered major growth in commercial aviation both in the United States and around the world.

As the C-47 military variant, it was unrivaled as a troop transport, parachute plane and air ambulance. General Eisenhower said it played a major role in winning World War II. After the war, it went back to the civilian airlines and fostered a boom in commercial aviation–again! Thirty years after it was born, it was reborn into a new role none at the Douglas Aircraft Company could have imagined–as “Spooky” the gunship. In recent years it was reborn again as a turboprop. All this and more was the result of one man who had a vision.

In 1921, Donald Douglas invested his entire savings of $600, and began his company with 18 square feet of space in the rear of a barbershop in Santa Monica, Calif. By 1944, the Douglas Aircraft Company was the fourth largest company in the United States. It had six factories worth more than $194 million, 160,000 employees and a payroll of $400,000,000.

A need for safer airplanes

On March 31, 1931, a TWA Fokker F-10A trimotor crashed into a Kansas wheat field, killing the two crewmembers and all six passengers, including Knute Rockne, legendary Notre Dame football coach. Shortly after the crash, all 33 of Fokker’s F10As were grounded, pending the results of the investigation of a wing that had separated from the aircraft. This caused a near standstill in the operations of TWA, Pan American Airways and others relying on that aircraft.

The Department of Air Commerce released a preliminary statement that said ice had broken a propeller blade on the starboard engine, causing the engine to over speed, which in turn transmitted enough vibration to the wing to fracture it. But investigations showed the plane had 1,887 hours on the airframe and the wing root had rotted away, causing the wing to break off when the pilot tried to climb above the turbulence.

The air transport business was still in its infancy, and the crash caused the public to lose confidence in commercial aviation. The tragedy would eventually force the existing airlines to seek safer airplanes. While Fokker’s F-10A aircraft went back into service within a year, the major airlines had abandoned them.

Meanwhile, William Boeing, Donald Douglas’ only competition on the West Coast, had struggled through the economic depression of the postWorld War I aviation development by building military aircraft. Boeing had developed an all-metal, open cockpit bomber design. However, his design lost out in a government competition to a Glenn L. Martin Company design.

Boeing was stuck with an airplane design and no buyer. Some saw its potential as a civilian air transport. The XB9 bomber was modified extensively, and what rolled out was the civilian Boeing 247. The 247 was a streamlined, stressed skin, allmetal, twin-engine, low-wing monoplane that reflected creature comforts unheard of in other airplanes. It had carpeted floors, reclining seats, steam heat and a cabin insulated from weather and noise.

The 10passenger airliner cost $68,000, and Boeing estimated that the total operating costs were two and a half cents per mile. United Airlines advertised the plane as the “ThreeMileAMinute Airliner.”

TWA went to Boeing to place an order for the 247. Boeing was agreeable, but only after it filled an order for 60 for United Airlines. This was their biggest attempt at manufacturing to date. The order tied up Boeing’s factory, thus ensuring that United’s competitors wouldn’t share the prestige of flying the first modern allmetal airliner for at least two years. Boeing’s refusal to increase their manufacturing capacity forced TWA to look to the Douglas factory.

The “Birth Certificate of the DC Ships”

On Aug. 2, 1932, 38-year-old Donald Douglas opened a letter he later called “The Birth Certificate of the DC Ships.” Jack Frye, TWA vice president of operations, signed the letter. TWA wanted to purchase 10 or more allmetal, trimotor monoplanes.

The specs called for a gross weight of 14,000 pounds, a range of 1,000 miles, a capacity to carry 12 passengers and two pilots, and takeoff fully loaded on two of the three engines. After the Douglas engineering team developed a proposal, Arthur Raymond, assistant chief engineer, and Harold Wetzel, general manager, boarded a train for New York to present it to TWA.

“We traveled by train for two reasons,” said Raymond. “We had much ground to cover and hundreds of details to lay out, and I needed secluded time to work out my performance figures. Also, we really wanted to get there.”

During that period, the airlines had seen a sharp increase in accidents and neither man wanted to become a statistic. The state of commercial air travel in 1932 was expensive, unreliable and dangerous.

