The Douglas DC-3

Douglas DC-3


In 1935, the first Douglas DC-3 took to the skies which began an incredible advancement in transportation that started the world on its way to a fast, reliable, and safe way to travel. The DC-3 had a lasting effect on the airline industry and made it one of the most significant transports ever made.

The Dc-3 was an all-metal monoplane that was designed to be an all-sleeper version of the DC-2. It was fast, reliable could operate off short runways. Plus it had a good range (for the time), easy to maintain, and provide passengers with great comfort.

In the 1930s, the DC-3 pioneered many new routes across the country, making it possible to fly transcontinental in a matter of a few hours. It was the first airliner to make money by carrying passengers alone.

The Civil DC-3 ended production in 1942, but the military venison, the C-47 (also known as the Dakota in England) continued on in production until 1950. There were 607 Civil DC-3s and over 16,000 military versions of all types built between 1936 and 1950.

After World War II, as aviation technology advanced, big four-engine aircraft like the Lockheed Constellation and the DC-4 replaced the smaller DC-3. However, the DC-3 continued to service many communities through the years.

There were estimated over 2,000 DC-3s still flying as of 2013 throughout the world. Most of these aircraft were used in a “niche “role, quite a testament to the design of this popular and sturdy aircraft.

Design and Development

The DC-3 came about from an inquiry by Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA) to Douglas Aircraft about designing and building an aircraft for TWA. The rival of TWA was United Airlines. They had a contract with Boeing for the Boeing 247. The contract stated that Boeing Aircraft could not sell any “247s” until the United Airlines order of 60 aircraft was fulfilled.

In the 1930s aircraft building was still a budding art and TWA could not afford to wait until United had all of their aircraft. The DC-1 (DC means Douglas Commercial) had promise and the DC-2 was a great advancement, but there was still room for some improvement.

Then American Airlines CEO called Donald Douglas CEO of Douglas Aircraft. and convinced him that American would buy 20 DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport) which were just slightly bigger than the DC-2. The DST had 14-16 sleeping berths with a cabin width of just 92 inches.

The Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST)

The berths were atop each other like a Pullman railroad car but the passenger goes to sleep at night on an Eastbound transcontinental trip of about 15 hours with 3 refueling stops. The Westbound trip was about 17 1/2 hours. Prior to this, most aircraft were too slow and short-range to fly at night.

The trip from San Francisco to New York, for example in the pre-DC-3 days, consisted of flying several hundred miles in the day and taking a train at night, and then resuming the flight the next day.

Douglas also made the DST frame into daytime seats and called the DC-3.   American Airlines received the first DST and DC-3.

The original engines on the early DC-3/DST were Wright R-1830 Cyclone 98. Later the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp had better efficiency at higher altitudes and safer single-engine performance. All military versions had the Pratt & Whitney 1830 Twin Wasp. Near the end of production, a few of the new DC-3s had Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasps.

There were 607 versions of the DC-3 and 10,048 C-47 and C-53 military versions.  The Soviet Union under license built 4,937 military variants from 1935-1935.  The Japanese from 1935-1945 under license built 487 aircraft called”Tabbys”.

Douglas Aircraft developed and upgraded what they called the “Super DC-3” with a larger tail, longer fuselage, sawed-off wing tips, and Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasp rated 1,475 hp.  Unfortunately, the war-surplus glut limited sales to only 5.  Three went to Capital Airlines and 2 to United States Navy (USN).

Iranian Airlines in 1954

Operational History

On 26 June 1936, American Airlines inaugurated DC-3 service from Newark New Jersey, and Chicago Illinois.  In spite of TWA’s request from Donald Douglas to design a special aircraft for them, they used the DC-2 for a while and eventually upgraded the DC-3.  American, United, TWA, Delta, Eastern, Continental Airlines, and Piedmont Airlines all ordered a total of over 400 DC-3s.

Piedmont’s and Continental’s DC-3 entry was a little later than some of the other airlines,  as they operated the DC-3 from 1948-1963.  Continental DC-3 was a little later as they operated a DC-3 between Colorado Springs and Denver in 1964-66.

On the international scene, KLM in 1936 got their first DC-3.  Regretfully it was shot down by Luftwaffe fighters in 1943.  In all KLM ordered 23 Dc-3s.

Nearly every country in the world has had a C-47 or DC-3 or maybe even a DST.  For example, inspired by politics, Cubana de Aviacion operated flights from Havana to Miami in 1945 and on some domestic routes until the 1960s.

While some of these usages are not overly amazing, what is amazing is the DC-3 is still in use after 80 years plus since the initial flight on 17 December 1935.

Today it is used for passenger and cargo service,  military transport, missionary flying, skydiving, shuttling, sightseeing, and other uses.

The DC-3 continues to fly daily in active commercial and military service.  As of a short while ago, a DC-3 daily flew bread from Honolulu to Maui.

A number of aircraft manufacturers have attempted to “replace” the DC-3 over the past 40 years or so, no type could match the versatility, rugged reliability, and economy of the DC-3.

It is a common saying ..” to replace a DC-3, one has to replace it with another DC-3″.  I don’t think Donald Douglas and designer Arthur Raymond realized what they had designed, it changed the aviation world.

Where you can see the Douglas DC-3

The DC-3/C-47 was such a popular aircraft and still is.  If an air museum has any aircraft for display, it should have the venerable Douglas DC-3.

Turbo DC-3

Check With Your Local Air Museum for More Information.

Tech Specs for the Douglas DC-3

Wingspan: 95 ft 2 in

Length: 64 ft 8 in

Height: 16 ft 11 in

Weight: 16,865 lbs (empty); 25,199 lbs (MGTOW)

Max Speed: 200 mph

Ceiling: 23,2000 ft

Range: 4 hours cruise 

Engine: 2/Pratt & Whitney R-1830-S1CG Twin Wasp 14 cylinders radial engine rated at 1,200 hp

Crew: 2 (cockpit)

Passengers: 21-32


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