“Work horse”. The term brings to mind something rugged, hardworking, and enduring. In the aviation world, this translates to multiple aircraft: the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the Boeing 747, and the Cessna 172 Skyhawk just to name a few. There’s one aircraft, in continuous service from the 1930s to present day that embodies what workhorse truly means; that aircraft is the Douglas DC-3/C-47. December 17th, 1935 was exactly 32 years to the day after the Wright Brothers made their historic flight on the sandy dunes of Kittyhawk, NC. It was the day that the now legendary aircraft, the Douglas DC-3, would make its first flight.
Path to legendary
Initially, Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA), made the plea to Douglas for an aircraft to compete with Boeing’s Model 247 that at the time was only available to United Airlines. Boeing refused to sell the model 247 to anyone besides United until they had filled the initial order of 60 aircraft, and as such they inadvertently brought about the creation of the aircraft that would revolutionize air travel and make the world more accessible. The DC-3 was not the first attempt though, and almost never came to be. The first attempt, of which only one was ever produced, was the DC-1 in 1933. TWA immediately realized the potential of the aircraft, and ordered 20 more of Douglas’ new airliner, with the stipulation that it sat two more people and had slightly more power. This aircraft would come to be the DC-2.
The airline industry has a new superstar
The DC-3 came about from this lineage of aircraft, but not without a major push. Despite the moderate success of the DC-2 serving with airlines around the world, Douglas was reluctant to create the aircraft that would truly revolutionize air travel by making it more affordable and much safer. Despite TWA making the push for the all metal DC-2, it was actually a third company named American Airlines that would make the call for a larger and more capable aircraft that could be used as a sleeper. It is interesting to note at this point that the DC-3 was not created as a DC-3, but instead as an afterthought of the Douglas Sleeper Transport. The DST was fitted with sleeping births, dressing rooms, and other necessary amenities for a long trip. The DC-3 would result from the request that the DST be able to seat 21 passengers instead of sleeping berths.
The DC-3 was produced under multiple variant names ranging from C-47 to Dakota, but it was also produced entirely under license by two other countries. Russia and Japan received the license to build Douglas’ aircraft and quickly got to making large numbers of Li-2s and L2Ds respectively. These aircraft served both countries during the war, and after Japan’s defeat, all versions of the L2D were immediately destroyed.
War, what is it good for?
WWII would be the true catalyst for Douglas Aircraft Company’s commercial wonder. Proving its capability as a cross-country “workhorse”, the military found the aircraft as an exceptional platform for everything from paratrooper operations to hauling the ammunition and supplies needed to win the war to the front lines. The DC-3 truly became an international wonder earning its stripes with the United States and her allies, as well as a plethora of new designations. These include C-47 for the DC-3 that was pressed into service, C-54 for the paratroop variant of the DC-3, and Dakota for the UK operated Douglas just to name a few.
During the dog-days of war, over 10,000 C-47s were produced for the war effort. This translated to very affordable used commercial airliners that flooded the market. This is where the airline industry was truly revolutionized as now almost anyone could afford to purchase and operate a DC-3. Civilian production had ceased in 1942, however Douglas continued production for the war effort well into 1945 creating thousands of extra aircraft after the war had ended. With this mass surplus of parts and true commercial airliners flooding the market, there was an explosion in airline travel on a level never seen before, making it truly affordable for the average person to get on an aircraft and fly to a distant destination in hours rather than taking a train that may take days to arrive at the same destination.
The DC-3 is the aircraft that just continued to serve long after its supposed life expectancy had expired, earning itself the “workhorse” title in a new role: close air support. After serving honorably in WWII and the Korean War, technology had advanced to a point that the C-47 was now a fearful armed combatant carrying miniguns on one side and being redesignated as the AC-47. It was the first transport aircraft to be refitted as an attack aircraft, and paved the way for the AC-130 which continues to prove the effectiveness of a slow, prop-driven aircraft in the modern age of trans and supersonic attack aircraft. This aircraft came to be known by many names, including ‘Puff’ the magic dragon which was a reference to a popular song at the time and the puffs of smoke that the aircraft emitted when firing, and Spooky in reference to its night operations presence. The aircraft served so honorably that the last US C-47 was finally decommissioned in 1982, falling just 3 years short of 50 years in service. That was not the end for the venerable Skytrain though.
For the foreseeable future
The DC-3 continues flying today, much like many other warbirds from a time long ago. The major difference however, is that the DC-3 is still flying regularly scheduled airline routes as well as the airshow circuits of the world. One particular operator, who gained fame through History Canada’s show “Ice Pilots: NWT”, operates two flights a day on a ferry route from Yellowknife to Hay River and back again in the evening. The aircraft also continues to be refurbished by a few different companies and will apparently continue to operate for many more years in one variant or another.
Maximum Cruising Speed: 207 mph
Ceiling: 23,200 Feet
Range with maximum fuel: 2,125 miles
Empty: 16,865 lbs
Maximum Takeoff: 25,200 lbs
Length: 64ft 5½in
Height 16ft 11½in