Douglas DC-3

The Nine Lives of the DC-3

Arnold Fischer
01.08.2018
3 minutes

One of the world’s best-known, most beautiful and by far the most successful aeroplanes is the Douglas DC-3. Including licensed builds, more than 16,000 of them were produced, the highest number ever for a passenger or transport model.

The DC-3‘s maiden voyage departed from the Santa Monica airfield on 17 December 1935, and the model is still deployed commercially today. The DC-3 was distinguished particularly by its safety, robustness and efficiency, and building one of aircraft-grade aluminium required around 500,000 rivets. Its lack of pressurised cabin and its (by today’s standards) low flying speed of around 200 km/h placed limits on the model’s service ceiling and range. They did not, however, put the brakes on its tremendous success. The Douglas DC-3 is incredibly versatile.

Luxury finds its way into the DC-3

It was originally developed to allow passengers to sleep during flights, and was initially known as the DST, or Douglas Sleeper Transport. Its cabins were equipped with every luxury; by day, passengers could enjoy incredibly comfortable seating, while at night the seating areas converted to beds which ensured relaxed coast-to-coast US crossings. Meals were prepared freshly on board, and “air stewardess” became an immensely desirable profession. Travelling in this kind of style was, naturally, expensive, with passengers at the end of the 1930s paying as much as two months’ average salary for a coast-to-coast flight. While the Hollywood set loved travelling in this exclusive style, planes capable of maximising passenger loads proved more cost-effective in the long run. The DC-3, whose passenger capacity was initially 28, later increasing to up to 35, thus helped to popularise commercial air travel.

The DC-3 and its use during the Second World War

During the Second World War, the DC-3 was deployed thousands of times over as a transport plane, a tow plane, an air ambulance and a passenger plane, making it a deciding factor in the success of the May 1944 Normandy landings, also referred to as D-Day. After the war, the plane began its third career, taking on the role of cargo plane, one of those nicknamed “raisin bombers” or “candy bombers” which were used during the Berlin airlift. Many children in post-war Berlin had fond memories of the planes dropping chocolate bars on little parachutes.

In the years following the war, civil aviation was able to take advantage of a high number of retired DC-3s and spare parts from military stocks. Many operators of smaller airlines and freight companies prized the robust and proven workhorse, employing it for decades. Even today, a small number of DC-3s are used in South America, Africa and Alaska, either on a daily basis or in special cases requiring extremely low speeds or landings on snow and ice. DC-3s are also very popular as classic aircraft, and are restored, refurbished, and flown and shown at vintage air rallies. And no wonder; after all, the DC-3 is one of the world’s most beautiful planes!

Current models and innovations in the area of aerospace can be admired biyearly on the leading aerospace fair – the ILA Berlin. Here we collected some great impressions of the last fair in April 2018.

Cover picture © SFS

by Arnold Fischer

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