Raymond flew home on a TWA Ford Trimotor. He knew what TWA was looking for–something like the Ford Trimotor, only better. When Raymond boarded the aircraft, nicknamed the “Tin Goose,” he received the usual “comfort pack,” which included cotton for his ears, smelling salts for if he felt faint, and an airsick cup.

The trip radically changed Raymond’s idea of what to design. What came off the Douglas drawing board was a twin-engine, low-wing, all-metal monoplane. The engineers decided not to use electrical gear retraction (as in the Boeing 247) since they felt the apparatus was subject to failure. Instead, the gear would be hydraulically activated, and retract into the newly developed NACA streamlined nacelles.

This is the only known photo of the first flight of the DC-1.

This is the only known photo of the first flight of the DC-1.

For safety, the engineers decided the wheels wouldn’t fully retract. In the up position, the main gear wheels protruded from the nacelles about half their diameter. In a wheelsup emergency landing, the low wing would help shield the passengers, and the half-extended wheels would cushion the landing, or so the design logic went. This was a radical departure from the multiengine aircraft in commercial service. Except for the Boeing 247, most U.S. aircraft, including the Fokker, Ford and Boeing trimotors, were high-wing, fixed gear.

The Douglas Commercial 1 and DC-2

On July 1, 1933, at 12:36 p.m., 332 days after Douglas received Frye’s letter, the main gear of a DC1 left the ground. It was the beginning of the end for the Fokkers, Condors and other wood and fabric airplanes.

The takeoff was perfect, but the plane wasn’t more than a hundred feet off the ground when the left engine sputtered and quit. A moment later, the right engine did the same. Carl Cover, the pilot, knew they had a problem, but didn’t know how serious it was. Needing altitude to maneuver, and with only seconds to react, Cover pushed the yoke forward to gain airspeed. Both engines suddenly cut back in.

He coaxed the plane up to 1,000 feet, and started to pull the nose up. Again, the engines sputtered and quit. He put the nose down and the engines came back to life. He knew he had to land immediately and safely. He couldn’t risk the airplane or the life of his copilot.

Carl Cover earned his salary on that 12-minute ride. He landed the plane and taxied into the hangar. They quickly discovered the cause of the almost fatal flight was reversed carburetors. The DC-1 went on to meet TWA’s requirements, and they ordered 20 more. With suggested changes, the DC-2 was born.

Douglas’ real commercial success began when American Airlines entered the picture. American had a fleet of Curtiss Condor biplane sleepers, Ford and Fokker trimotors, and needed to modernize their fleet. They were losing millions of dollars, and they wanted a modern airplane, with sleeper berths, since that attracted the luxury passengers. They ordered several DC2s. The DC2 was a vast improvement over their previous airplanes but it was too narrow to fit a comfortable sleeper berth. American Airlines decided they needed a bigger airplane.

Cyrus Rowlett (C.R.) Smith, president of American Airlines, and William Littlewood, vice president of engineering, had both flown in the DC2 and didn’t like some of its performance characteristics. It had the highest rated engines in use at the time, but they felt it lacked power. It couldn’t make New York to Chicago nonstop, although it was faster than any other airliner on that route. They also had pilot reports that it was difficult to land. It did, however, carry 14 passengers, two more than the DC1 and the Boeing 247.

Littlewood sat down with his engineers and began to redesign the DC2. His sketches of the proposed sleeper closely resembled the later Douglas Sleeper Transport. Smith, looking for something larger than the DC-2, telephoned Donald Douglas with a proposal. He finally convinced Douglas to modify a DC2 to American’s sleeper requirements.

Douglas had been reluctant to take on a new design. The DC2 was in full production with 102 airframes already manufactured, and another 90 orders ready for the assembly line. A new model meant new tooling–an expensive gamble.

Littlewood’s drawings suggested the new design would be wider and have the DC2 center section and outer wing panels, but have a larger cockpit and tail surface than the DC2. When Douglas engineers reviewed Littlewood’s drawings, they estimated they would reuse about 80 percent of the original DC-2 design.

The DC-3

On July 8, 1935, Smith sent Douglas a telegram, ordering 10 of the new transports. The actual specifications for Smith’s proposed airplane arrived at Douglas Aircraft on Nov. 14, 1935. Before the first flight of the DC3, American Airlines had also doubled their initial order to eight Douglas Sleeper Transports and 12 DC3s.

