December 17 is a singularly significant date in aviation history. It was on that day in 1903 that the Wright brothers solved the mystery of controlled, powered, fixed-wing flight. But there’s another December 17 that is nearly as momentous. That day in 1935 — 60 years ago — the Douglas Aircraft Company rolled out and flew the legendary DC-3 airliner, indubitably the world’s most famous commercial airplane.
Normally, after six decades, most aircraft would be on display in a museum. Not so this one — the affectionately nicknamed ‘Gooney Bird.’ There are several hundred still flying, although the exact number is not known. Many of these are still being used in scheduled service; others have become executive transports. Some are used to haul cargo, from fresh fish and fertilizer to fruit and furniture in all climates and in all parts of the world.
Any U.S. airline of any size that was flying in the 1950s and 1960s had DC-3s in its stable, flying people, mail and cargo from one point to another. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines had scores of them performing similar duties as the C-47 for the Air Force and the R4D for the Navy and Marines. Dozens of armed forces around the world had military counterparts — or copies — in their inventories.
If they are still around after 60 years, how many years more life are left in the Grand Old Ladies of the Skies? There appears to be no limit, as they are still being sought for modernization with turboprops and space-age avionics. They could be said to be ageless, and at least one may be flying 600 years from now.
Although that statement could be challenged, consider this true story about a C-47 that crash-landed in full flight atop the Rosenlai Glacier in the Swiss Alps in 1946. The aircraft was not damaged as it slid to a slow stop during a blinding snowstorm. All aboard were eventually rescued; the Gooney was soon covered with snow and left to sink slowly into the glacial ice. Swiss glaciologists calculate that it will be spit out at the bottom of the glacier in 600 years. They claim it will be fairly intact and could easily be made to fly again. Those who have flown the Grand Old Lady will not doubt the possibility. The DC-3 has been used in peace and war for many purposes other than as a mover of people and cargo. It has been used as a military command post, glider, bomber, fighter, spray ship, flying laundry, post office, wire layer, flying hospital, photoreconnaissance and electronic countermeasures plane, air-sea rescue aircraft and forest fire fighter.
After a DC-3 has been taken out of service, it may be rescued by an aircraft repair company that will modernize it and put it back into service. If beyond salvage, DC-3s have been made into clubhouses, coffee shops, chicken coops, restaurants and, in several cases, mobile homes. In some instances, even these planes have been returned to flying duty when modification companies found out where they were.
It has been during America’s three most recent major wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — that the C-47/R4D has shown its capability to be modified and put to use in ways far different from what the Douglas engineers ever imagined. Perhaps the best example was during the Vietnam War, when Gooney Birds were equipped with side-firing, pilot-aimed Gatling-type machine guns that spewed 7.62mm slugs at a rate of 18,000 rounds per minute at enemy ground forces.
The saga of the DC-3 began in the early 1930s with the birth of its prototype, the one and only DC-1. Its ‘birth certificate’ was a letter from Jack Frye, vice president for Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), then a struggling company vying for position as one of the three large transcontinental airlines. Frye had written a simple, two-paragraph letter on August 2, 1932, to several aircraft manufacturers soliciting bids for ‘ten or more tri-motor transport planes.’ The specifications were for an all-metal monoplane with a maximum gross weight of 14,200 pounds, enough fuel to fly for 1,080 miles at 145 mph, and the capacity to carry 12 passengers plus a crew of four.
Frye’s letter had been a desperate move to compete with other airlines after the tragic crash of a TWA Fokker carrying Knute Rockne, Notre Dame’s famous football coach. The crash was attributed to deteriorated wood in the wing structure; the accident resulted in an acceleration of the trend toward all-metal airliners. The twin-engine Boeing 247 was just entering the market, but United Airlines had grabbed the bulk of Boeing’s production. This would put United far ahead of TWA and American, the other two major transcontinental carriers, in the move toward modern aircraft.
Frye’s letter was welcomed by Donald W. Douglas, who had been in the aircraft business since the early 1920s. His firm had engineered and produced a number of planes, most for the government. First had been the Cloudster, then the World Cruiser, in which Army Air Service fliers had circumnavigated the globe in 1924. The C-1 followed, and then the M-1, -2, -3 and -4, the first planes designed specifically to carry the mail. However, the Douglas plant was all but shut down by the middle of the Great Depression, when orders for new aircraft were next to impossible to come by. When Frye’s letter arrived, Douglas put his engineers to work immediately in round-the-clock sessions to design a plane that would comply with the specifications.
But the Douglas engineers did not feel bound by TWA’s requirements. The result was an entirely different concept. Taking advantage of the availability of more-powerful engines being developed by Pratt & Whitney and Wright, new techniques in fuselage and wing construction, and new types of controllable propellers, the engineers gave birth to a new airplane that set a fresh standard in aircraft design. It would be a monoplane with a semimonocoque fuselage and powered by two engines instead of the three specified by Frye. There would be retractable gear, and the interior of the plane would be quieter and more comfortable for passengers than any other plane ever built. There would be a lavatory and a small galley for preparing meals in flight. Passengers could stand up easily and walk around in the cabin.
