If the Ford Model T put America on wheels, then it's safe to say the Douglas DC-3 put America in the air. With more than 800 of the almost 11,000 DC-3s still flying, it truly qualifies as an icon of the skies.
The DC-3 was born of competitive pressures within the infant airline industry, triggered by United's exclusive order for the Boeing Model 247, an all-metal monoplane (single wing). Jack Frye, VP of engineering at Transcontinental and Western Air Inc. (later known as TWA), sent a letter to other aircraft manufacturers, requesting proposals for an even more advanced airliner with increased capabilities. The TWA specification called for a tri-motor aircraft able to carry 12 passengers with a crew of two, at a top speed of 185 mph for a non-stop range of 1000 miles.
One of the recipients of Frye's letter was the Douglas Aircraft Company's Donald Douglas. TWA voiced concern over his aircraft's two-engine design, but agreed to purchase the plane if it could take off and climb to 8000 feet with just one engine. Work began on what would become the DC-1 shortly afterwards and the prototype emerged on June 22, 1933, less than a year after the start of the program. Its first flight was on July 1, 1933, with the first delivery to TWA on September 13, 1933.
Unlike today, when new aircraft designs are subjected to rigorous stress testing, Douglas engineers overbuilt the structure, ensuring long-term reliability and durability, allowing it to safely take off from and touch down on primitive grass and dirt runways. TWA immediately wanted more capability, thus the DC-2 was born. With more powerful engines and two extra feet in the fuselage, the DC-2 could carry two additional passengers for a total of 14.
C.R. Smith, the president of American Airlines, didn't want to be left behind and his VP of engineering, William Littlewood, proposed additional modifications to the DC-2 so that it could accommodate sleeping berths, the precursor to today's in-flight sleeper beds in premium classes (the DC-2 also offered the first in-flight movies).
With an almost circular cross-section, the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) was essentially an all-new aircraft. Its main passenger compartment could seat or sleep 14, making it ideal for transcontinental flights as well as American's popular New York to Chicago service. A toilet and dressing rooms were located at the rear, along with kitchen facilities capable of serving hot meals-a first on an American airliner. It was powered by the new 1000-hp Wright SGR-1820-G2 engines.
In addition to the sleeper version, a 21-seater (in seven rows of three seats) was offered. This was the beginning of 10,926 DC-3s (and its military equivalent, the C-47) that would be built. It first went into the blue on December 17, 1935, 32 years to the day of the Wright Brothers' first flight.
Another variation on the DC-3 theme was a version with no rear lounge, increasing capacity to 28 passengers. The ability to carry twice as many passengers as the DC-2 with only a modest three percent increase in operating costs ensured the DC-3's ultimate success-a classic case of the right product for the times. Douglas even sold manufacturing rights to Holland, Japan and Russia.
With the start of the Second World War, the military specified its own version with an extra six inches in the wingspan, a cargo door and even more powerful engines. Designated as the C-47 Dakota for the US Army Air Force (and R4D in the US Navy), it served with distinction in all theaters, where it was affectionately known as the 'Gooney Bird.'
During the Berlin Airlift, DC-3s and C-47s made countless flights into the beleaguered city, thus securing its place in aviation history. It formed the backbone of the postwar airline industry and to this day many charter airlines and cargo carriers still fly DC-3s. Many have been modernized by fitting turboprop engines and installing new avionics and interior fittings. It is expected that DC-3s will still be flying on the plane's hundredth anniversary in 2035.