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The Mother of Modern Day Aircraft

Douglas C-47 Skytrain
Douglas C-47 Skytrain during the Berlin Blockade.

This past March I booked a flight with Swoop Airlines: Hamilton, Ontario to Abbotsford, British Columbia, knowing that the airline used the Boeing 737 jetliner, a stubby, short- to medium sized jetliner. Then that same week, I heard about the second crash (both shortly after takeoff) in only a few months of the new 737 Max 8, which sent  me scurrying back to the Swoop website to see if they flew any such models. It turned out they didn’t. Whew! I was safe.

Then again, all the Max 8’s were quickly grounded in another couple days throughout the world until Boeing could figure out what was going on. Apparently there was a computer problem. It seems that when the Max 8s would take off, the computer would display that the aircraft was in too steep of a climb (when it wasn’t at all) and would then take over and level the airliner out. The trouble was what was supposed be leveling out actually made the aircraft take a nosedive. In response, the crews of both aircraft had to manually fight the computer several times before going into the ground and killing all aboard. 

Rest assured, people, the American-built Boeing 737 and its variants--prior to the Max 8--is the workhorse of passenger jetliners with an excellent record for safety and durability. Since it first flew in 1967, over 10,000 737’s have been distributed around the around, making it the highest-selling commercial jetliner in history. 

The Dakota
The Dakota at the Canadian Warplane Heritage in Hamilton, Ontario. Taken by me in September 2018.

Thirty years before that, during the Great Depression, an extremely popular aircraft emerged--the workhorse of the prop era--that is still talked about in the industry. In fact, it set the stage for the 737 and all other jet aircraft afterwards. It’s often referred to as the “Holy Grail of Aircraft Design,” the most significant airplane of all time, and a machine of sound structure. Whether in it was in the commercial or military models, it never failed in reliability. Pilots loved it and still do because many are flown around the world today. It’s the Douglas DC-3, and it changed everything when it hit the commercial market in the mid-1930s. After that air travel suddenly became a lot safer, and a lot less nail-biting and scary.

The DC-3 came into being when rival Boeing Aircraft designed, built and flew their 247 model in February 1933, the first all-metal airliner with retractable landing gear, along with autopilot, trim tabs, and de-icing equipment for the wings and tail-plane. Setting a cross-country record of 19½ hours from San Francisco to New York, the Boeing 247 became the darlings of TWA (Trans World Airlines) and UATC (United Aircraft and Transport Corporation). Contracts were signed, and delivery began. This spelled potential doom for Douglas, who encountered with the DC-1 and DC-2, before finally settling on the DC-3, all three twin-engine prototypes.

The Dakota at the Canadian Warplane Heritage in Hamilton, Ontario. Taken by me in September 2018.

First flown in 1935, the DC-3 saved Douglas from going out of business. While seventy-five 247s were built leading up to World War II, Douglas countered with 800 DC-3s before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, and over 16,000 in total by the time production ceased in the mid-1950s. 

The rugged, iconic aircraft--the world’s first successful commercial airliner--came in many versions, besides simply the DC-3. There was the C-47 Skytrain for the U.S. Army, the R4D for the U.S. Navy, and the Dakota for the Royal Air Force and Britain’s commonwealth countries, such as here in Canada. By the 1940s, over 90 percent of all civilian airlines operating in the United States had at least several DC-3s in their fleet.

Tagged with such nicknames as “Gooney Bird,” and “Dumbo”, the DC-3 was a low-wing twin-engine monoplane, 64 feet long and a wingspan of 95 feet. In commercial form, it could fly 28 passengers, the same amount of soldiers for the military: example, 28 fully armed paratroopers during the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II. With a surface ceiling of 23,000 feet, a maximum speed of 230 mph (270 mph in military form), a range of 1500-2000 miles, and equipped with either Pratt & Whitney or Wright radial engines of at least 1,000 horsepower, the DC-3 or any variant got the job done and then some. 

In commercial service, a two-man flight crew controlled the aircraft: for the military, where stronger engines were used, a three-man crew. The DC-3 cruised at 185 mph at 10,000 feet and had a low stall speed at 67 mph. Many pilots said that the DC-3 could land by itself, and that it handled very well on takeoffs, landings, and in-flight. A breeze, no pun intended.

The Dakota
The Dakota at the Canadian Warplane Heritage in Hamilton, Ontario. Taken by me in September 2018.

As a military transport, the DC-3 could move 18 wounded troops plus three medical staff to safety. Also, utilized for the D-Day invasion, the C-47 version towed gliders or even be a glider itself by removing the engines and deploying 40 armed troops ready to hit the battle front in occupied France.

The C-47 also made its mark during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949, as one of the Allied cargo airplanes landing every minute at West Berlin airports to feed and clothe the population during the Cold War confrontation, when the Russians decided to block rail, water and auto access to the German capital in an attempt to starve the population.

Within an easy 30-minute driving distance to the Hamilton Warplane Heritage, I see the Douglas Dakota on occasion (the Canadian World War II military version of the DC-3 in the paint scheme of the Royal Canadian Air Force) fly near our house in Oakville, Ontario. There’s no mistaken that distinct, guttural sound of her engines, as memorable as the sound and sight of the four-engine Avro Lancaster (also from the Hamilton Warplane Heritage) flying over. 

The attached colored photos are of the Dakota taken by yours truly at Hamilton. She is one of 300 hundred DC-3s still taking to the wild blue yonder around the globe. Quite a proud legacy for a rugged twin-engine prop first built in 1935, an aircraft that Popular Mechanics has labeled a real “badass plane” and an “aviation legend.”


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