Two weeks after receipt of the letter, Douglas engineers Harry Wetzel and Arthur Raymond traveled to New York and presented their preliminary drawings to Frye and his staff. The TWA representatives liked the Douglas proposal, but Charles A. Lindbergh, then an adviser to TWA, interjected a cautionary note. He recommended the concept be accepted but with one additional guarantee — such a plane would have to be able to take off with a full load from any point on the TWA route on one engine.
The DC-1 passed with flying colors, including an unprecedented takeoff on a single engine from Winslow, Ariz., with weight equaling a full load. TWA used the DC-1 as a flying laboratory, and immediately set a number of point-to-point speed records. One was during a flight from Burbank, Calif., to Newark, N.J., on February 18, 1934, when Frye and Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Air Lines teamed up to fly the last load of mail east just before President Franklin D. Roosevelt canceled the airmail contracts with the airlines. They made the nonstop flight in a coast-to-coast, record-setting 13 hours and four minutes.
Meanwhile, Douglas engineers had been considering improvements in the DC-1 as inquiries came in from prospective buyers. There were so many modifications to the DC-1 design that they gave it a new designation — DC-2, for Douglas Commercial, 2nd Model. In addition to modest structural improvements, the DC-2 could carry 14 passengers, a welcome increase in productivity. It had a range of 1,225 miles and could carry 5,880 pounds of payload.
The first DC-2 was accepted by TWA on May 15, 1934. KLM, the Royal Dutch Airlines, placed an order and entered its first DC-2 in the 1934 London-to-Melbourne Race. Twenty aircraft participated, including a Boeing 247 flown by Roscoe Turner and Clyde Pangborn, the only Americans to finish the race. Although a British de Havilland Comet specifically designed for the race took first place, the DC-2 placed second. It averaged 173 mph over the difficult 11,000-mile course. The 247 came in third.
There was worldwide interest in the Douglas design as a result of the race. Orders and inquiries began to pour into the Santa Monica plant, boosting production. Douglas received the Robert J. Collier Trophy in 1936 from President Roosevelt for the design and development of the DC-2 — ‘the most outstanding twin-engined transport plane.’ ‘This airplane,’ the president said, ‘by reason of its high speed, economy, and quiet passenger comfort has been generally adopted by transport lines throughout the United States. Its merit has been further recognized by its adoption abroad, and its influence on foreign design is already apparent.’
A total of 185 DC-2s eventually rolled off the production lines. Meanwhile, Douglas engineers stretched the DC-2 and provided 14 sleeping compartments to create a new plane, which was to be known as the Douglas Skysleeper Transport (DST). The motivation was an order from American Airlines, which wanted a faster plane to replace its Curtiss Condors on its coast-to-coast sleeper route. Although reluctant to give the go-ahead with another stretch version, Douglas was persuaded by an advance order for 20 DSTs. Widened, lengthened, with greater wingspan and more powerful Wright engines, the DST carried the new model designation DC-3. American began to put its DSTs into scheduled service on June 26, 1936. The first ticket was sold to film star Shirley Temple.
Only a couple of months after the first DST version of the DC-3 was delivered to American, the company began operating standard DC-3s, in which the sleeping berths were replaced by 21 seats for daytime operations. The DC-3 became, as American Airlines President C.R. Smith said, ‘the first airplane that could make money just by hauling passengers.’ Within a short time, airline pilots had given the DC-3 many nicknames: ‘Dizzy Three,’ ‘Old Fatso,’ ‘Placid Plodder,’ ‘Old Methuselah’ or, simply, ‘The Doug.’ The British gave it the official name of Dakota. When it was purchased by the U.S. military services, it carried a number of designations, depending on which branch of the service procured it, and minor design changes to fit special military missions. The most-produced model was the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) C-47 Skytrain. Of all the names given to this airplane, however, the one given by military pilots during World War II has stuck with it: Gooney Bird. It is so named for the ungainly albatross that inhabits the Pacific islands and is associated mostly with Midway Island.
The saga of the DC-3 is well known. Many stories have been written about its ‘impossible’ achievements, but one would think that they would have faded away long ago. There were many announcements in the 1970s of the DC-3 being retired from service by the airlines and military services. In May 1975, North Central Airlines retired ‘Old 728’ from its roster after 85,000 hours in the air — more than any other aircraft in the world at the time. During its time of airline service, which began in 1934, this one airplane had gone through 550 main gear tires, 136 engines and approximately 25,000 spark plugs. It was donated to the Ford Museum at Dearborn, Mich. Since then, at least one DC-3, still flying every day, has long ago exceeded that record.
