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The DC-3: Still flying after all these years

March 1, 2002, by Bill Cawthon

After closing my first year with historic German automobiles, it seems only fair to start my second year with a classic American airplane. By any measure, the Douglas DC-3 is one of the most significant aircraft in history. In aviation’s golden age, the DC-3 revolutionized commercial air travel by making it both popular and profitable. When the war began, the DC-3 became the C-47 Skytrain, one of the most versatile military aircraft ever built. Almost seven decades after its first flight, more than a thousand of these planes are still in service around the world.

Donald W. Douglas

Donald Wills Douglas (1892-1981) was born in Brooklyn, New York. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy and then enrolled as MIT’s first student majoring in aeronautics. After graduating in 1914, Douglas went to work as a design engineer for airplane manufacturer Glenn L. Martin in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1920, after working his way up to chief engineer, Douglas left Martin, moved his family to southern California and formed his own aircraft company. He had only $600 but he quickly found financial backing from David R. Davis, who put up $40,000 to produce an airplane that would make the first coast-to-coast, non-stop flight.

The new Davis-Douglas Company’s first offices were in the back of a barbershop on Pico Avenue in Los Angeles. Later, the company moved to a loft above a planing mill. It was here that Douglas, along with five other ex-Martin employees, designed the Cloudster to attempt the transcontinental flight envisioned by Davis. Douglas’ team built the parts in the loft and lowered them down a shaft. They were then carried to a hangar at Goodyear field were the plane was being built. The Cloudster made its first flight on February 24, 1921. However, due to an engine failure, the Cloudster never did complete its cross-country flight.

After the failure of the Cloudster, Davis decided to get out of the airplane business and sold his share to Douglas. Fortunately, Douglas had already secured a Navy contract to build torpedo bombers and in July 1921, he struck out on his own and incorporated the Douglas Company. One of the first things he did was expand his working area. Douglas found an old movie studio on Wilshire Boulevard. Using the design of his successful DT-2 torpedo plane, Douglas began working on the Douglas World Cruiser. The World Cruiser was more successful than the Cloudster and became the first plane to circumnavigate the globe. The company’s slogan became “Around the world first - First around the world.”

While Douglas worked on the World Cruiser, his company was producing a variety of aircraft for the government. The versatile Douglas Torpedo design became the basis for mail planes, Army observation planes, military transports and the first aerial tanker. By 1926, Douglas was producing 120 aircraft a year and had become one of the major players in aviation. On November 30, 1928, the company was incorporated as the Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc., the name it retained until its merger with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967. Within a year, Douglas stock was considered one of the best investments in the transportation industry. Even during the Depression, the Douglas plant remained busy.

The story of the DC-3 began in the early 1930s, when Douglas decided to compete for a new airliner for Trans Continental & Western Airlines, the predecessor of TWA. Boeing had introduced their new twin-engine airliner, the 247, but was giving preference to United Air Lines (United was formed from the old Boeing Air Transport Company after the federal government prohibited aircraft manufacturers from operating a commercial airline). Trans Continental wanted a three-engine plane, but Douglas convinced them to consider a twin-engine plane like the 247.

Boeing’s 247 was the first modern airliner. It was eclipsed by the DC-2 and DC-3.

Photo courtesy of The Boeing Company.

On July 1, 1933, the DC-1 made its maiden flight. Although it was slightly slower than the Boeing airplane, the DC-1 could carry more passengers and had a longer range. Trans Continental was impressed but wanted even more passenger capacity, so Douglas agreed to develop a longer plane. Trans

Continental placed an order for 25 of the new airliner. Less than a year later, the first DC-2 made its first flight. The DC-2’s increased payload and more powerful engines made it very popular with the airlines. It set 19 American speed and distance records in its first six months in commercial service. In 1934, with a sale to KLM, it became the first American commercial airliner purchased by a foreign carrier.

One hundred fifty-six DC-2s were built from 1934-1947. In contrast, Boeing sold only 76 of the 247, most of them to its Boeing Air Transport subsidiary. Boeing would not again be a factor in the commercial aircraft market until the beginning of the jet age in the late 1950s.

American Airlines liked the DC-2 but wanted a

The DC-3 is considered one of the greatest aircraft of all time.

Photo courtesy of The Boeing Company.


larger plane that could accommodate Pullman-style berths for overnight flights. They also wanted another plane capable of carrying more passengers on day flights. Douglas responded with two variations of the same design. The first version was called the Douglas Skysleeper Transport. The DST carried fourteen passengers in comparative luxury with comfortable seats that converted into sleeping berths. Additional berths folded down from the ceiling. The DST flew for the first time on December 17, 1935 and the first plane was delivered in June 1936. In August of 1936, Douglas delivered the second version, which was first standard, 21-passenger DC-3.

