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General-automatics

The Doughty Douglas DC-3

New Delhi. The Douglas DC-3 is a slow, oldfashioned, propeller-driven aircraft. In this age of sleek and powerful jets, its looks are not impressive. Yet it is claimed to be one of the most remarkable aircraft ever built. Does the claim stand up to scrutiny? Consider the facts. The DC-3 revolutionised global air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. So amazing was its performance for the period, especially speed and range, that by the end of 1938 about 95 per cent of all US commercial traffic was carried by this airliner. And it needed just another year to take the world by storm, serving perhaps 90 per cent of the global market. Over 16,000 civil and military DC-3s were built in the space of about 10 years. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, called it the single most important aircraft contributing to the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Although only 607 civilian DC-3s were produced, thousands of surplus C-47 Skytrains (its military version), were converted for commercial use after the War. Sold at throwaway prices, they provided a welcome boost to the struggling airline industry. Indeed, the DC-3 emerged as the standard fit of the majority of carriers in the world for many years. It was also the mainstay of Air India’s fleet in the immediate post-war period, with pilots fondly calling it the “amiable cow”. Although no DC-3s were built after 1945, the aircraft remained a significant part of the global air transport system till the 1970s. A few hundred DC-3s are still flying today. And if even a few continue in service till 2035, they would make it the first aircraft in history to fly for a century.

The DC-3 story began in early 1934, when American Airlines’ CEO CR Smith made a two-hour-long telephone call to Donald Douglas of the Douglas Aircraft Company. Smith wanted a spacious and capable sleeper plane that could fly non-stop between New York and Chicago. He finally persuaded reluctant Douglas to build a replacement for the company’s already successful DC-2. A team led by chief engineer Arthur E Raymond took several months to design the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST). It was a luxury sleeper for 14 passengers and even had a honeymoon suite! The DC-3 day travel variant could be fitted with 21 to 28 seats, or carry 3,725 to 4,500 pounds freight. Its first flight was on December 17, 1935 – the 32nd anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ epoch-making flight at Kitty Hawk. The DST commenced scheduled service with American on June 25, 1936, and other US airlines like United, TWA and Eastern also quickly inducted the impressive new plane. And in 1936, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines received its first DC-3, which was deployed on the Amsterdam to Sydney route – the longest scheduled route in the world.

The DC-3 transformed airline operations in the US. Its cruising speed of 192 mph and range of 1,495 miles simply decimated the competition. In 1934, a flight from New York to Los Angeles would have taken 26 hours, with numerous halts. In 1936, thanks to the DC-3, this time was slashed to 17 hours 30 minutes, with just three refuelling stops. Passengers were pleased by the quick, comfortable and safe airliner – a far cry from the cold and bumpy planes of yore. Airlines found them easy to operate and fly.

Affectionately described as “a collection of parts flying in loose formation,” the DC-3 was remarkably rugged, durable and relatively maintenance free. A bonus was its ability to take off and land on short grass strips or dirt runways. These qualities made it the aircraft of choice wherever airport infrastructure was primitive or maintenance support rudimentary. The DC-3 also became the first airliner to be commercially viable carrying just passengers, without benefit of Government subsidies.

One of the remarkable features of the DC-3 was that its basic specifications were never altered – testimony to the fundamental soundness of its design. Indeed, there were many attempts to design a replacement for the DC-3 and their lack of success gave rise to the saying, “The only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3.” Practically every major carrier of the period counts the DC-3 as an important part of its history. It was truly the right plane for the right time.

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