The actual contract was signed on April 8, 1936. In today’s business environment the contract always precedes work, but in 1935, American Airlines and Douglas had such faith in each other’s dependability and integrity that the construction came first and the contract after delivery. Littlewood, his assistant, Otto Kirchner, and Raymond worked nearly six months on the design.

“We gave Bill (Littlewood) almost a free hand in establishing the dimensions in the cabin and deciding what went into the cockpit layout,” said Raymond. “The DC3 was a product of teamwork. This was the primary reason it was so successful.”

American Airlines flew a Curtiss Condor to Santa Monica so the Douglas engineers could study the berths and improve on them. Littlewood and Harry Wetzel lay down in the mock-up berths to judge the size and to find the best position for the reading light, call button and airsick cup. When Wetzel felt closed in, they decided to install a small window (unique to the 38 DSTs manufactured) in the upper berths to prevent claustrophobia.

What rolled out of the shop on Dec. 14, 1935, was much more than Littlewood had put on paper. It was a new aircraft, both in design and size. It had a wider and longer fuselage, greater span, larger empennage area, stronger landing gear and more power than the DC2. The final product used only about 10 percent interchangeable DC2 parts.

Aviation design had taken giant steps in a few short years. Douglas engineers discovered certain color combinations tied into a general uneasiness among passengers. The DC-3/DST didn’t use certain shades of green, since tests revealed it gave some passengers balance problems and airsickness. Patterns in colors, although the colors were satisfactory, also caused passenger discomfort.

Carpets in the DC-3 were dark to give the feeling of strength and security underfoot. The walls and ceiling were light in color to prevent an uncomfortable feeling of confinement, and evoke a feeling of “airiness and freedom.”

Donald W. Douglas created thousands of military airplanes as well as 10 generations of successful commercial airplanes.

Donald W. Douglas created thousands of military airplanes as well as 10 generations of successful commercial airplanes.

On Dec. 17, 1935, the DC-3 began to move down the runway at Clover Field, slowly at first, but within 1,000 feet it lifted off effortlessly. The lives of millions of people throughout the world for decades to come were about to change.

In contrast to maiden flights of today’s aircraft, covered extensively by the media, this flight, like the maiden flight of the DC1, went virtually unnoticed by the press, but turned out to be one of the most significant events of the 20th century. The historic flight drew so little corporate attention that no one thought to photograph the event.

The DST configuration was the first aircraft off the production line. American Airlines used it in a day-plane configuration until the DC3 came off the line in September 1936. Coasttocoast air travel on American Airlines’ new DST sleeper service began on Sept. 18, 1936. American’s DC3 “Flagship Mercury Service” reduced coasttocoast time to 15 hours westbound and 19.5 hours eastbound. The fare was $269.90 round trip.

American Airlines’ DC-3/DST was the first American aircraft to have hot kitchen facilities. No longer did captive passengers have to eat boxed lunches consisting of a cold sandwich and a piece of fruit. Now flight attendants served hot, full course meals–and they were free.

American Airlines offered meals served on genuine Syracuse china, with Reed and Barton silverware. Wild rice pancakes with blueberry syrup, cheese omelets or julienne of ham omelets were the breakfast choices. For dinner there was either chicken Kiev, duckling a l’orange, breast of chicken Jeanette, strip sirloin or filet mignon, served with a choice of salads and pastries for dessert. Luncheons were light, featuring consommé, fried chicken, peas and mashed potatoes, with ice cream and chocolate sundaes for desert.

In 1936, the DC-3 helped American Airlines show its first profit in years–$4,590. By 1937, their earnings were up more than $1,400,000, with a 22 percent increase in revenue passengers. The DC3 enabled the airline to fly passengers only and show a profit.

World War II

In September 1939, war broke out in Europe. Douglas was suddenly swamped with orders for the C47, which was still on the drawing board. As a stopgap measure, Douglas engineers modified the DC2. They assembled a DC2 fuselage to a DC3 tail, added more powerful engines, and called it the C39. The Army ordered 35 of them, and it became the nucleus for the Army’s first Air Transport Group.

