Last updated: 01:30 PM ET, Fri December 18 2015

Happy 80th Birthday to the DC-3!

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | December 18, 2015

Happy 80th Birthday to the DC-3!

All photos by Paul Thompson

Boeing and Airbus — those are the two names known to almost everyone who has flown flown any commercial airline in the past couple of decades. But prior to that, McDonnell-Douglas was another powerhouse in the industry of aircraft building. On Thursday, the Douglas Dc-3 celebrated 80 years since its first flight.

The DC-3 is considered to be the first aircraft that was capable of making money by carrying passengers alone. In other words, airlines didn’t need to depend on cargo or mail carriage to turn a profit with the DC-3. The DC-3 cost $1.37 million to produce, in today’s dollars. Only 607 were built.

The DC-3 owes its creation to American Airlines, and its founder C.R. Smith. Smith convinced Donald Douglas to produce the plane — a wider, sleeper cabin aircraft, based on the DC-2, by promising to buy twenty of the planes. Back then, it took 15 hours and three stops to cross the United States eastbound, and 17.5 hours westbound due to the prevailing winds.

American began DC-3 service in 1936, flying between Chicago and Newark. Eastern, TWA and United were also DC-3 operators in the United States. Their relatively fast service marked the beginning of the end for trans-continental train journeys as the primary method of travel. One American Airlines DC-3, “Flagship Detroit” still makes its way around the country thanks to donations from sponsors and maintenance performed by volunteers. American also hosts a retired DC-3, “Flagship Knoxville” in its corporate museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

There was also a military version of the DC-3, called the C-47 “Skytrain.” There are a handful of these still flying as well, primarily on air show circuits. Over 10,000 C-47s were produced. The first C-47 flew on December 23, 1941. They played a major role in WWII, including the Berlin Air Lift.

Until this year, one airline, Buffalo Airways still flew commercial service with DC-3s. But on Nov. 30, Buffalo lost their operating certificate due to poor safety performance. Since then, they have offered chartered passenger and cargo service. Hopefully, they will regain their scheduled operator certificate, for nostalgic reasons if nothing else. They even had a television show on the History Channel based on the airline, called Ice Pilots. A few hundred DC-3s and C-47s are still flying today, including over some of the 5,000 that were produced in Russia and Japan.

Plenty of other McDonnell-Douglas aircraft are still flying today. Here in the U.S., American and Delta still have lots of planes that you might recognize as the MD-80 and MD-90. Boeing’s 717 was originally developed as the MD-95, until Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1996. Boeing renamed the plane as the 717. Delta is the only 717 operator in the U.S.

Anyone who sees or flies the 717 can see its resemblance to the DC-9, which first flew in 1965. The unique rear engine mount and T-tail design are a tell-tale sign of its heritage. The last 717 was built in Long Beach, California — an original Douglas manufacturing site — and delivered in 2006. Any aircraft you see today whose name begins with DC (Douglas Commercial) or MD (McDonnell Douglas) are now a relic of a previous era of aircraft design and production.

Besides Boeing’s B-52 bomber, no other aircraft has such a long and storied history of service. Eighty years is a major testament to the DC-3’s design and capabilities, when most commercial airlines typically meet their end in less than 25 years. And like the dwindling number of WWII-era warbirds, it’s important that we keep at least a few examples of these historic planes airworthy. 


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