The key to the DC-3’s success was the fact it was the first commercial airliner able to make money without government mail contracts or subsidies. It did this by being able to carry enough passengers to pay for itself. Needless to say, the airlines loved it and within two years of the DC-3’s introduction, Douglas had orders from thirty more airlines, including United. From 1936 until the beginning of the Second World War, Douglas built 445 DC-3s. By the end of the 1930s, nine out of ten American air travelers made their journey on a DC-2 or DC-3. By the time Douglas Aircraft stopped collecting statistics on the DC-3 in the 1960s, they had already carried a total of 700 million passengers and flown 100 billion miles. That’s more

C-47 Skytrain.
U.S. Army photo.

than twelve round trips to Pluto.

When America entered the war, the military needed a dependable transport plane. The seats were stripped out and the DC-3 became the Army’s C-47 Skytrain, C-53 Skytrooper and the Navy’s R4D. The first C-47 rolled out of Douglas’ main plant in Long Beach, California, on December 23, 1941, just over two weeks after the attack on Pearl harbor. By the end of the war, Douglas workers had built 29,385 aircraft, including 10,174 C-47s in a number of configurations. At peak production, Douglas was producing 1.8 aircraft per hour.

C-47s carried cargo, towed gliders and ferried paratroopers to their destinations. They saw action in every theater of operations and kept the Allied forces in China supplied by flying cargo over the Himalayas. The Skytrain, which the British called the Dakota, picked up a host of nicknames. Probably the most famous moniker was “Gooney Bird.” After the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the C-47 one of the most important instruments of victory in World War II (the others were the jeep, bazooka and atomic bomb).

Douglas had constantly made improvements to the DC-3, culminating in an improved version called the DC-3S or Super DC-3. Among its other improvements, the DC-3S had a larger wing and more powerful engines. However, even before World War II, all of the aircraft companies had been developing larger and more advanced aircraft with four engines. The time of the small, twin-engine airliner was past and the DC-3S met with limited success. Douglas delivered the last DC-3 to Belgium’s Sabena Airlines in 1946.

Even though production had ended, the C-47 had really just begun its military career. They were the first planes to fly in the Berlin Airlift and carried out support roles in the Korean War. They were still flying cargo in the Vietnam War, but many combat veterans probably remember some of them better as “Puff the Magic Dragon.” “Puff” was a nickname given to the AC-47 (Attack-Cargo) gunship. Officially dubbed the “Spooky,” this plane carried three side-firing GE 7.62mm electric guns and was said to be able to put a round in each square yard of a football field in three seconds.

The last C-47 in U.S. military service was retired in 1975, thirty-four years after the first one rolled off the line. Canada mothballed their last Dakota in 1988. It’s estimated that three hundred Gooney Birds are still on active duty in other military services.

There are three 1:500 scale DC-3 models in the current Herpa Wings collection. All are worthy of a place in your aircraft collection.

511377 U.S. Air Force “Fassberg Flyer.” The prototype of this model was actually a C-47 and one of the planes used in the 1948 Berlin Airlift. The Germans called them “Rosinenbomber” or “Candy Bombers” because the crews would often give the children of Berlin a treat by dropping sweets attached to small parachutes as they made their flights in and out of Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. Since the Potsdam accords dividing Germany had given the Western Allies only three air corridors into Berlin, the location of staging points became critical. Faßberg (Fassberg), in the British sector, was the site of a reasonably intact former Luftwaffe base and had the advantage of having the shortest air route to Berlin.

511421 LOT Polish Airlines 70th anniversary. The Herpa listing reads, “On January 29, 1999, LOT Polish Airlines celebrated their 70th anniversary – a great occasion to update the Polish airline’s fleet.” Of course, LOT upgraded their aircraft long ago. LOT’s very modern fleet includes Boeing 767s and next-generation 737-500s as well as smaller planes from Embraer and Aerospatiale. Back in the mid-1930s, LOT did fly some DC-2s.

516716 Lufthansa German Airlines. As far as I have been able to discover, Lufthansa never bought any new DC-3s, although they did have a few Boeing 247s. From the airline’s beginning in 1926 until the Second World War, Junkers supplied the majority of Lufthansa’s aircraft. The prototype for Herpa’s model, with registration D-CADE, was actually a C-47 Dakota that had been converted to civilian passenger configuration. It was one of three such planes used by the German airline when it resumed operation in 1955.

If you have not yet started your own Wings collection, the DC-3 is a wonderful place to start. I know because I am now the proud owner of a Herpa “Fassberg Flyer,” my first Wings model. But definitely not my last.

I want to extend my sincere thanks for the information and resources provided by The Boeing Company (McDonnell Douglas Corporation merged with Boeing in 1997).

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005