The U.S. Air Force also officially retired its last C-47 after it made its final flight to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, at Dayton, Ohio, in June 1975. At the retirement ceremony, Jack Crosthwait, vice president of Douglas Aircraft Co., told the audience: ‘Some 3,000 DC-3s with varying designations are still flying around the world, privately and in both military and commercial service. And there probably will still be ‘retirements’ of this bird long after you and I have retired.’
Crosthwait listed a few interesting statistics about the famous Douglas ‘Three’ to set the record straight. ‘First of the commercial versions,’ he said, ‘the DST with sleeping berths was delivered in early 1936. First to go to the Air Corps was a C-41 version, delivered in October 1938, for use as General [Henry H. ‘Hap’] Arnold’s airplane.
‘Even company historians disagree slightly on the total number built by Douglas, but our most authentic figure on complete airplanes delivered new is 10,629. In addition, there were more than 100 remanufactured ‘Super DC-3s’ turned out, a hundred or so DC-3C and DC-3D versions, and several more amounting to complete aircraft that were delivered as spare parts.
‘The Russians built another 5,000 C-47s under the designation [Lisunov] Li-2 during the war, and added some 2,500 commercial versions after the war. In Japan, the Nakajima company built 71 aircraft, and the Showa Aircraft Company added 416, for a total of 487 C-47s made in Japan [designated L2D by the Japanese and Tabby by the Allies]. That makes a total of 18,616 that we know of.’
Airline pilots who have flown the DC-2 and DC-3 tell stories about these airplanes’ remarkable ability to stay in the air and carry loads that exceed their stated restrictions. Retired Eastern Air Lines Captain Charles W. Myers, who had 9,000 hours in the Gooney before making the transition to jets, told the author: ‘All of us on the airlines had a great respect for the Three. It, as no other aircraft, aided us in preparation for the ships of today and those to come.’ Captain Len Morgan, a former Braniff pilot, paid a compliment to the immortal plane. He said: ‘I came to admire this machine, which could lift virtually any load strapped to its back and carry it anywhere in any weather, safely and dependably. It groaned, it protested, it rattled, it leaked oil, it ran hot, it ran cold, it ran rough, it staggered along on hot days and scared you half to death, its wings flexed and twisted in a horrifying manner, it sank back to earth with a great sigh of relief — but it flew and it flew and it flew.’
The Gooney Bird was originally designed to carry only people, their baggage and mail, but its versatility was exploited during World War II in many ways. There were few men and women in uniform who did not benefit in some way at some time from the military versions of the DC airplane. They carried ammunition, gasoline, food and medical supplies to the fighting men at the front; they carried out the wounded to hospitals behind the lines; they carried tired combat crews to rest areas in Australia and New Zealand; and they brought fresh eggs and milk back to the Pacific islands on return trips. They carried paratroopers, and dropped hundreds of them behind enemy lines. The C-47 flew for the Partisans in Yugoslavia, was used as a bomber, and at least one is credited with a victory over an enemy fighter.
The vulnerability of the C-47 to enemy fire led to the installation of cabin windows with small plastic inserts that could be removed so troops being transported could fire their rifles at attacking fighters. One Gooney Bird in the South Pacific was equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns firing from the aft fuselage.
Proof of a Gooney Bird’s flexibility was the amphibious version that had two 41-foot pontoons attached — with retractable wheels. One Gooney was made into a combat glider by removing the engines and fitting nose cones over the nacelles; it was labeled the XCG-17 and was towed by a Consolidated B-24 in service tests. The C-47’s own capability to tow gliders was amply demonstrated during the Normandy invasion in 1944. Some C-47s were outfitted with skis for winter operations, and swiveling main wheels were experimented with to aid in crosswind landings. Although all these modifications were successful, none of them proved to be worth the expense of modifying a large number of aircraft.
After World War II, many Gooney Birds were refurbished and returned to service with the airlines. Military aircraft ‘boneyards’ were another source for many former military pilots and mechanics who wanted to fill the growing public demand for short-haul transports. Although newer aircraft were being designed, a new breed of airlines developed featuring the former C-47s — these were the ‘non-skeds’ that would fly anything, anywhere, anytime. Although there was a cry for new planes to replace them, the low cost of the used Goonies won out over the cost of new models produced by the various aircraft manufacturers struggling to survive in the postwar era.
For a decade after WWII, it seemed that the only replacement for a DC-3 was another DC-3. Douglas engineers, hearing the call, redesigned the Gooney once more and promptly labeled it the Super DC-3. The resulting airplane looked like a DC-3, but it had squared off wingtips and tail surfaces. Actually, 60 percent of the airplane was new.