By Dec. 7, 1941, the Army Air Corps had ordered 957 C47s. The orders flooded the Santa Monica plant, and Douglas opened a plant in Long Beach, Calif. Before war production had ended, Douglas opened plants in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla. In 1942, the massive wartime orders began to pour into the Douglas plants. By December 1942, Douglas received orders for 5,500 C47s and its variants.

Orders kept coming in, but the next massive order came in February 1944, when the Army asked Douglas to manufacture an additional 2,000 C47s. June saw another order for 1,100 C47s. The last order, for 1,469 C47 and its variants, came in July 1944, but not all of this order was completed.

Douglas delivered 2,000 C47s by April 1944, in time for the DDay invasion. By that time, the Oklahoma City plant was turning out a record 1.8 C47s an hour, besides the other aircraft it was producing. In May 1944, two plants, Oklahoma City and Long Beach, produced 573 completed C47s. Working 31 days, the production output was equivalent to 18.5 planes a day. In May 1945, the Long Beach plant alone produced more than 415 C47s, in addition to 120 Boeing B17 bombers in the same month.

Based on the same engineering design, from outward appearances, the C47 was almost the twin sister of the DC3; the astrodome was the most obvious difference. Beneath the looks, the C47 production presented many design challenges for Douglas.

“The C47 wasn’t a very hard airplane to sell; it was just a question of putting the right type of door on it,” said Arthur Raymond.

The Army wanted a large cargo-loading door, and that was a challenge. Douglas engineers realized that to cut the door opening they would need to reinforce the airframe or the tail would fall off. With the new door opening, the Army could roll a Jeep or small artillery piece into the airplane, but the floor wouldn’t support the weight. Reinforcing the floor added even more weight to the airplane. Weights and balance engineers trimmed and changed the shape of the rudder and stabilizer slightly until they got the desired results.

Although the C47 was a universal transport the constant military modifications resulted in such an assortment of models, and designations, it became difficult to track them. In all, there were 55 variants, all having their roots in the DC2 and DC3.

The C-47 had a major influence on the outcome of the war. During the first airdrop of the Sicilian Campaign, called Operation Ladbroke, on June 9, 1943, 147 aircraft, including 112 C47s towing 137 Waco CG4, and eight Horsa gliders carried 1,600 British troops. It was the most successful aerial assault of the invasion. The glider missions that followed were disasters.

Operation Huskey 1 involved 226 C47s and 3,400 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. Eight C47s were lost to enemy action. Operation Huskey 2 was nearly a complete disaster. After 144 C47s dropped 2,000 troops to reinforce the 82nd Airborne, 23 C47s were lost, and more than 60 were badly damaged. Operation Fustian, on July 13, involved 132 C47s. Of those, 14 C47s were lost and 50 badly damaged; 27 returned without completing their drops. After that, the USAAF used special “invasion” markings for all Allied aircraft.

On June 6, 1944, the invasion of Europe by Allied Forces began. Part of this contingent was the largest airborne armada ever assembled to that point. The first wave of transports included 821 C-47s. In the first 24 hours, there were at least 1,674 sorties by C-47s, towing 513 gliders, from more than 20 bases in England. At the height of the invasion one C-47 took off every 11 seconds, with an average of 20 paratroopers aboard each aircraft. They flew in waves of four abreast, and stretched more than 200 miles from the southern coast of England to the Cherborg Peninsula.

“The steady stream of transports kept coming and coming in an endless sky train. The awe of it stopped the fighting in some sectors as men looked skyward with unbelieving eyes,” CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood reported.

Passengers dine on a TWA DC-2.

Passengers dine on a TWA DC-2.

Between Sept. 17, 1944 and March 24, 1945, more than 10,000 C-47s hauled more than 6,000 gliders into combat. By the end of the war, the C47 had carried 22 million tons of goods and flown 67 million passengermiles. The C-47s under the Air Transport Command logged on the average 15 to 19 hours a day in the air.

For every use found for the C-47, someone created a new nickname. Americans called it the “Gooney Bird,” “Doug,” “Dumbo,” “Old Fatso,” “Charlie 47,” “Skytrain,” “Skytrooper” and “Tabby.” The British called it the “Dak” and the “Dakota,” a clever acronym, DACoTA, which stood for Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft.

