Iconic is an overused word, especially when it comes to aviation, but the DC-3 is an aircraft that deserves it. Safe, cheap and reliable, the DC-3 was the aircraft that truly made commercial flying a viable mode of transport. It could be called the grandfather of commercial aviation as we know it.
Air transport revolution
In the early 1930s United Airlines dominated the transcontinental US route between East and West coasts. Boeing built the 247 especially for United. It refused to sell to any other airline, however, TWA, founded by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, had different ideas. Hughes went directly to Douglas Corporation and commissioned an aircraft to take on the B247. After some time developing different variants, in 1935 the DC3 was born. This new aircraft, designed to accommodate 21 passengers or 16 sleeping berths, could whisk customers across the USA in about 15 hours. The design was a low wing, tail-dragger aircraft, powered by two 1200hp radial piston engines. It had a range of 1500 miles, and a cruising speed of 207 mph. 607 civilian DC-3s were manufactured.
The DC-3 revolutionised airliner travel before WW2. Trip time by air across the USA was cut by days and the aircraft performed reliably and most importantly profitably. Air travel quickly replaced train services as the way to cross the USA. In 1936, KLM flew the DC-3 on the world’s longest scheduled route from Amsterdam, via Jakarta, to Sydney.
World War 2
As war broke out across the world many civilian DC-3s were drafted into military service. In an extraordinary effort more than 10,000 military versions of the DC-3 were built. These were designated the C-47, Dakota, R4D and the C-53. Licensed copies of the DC-3 were also built in Russia, and Japan with an additional 5500 aircraft built. These military aircraft provided invaluable help during the war, carrying paratroopers, cargo and wounded troops.
Around 16,000 DC-3s were built in total. They were considered largely obsolete by airlines after the war and swiftly replaced by newer faster aircraft like the DC-6. However, a large number of DC-3s found homes in smaller operators and within niche markets around the world.
More than 80 years since the DC-3s first flight they can still be found flying all over the world – an extraordinary feat for any aircraft. The aircraft’s robust versatility and ability to operate in unforgiving places has lent it a new lease of life. DC-3s can still be found flying in many roles in cargo, sky-diving, crop dusting and even passenger flights. In 2035 it will be 100 years since the DC-3 took to the skies and there is no doubt that this iconic flying legend will still be in the air.