Beneficiary of the epoch- making DC-2’s technology, the DC-3 is generally considered the greatest single commercially transport in the history and certainly the most famous. The DC-3 revolutionized air travel to the extent not equalled until the jet age. Much of that revolution involved safety; for in 1937, thanks to its reputation for its strength and reliability, air travel insurance finally became available to the general public. DC-3s are still flying seven decades after its debut, a tribute to the soundness of its brilliant design and are likely to continue to be flying well into the 21st century. This was the airliner that not only made flying respectable, but enabled the struggling young industry to end its complete reliance on mail subsidies and finally come close to making money just by carrying people.
The Douglas DC-3 by Arthur Pearcy – 1982 Aircraft Profile No: 96
As its design implies, the DC-3 was the third commercial model developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company. A couple of years earlier in 1933, Douglas, then a comparatively small manufacturer specialising in torpedo and observation aircraft for the American armed forces, had bid successfully for a new passenger aircraft ordered by Transcontinental & Western Airlines. Known as the DC-1 in the earliest model, and as the DC-2 after it went into quantity production, this first Douglas entry into the transport field revolutionised the industry. However, the DC-2 was not alone. In 1932 Boeing had introduced the first really modern airliner, the 247. Of all-metal construction, this advanced twin-engine monoplane carried ten passengers and a crew of two at a top speed of nearly 180 mph. The new airlines were not slow to realise its tremendous capabilities and United Air Lines invested $4,000,000 on a fleet of no less than sixty of these machines.
Jack Frye, vice-president of TWA a newly formed airline operating noisy Ford and Fokker tri-motors, visualised the present and future needs of TWA and wrote to his friend Donald Douglas with a specification for a new transport aircraft. This historic letter formed the birth certificate of the DC-1, forerunner of the famous DC-3. With the introduction of the Boeing 247 and DC-2 fierce competition raged in air transport. Among the operators who were losing heavily to their better equipped competitors was American Airlines, whose slow old Curtis Condors were flying almost empty, despite the attraction of the sleeper berths with which they were fitted. From the date of its formation on 13th May 1934 to the end of that year, the company had lost over one million dollars flying its fourteen passenger Condors, twelve passenger Fokkers and a variety of smaller aircraft most of them empty, over their 4,000 odd miles of route.
But as good as the DC-2 was, American decided it wanted something better. They wanted to retain their luxury sleeper traffic, and the DC-2 was just too narrow to accommodate a comfortable berth. One summer afternoon in 1935, President C. R. Smith, telephoned Donald Douglas from Chicago. What American wanted, specifically, was a larger, more comfortable plane which could lure the luxury trade. Douglas already had more DC-2 orders than he could handle, so they were reluctant to take on any new headaches, but eventually he was persuaded to try. American agreed to buy twenty of them, with an option of twenty more, at a price of dollars $10,000 each. In those days the aviation business was so run that this $2,000,000 plus contract was accepted over the phone by Douglas, with nothing on paper until months after the first aircraft had been delivered.
With Fred Stineman of Douglas as project chief, engineers from the airline and manufacturer worked together for the rest of 1935 on the designs for the new transport. William Littlewood, American Airlines chief engineer, spent most of his time at the Douglas plant, and the success of the design owes much to his co-operation. It was known then as the Douglas Sleeper Transport, or DST, and incorporated a number of ideas borrowed from the Pullman Company, of railway fame.
The initial layout had seven upper and seven lower berths, with a separate private cabin up front for honeymoon couples. The wider fuselage was combined with the nose, under-carriage and wings of the DC-2, using larger wing-tips to extend the span from 85 to 95 ft., since the gross weight had gone up to 24,000 Ib. The length was increased from 62 to 65,5 ft. It was powered by two 900-h.p. Wright Cyclone engines giving a cruising speed of 180 mph, the increased power being matched by larger tail surfaces. The new aircraft could carry a useful payload of 9,000 Ib. and a gross weight of 25,000 Ib. It was realised that by taking out the berths they could make room for a third row of seats, two on one side of the aisle and one on the other, instead of just the two rows in the DST day plane Boeing 247 and DC-2 . The 50 per cent increase in payload, from 14 to 21 passengers, could comfortably be lifted by bigger engines, yet its operating cost would be only 3 per cent higher than that of the DC-2. Thus was born the DC-3, the most successful transport aircraft ever built, and the first to carry enough passengers comfortably and at low enough fares to allow air transport to really develop.
FIRST FLIGHT AND INTO SERVICE
The logbook for the prototype machine, registered X14988 type DST, serial No. 1494, begins with an entry on 14th December 1935 recording a three-hour run up on each of the Cyclone engines. On 6th December the run up was repeated and on 17tn December, after each engine had been run up for 30 minutes by Crew chief Woolfolk, the aircraft taxied out at Clover Field, now Santa Monica, and took off at 3 pm. Touchdown was at 4.40 pm just as it was getting dusk. The pilot was Carl A. Cover who had flown the DC-1 on its maiden flight. He was accompanied by engineers Fred Stineman and Frank Collbohm. Everything went smoothly..…(17th December 1935 incidentally, was the thirty-second anniversary of the Wright Brothers historic "First Flight").
Carrying the livery of American Airlines, the aircraft was retained by Douglas for test flying before being handed over to the airline on 11th July 1936 as NC14988 "Flagship Texas". The DC-3 was not only bigger than the DC-2 but also much easier and safer to fly. The automatic pilot then only recently developed by the Sperry Gyroscope Company, was installed as standard equipment. Two sets of instruments were installed in the cockpit, each independent of the other; if one set went unserviceable the other was there for an emergency. Because the airlines were beginning to go in for night flights, special lights to illuminate the instrument panel were designed. So excellent was the design that the basic specifications for the aircraft were never changed—a rare thing in aviation. The DC-3 was an immediate success. The first American Airlines DC-3 went into service on 7th June 1936 on the non-stop New York to Chicago route. Orders poured m from other US. and foreign airlines. The speed with which the airline industry converted to DC-3s s seemed limited only by the rate at which Douglas could produce them at Santa Monica plant ….and the rest is history.
Fifty Glorious Years – A Pictorial Tribute to the Douglas DC-3 1935 – 1985 Arthur Pearcy, Airlife Publishing Ltd and Sixty Glorious Years DC-3 by Arthur Pearcy Airlife Publishing Ltd 1995
The Grand Old Lady - Douglas DC-3/C-47 (Part 1)
The Grand Old Lady - Douglas DC-3/C-47 (Part 2)
The Grand Old Lady - Douglas DC-3/C-47 (Part 2)