The first flight of the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) – soon to be known as DC3, was on 17 December 1935 in Santa Monica, California. The flight would be a major milestone in aviation history given what we know now about the DC3, but at the time it went virtually unnoticed; there wasn’t even a photographer on board, with the earliest DC3 photographs being taken on a later flight. The first DST/DC3 was a fourteen-passenger luxury sleeper transport built for American Airlines on their non-stop New York-Chicago run. It had seven lower berths and seven upper ones which folded into the ceiling. There was a galley for providing hot meals, two dressing rooms, lavatories and even a honeymoon cabin.
Of course, as the name suggests, there was a DC2 before the DC3, but the DC3 was wider enabling more seats to be placed side-by-side which allowed Douglas to double passenger capacity over the DC3s predecessor even though the length of the fuselage was the same.
The first military version of the DC3 was a single C41 delivered to the US Army Air Corps in October 1938, where it was used to transport staff. However, after war was declared, production was substantially increased and the newly designated C47 was put into service with the USAAC, the Navy and the Marine Corps. Many civil DC3/DST aircraft were also converted into military derivatives to help meet military transport demands. A number of modifications were made by Douglas to meet the requirements of a military cargo transport. For example, the C47 cargo plane had a large double cargo door that also had an integrated passenger door. It had a strengthened floor with tie-down fittings and instead of the normal comfortable passenger seats, folding benches were installed down the length of the fuselage. An astrodome, used for navigation, was installed behind the flight compartment and the C47 also had stronger landing gear allowing it to land on rough ground. Other changes were also made that would allow for even faster mass production which would allow Douglas to keep up with military demand and additional assembly lines were set up at new factories in Long Beach, California and Oklahoma City. All of which meant that Douglas was able to turn out almost twenty aircraft per day.
Operating in all battle zones and throughout the Second World War, the C47 performed a variety of supporting roles including as a cargo plane, staff transport, and troop carrier. Known as Skytrains, the troop carrier versions were used in the majority of major airborne operations including over Sicily, New Guinea, Normandy, Holland and Southern France. The C47 was also often the only link between isolated combat units on the ground and their supply bases.
The C47 is remembered by many servicemen as the first aircraft they ever flew in. Wherever they needed to go, whether it be to battle, to hospital or home, the C47 was there to take them. For the thousands who piloted the aircraft, the navigators and ground crew, the C47 was the aircraft which allowed them to learn their trade. To them, it was and will always be the most rugged, the most reliable, the most forgiving, and the most useful. In other words, it was the best.
The C47’s last hoorah came shortly after the end of the war following the descent of the iron curtain in Europe. Over a hundred of them were used in the Berlin Airlift, the year-long operation to evacuate westerners before the Russians closed the borders.
All over the world, lots of examples DC3s that had previously seen military service were given a new lease of life however, in new and growing civil fleets and it is seen my many operators as the aircraft that enabled them to get the fledgling air carrier businesses off the ground.
The DC3 was popular for many reasons: she was larger, faster and more luxurious than previous planes, more economical to operate and she was safe. Stories of DC3 durability are legend around the world. Perhaps no other aircraft has been so historically abused and coped so well. One of the reasons for many DC3s to still be flying is that there is simply no other aircraft capable of doing the job. It is often said the only replacement for a DC3 is another DC3.
However, as the passenger carrier business matured, the call was for larger and faster aircraft and airlines started to move to four-engine designs such as the DC4 and DC6 with the smaller DC3 being demoted to the smaller volume, less travelled routes. The final example rolled off the production line in 1946 heading for Belgium’s Sabena Airways. Many DC3s found themselves with new duties including. They have been used to fight fires and dust crops. They have been used to transport workers to remote outposts and they have been used to take tourists to unlikely destinations. Some have been fitted with large floats and retractable wheels and some were fitted with skis and became the first aircraft to land at both the North and South Poles. There have even been examples of DC3s fitted with JATO (Jet Assisted Take-off) pods to allow them to take off from aircraft carriers. It is a true example of one of the world’s most versatile aircraft.