A Very Great Plane: The Douglas DC-3

I just heard one of my favorite sounds in the world – a prop plane flying nearby. That sound tends to bring my mind back to the early days of aviation, and this time was no different.

Over the last few weeks I’ve become mildly obsessed with the Douglas DC-3… would you believe that there are still thousands of those planes flying? December 17, 1935 – that was when the first one took to the skies. Sometimes I actually forget that planes were around that long ago, but they certainly were. The DC-3 was the “cream of the crop” in the aviation industry during those years and is credited today with having revolutionized air travel in a number of ways.

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A Breitling Douglas DC-3, Photo Courtesy: Breitling

Before the DC-3 came around, there were two other planes that had a strong foothold in the market: the Boeing Model 247 and the “Tin Goose” Ford Trimotor.

The Trimotor first flew in June 1926, powered by (you guessed it) three engines – Pratt and Whitney Wasps. Transcontinental Air Transport (which would later become TWA) pioneered coast-to-coast service with the Trimotor. The plane was strong and sturdy, but unfortunately didn’t have what it took to stand up to the two competitors that would enter the market several years later – the 247 and the DC-1.

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A Ford Trimotor, Photo Courtesy: Golden Wings Flying Museum

The Boeing Model 247 is considered to be the first modern airliner and had its inaugural flight in February 1933. It was the first plane that was capable of flying on only one of its two engines – also Pratt and Whitney Wasps. But just months later, the DC-1 was developed at the request of TWA. And even though the DC-1 itself wasn’t perfect, it paved the way to the eventual DC-3, which was as close to perfect as an airplane could be back then.

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A United Air Lines Boeing Model 247, Photo Courtesy: Boeing

The DC-1 evolved into the larger, faster and more luxurious DC-2 and then nixed beds for upright seats to become the DC-3. Powered by two Wright Cyclone engines, the DC-3 was strong, fast, and comfortable. It had capacity to carry two crew members and 21-32 passengers. Back then, flying really was a luxurious experience, namely because it was just that – a luxury. The DC-3 also pioneered inflight movies.

Of course some of today’s airlines still offer that touch of glamour, but with the rise in low-cost carriers and even the legacy carriers offering stripped down “basic economy” fares, it’s not as common. Flying today is, for most, a means to get from point A to point B. Why else do you see people rapt with magazines or computers, and not with the fact that they’re FLYING? I mean… HELLO – you are six miles in the sky, soaring amongst the clouds in a 100,000-pound METAL TUBE. WHY AREN’T YOU STARING OUT THE WINDOW IN SHEER AMAZEMENT?

OK – I think I’ve made my point. I love flying, and I don’t take it for granted. I need to be in a window seat so I can constantly look out at the sky we’re in and the ground below, because I am amazed that we as humans were able to pioneer this concept. We figured out how to DEFY gravity. It’s remarkable! But the message I really want to convey to all of you is that the planes we fly on today were in some way, shape or form derived from the sturdy workhorse Douglas DC-3. It’s a legend. Why else do you think some 2,000 of the planes still fly? I can only hope that someday I’ll have a chance to fly in one of those time capsules myself.

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