The RCAF called one squadron of Dakotas “The Flying Elephants.” The Russians called it the “PS84” and the “Li2.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization gave the Russian Li2 the code name “CAB.” The French Navy called it “The Beast.” It even enjoyed the fleeting nickname “Biscuit Bomber,” after dropping 5,000 cases of rations to General Patton’s troops in France.

Civilian pilots called it the “Three,” “Old Methuselah,” “The Placid Plodder,” “The Dowager Dutchess,” “The Flying Vagrant” and the “Dizzy Three.” In Vietnam, it earned the sobriquets “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Puff,” “Spooky” and “The Dragon Ship.”

Most people remember “Gooney Bird.” Some say the name came from the South Pacific where small atolls were the home of the wandering albatross, the giant seagulllike bird noted for its powers of flight, and sometimes unflattering, but safe landings. Some GIs said the C47 looked like the bird, with a heavy body and long wings, and mimicked the bird in its struggle to get off the rainsoaked dirt fields.

Berlin Airlift

On June 24, 1948, the Russians blockaded the land routes into the Allied sector of Berlin. The USAF and the RAF used C-47s (and the C-54) as the leading edge of a 15month airlift of food, medicine and fuel that neared the total tonnage moved during World War II.

At first, C47s comprised 85 percent of the total aircraft flown. Many flew with 8,000-pound payloads, again greatly exceeding the Douglas specifications. Through an error in an invoice, one C47 flew 13,500 pounds of steel, more than twice the weight recommended. Of course, the plane protested, and was reluctant to fly, but did anyway. When it landed, tail wheel first, the weight blew both main tires.

In the first three months of the blockade, C-47s made more than 12,000 round trips between West Germany and Berlin. One C47 flew continuously for 327 hours, 27 minutes.


In the 1960s, in Vietnam, 20 years after production had ceased, the C47 was born again into a new role. What Donald Douglas designed as a basic passenger airplane evolved into a highly efficient gunship, designated the AC47.

AC47 gunships had three windowmounted, electrically-operated 7.62 mm machine guns, positioned in the fourth, fifth and sixth port windows. The guns provided 18,000 rounds a minute of murderous firepower and flew over the eerie nighttime jungle, dropping flares on Viet Cong positions. The flames and tracer bullets coming from the gunship were so awesome the Viet Cong called the old “Gooney Birds” “Dragon ships.” We called it “Spooky.”

The AC-47 successfully defended over 6,000 villages and hamlets. The gunship flew with a crew of eight: the pilot, copilot, navigator, mechanic, two ordnance men (to load the machine guns), a flare launcher and a Vietnamese observer.

Total Production

There have been many attempts to record accurately the production figures for the DC3/C-47 and the variants. There was a problem of duplicate serial numbers, and some historians counted remanufactured aircraft twice. According to McDonnell Douglas records this author saw, there were 10,632 airframes built. No civilian transport before or since has been built in such numbers.

The total military versions of the C47 variants were 10,291. Douglas records also show that of the 10,632 machines built, three were built as spares; this figure doesn’t include the post-war DC3C, DC3D and DC3S (Super DC3), which were remanufactured airframes, and in the case of the Super DC3, assigned new construction numbers. An additional 487 Japanese DC3s were manufactured by the Showa Company, and according to one reliable source, 6,157 Russian Li2s were manufactured, bringing the grand total to at least 17,276 airframes.

The stories and the tales of the “Dakota” are probably endless. The profound worldwide effect of the DC-3 was the result of a combination of filling a need, sound economics, and one man, Donald Douglas, whose engineering and management ability pulled together the forces that created the most successful prop-driven airplane ever to fly.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine what the next half-century would bring,” Arthur Raymond, chief engineer on the DC3 project, told this author in 1988. “Ten thousand DC3s? Are you crazy?”

Today there are somewhere between 600 and 1,000 DC-3/Dakotas believed to be airworthy worldwide. Low-lead fuel has taken its toll on the piston engines, some parts are becoming hard to find, and high maintenance cost–as high as $1,600 per hour–has resulted in some survivors heading to the scrap pile, or a museum. For those of us who have piloted, or flown in one, we will remember the magic. She always brought us home.

Henry Holden welcomes comments, questions, anecdotal stories and new information on the DC-3/C-47. Contact him at