The Super DC-3 fuselage was 79 inches longer, and a new outer wing panel was designed to compensate for weight-and-balance changes. The entrance door was re-engineered with built-in steps. Engine horsepower was increased; the historically slow wheel retraction time was reduced thanks to a hydraulic system redesign; and the electrical system was improved. In addition, a new heating unit was installed in the fuselage below the floor to solve a longtime problem of passenger-cabin heating. The first Super DC-3 flew in the spring of 1949. Slimmer in appearance, it could carry 10 more passengers than the older 21-passenger versions. It weighed 19,751 pounds, 2,500 more than its older sisters. However, it could now lift a total of 30,000 pounds, and its top speed was rated at 270 mph.
The U.S. Navy bought 100 of the Supers modified to its specifications, and Capital Airlines ordered three, but no more orders were received. One writer predicted at the time that ‘the shadow of extinction settled over a faithful servant to the airline community and the traveling public.’ The airlines began to buy newer Convairs, Martins and four-engine aircraft that were faster and carried more passengers. One might have agreed that, finally, the day of the DC-3/C-47 was over. But the military services still had hundreds of them, and a large number were sold to the airlines and air forces of foreign nations. A surplus C-47 could be bought for $12,000 or less, depending on its condition. There were also other buyers who did not care about the DC-3’s slow speed. They were less expensive to acquire, repair and refurbish and, best of all, more economical to operate. The Gooney refused to die. While flying scheduled runs with the world’s smaller airlines, it continued its workhorse role fighting fires, spraying and fertilizing, testing electronic and radar equipment, hauling outsized freight, and doing odd jobs that required dependability and flexibility.
The load-carrying capability of the Gooney is illustrated by many stories sworn to be true. One of the first passenger overload tales came from Jimmy Doolittle after his famous 1942 raid on Japan. He was being evacuated from China to return to the States, and he flew on a Gooney with a total load of 68 passengers and a crew of two. As they unloaded in India, an additional eight stowaways staggered out of the aft compartment! However, this was not the end of the stories of how many humans can fit into a Gooney. Perhaps the maximum number of passengers was carried March 23, 1975, when 98 Vietnamese orphan children, five attendants and a crew of three made an evacuation flight from Du Lat to Saigon.
The Gooney’s weight-lifting prowess has also been the subject of many tales, especially on the ‘Hump’ runs from India to China during World War II, and the Berlin Airlift afterward. The greatest load ever carried by this wonderbird, which was designed originally to carry only 6,000 pounds, probably occurred during the airlift. On the last day the Goonies flew the flight corridors to Berlin before the four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymasters took over, a C-47 was mistakenly loaded with nearly 13,000 pounds of pierced-steel planking destined for Tempelhof Airport. When the pilot checked the manifest before takeoff, it read ‘PAP,’ meaning pierced aluminum planking, and the weight-and-balance form showed the poundage equivalent to that on board. Reluctant to fly, the airplane took all of the runway at the Wiesbaden airport to get airborne, but the pilot was able to nurse it cautiously into the stream of airlift traffic and flew it to Berlin at full throttle.
There are many Gooney Birds still flying in all parts of the world in their original structural configuration, but Warren Basler of Oshkosh, Wis., has made finding and modernizing DC-3s a life’s work. A fixed-base operator at the airport made world famous by the annual Experimental Aircraft Association airshows there, he has more than 10,000 hours in DC-3s flying freight and passenger charters and has a corner on the market for plushing them up for executive transports.
Basler’s claim to fame is the resurrection of DC-3s and bringing them into the Space Age by the installation of turbine engines that use jet fuel instead of the increasingly scarce 90-octane gasoline. Basler installs Pratt & Whitney PT6A engines and five-bladed props, and calls the airplane the Basler Turbo-67. Its new power and hauling capabilities astonish even the most doubting of old Gooney Bird drivers. Stretched by approximately 3 feet and considerably beefed up, it can seat 38 passengers (or 40 troops), has a range of 2,140 nautical miles, and can stay aloft for 13.4 hours. Maximum speed is rated at 210 knots, and single-engine ceiling is 26,900 feet. The useful load limit has been extended to 13,750 pounds, with a takeoff gross weight of 28,750 pounds.
The Basler Turbo-67 is now being flown by the U.S. Forest Service, four Latin American air forces, and American companies doing geophysical surveys and paratrooper training. Basler uses a number of them in his own charter airline, flying cargo and passengers.
Basler was not the first to attach turbine engines to give the Gooney new life, however. British European Airways installed turboprops on a Dakota in 1951. The late Jack Conroy converted several by attaching three PT-6A engines; he called his version the Tri-Turbo Three.
So the story of the Gooney Bird keeps going and going with no end in sight. The late General Jimmy Doolittle suggested that its life span might be unlimited. He told me once, ‘I think it will last as long as there is sheet metal.’
This article was written by C.V. Glines and originally published in the November 1995 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!