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Workhorse still going strong

Photo: Most of the flyable DC-3s are now in the hands of preservation groups. All images Key collection


The DC-3 first flew 75 years ago, but still flies across the globe. Airliner Classics reports.

On December 17, 2010, it will be 107 years since the first powered flight. It will also be the 75th anniversary of the first flight of the ubiquitous Douglas DC-3 – an aircraft that’s still flying on all six continents (including Antarctica). It still provides service with commercial entities operating in a variety of guises – as a passenger carrier, freighter or research aircraft; or as the figurehead of restoration groups dedicated to preserving airworthy examples of the workhorse it has always been.

Delta Air Lines was an early user of the DC-2.

Following the crash of a Transcontinental and Western Air – later Trans World Airlines (TWA) – Fokker F10 Trimotor in 1931, the US Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) dictated that no future US-built commercial aircraft could contain wings or structural parts made of wood. The cause of the crash had been determined as a failure of a wooden strut due to water ingestion dissolving glue in the wooden laminate. Accordingly, Boeing then developed the Model 247 but, because of an exclusivity clause with United Airlines, could not offer the aircraft to anyone else. United’s main competitor, TWA, wanted a new aircraft and approached four manufacturers to produce something that could meet the CAB’s requirements: all metal wings and structural members, retractable landing gear and capable of remaining in flight, even if one engine failed.


Although he originally had doubts over the market potential of such an aircraft, Donald Douglas submitted a design for an all-metal, low-wing, twin-engined plane seating 12 passengers, with a crew of two and a flight attendant. It was actually designed to exceed TWA’s specifications and, as well as including noise insulation and internal heating, could fly and perform a controlled take-off or landing on one engine.

KLM entered its first DC-2, PH-AJU Uiver (Stork), in the October 1934 MacRobertson Air Race between London and Melbourne, Australia, coming second out of the 20 entrants. This example is painted in the same colours but is actually an American-registered aeroplane.

The Douglas Commercial transport was born and, on July 1, 1933, it made its first flight – as a DC-1. Only one aircraft was produced and, during six months of evaluation, it performed more than 200 test flights. TWA accepted the model’s design with a few modifications (including 14-passenger capacity and more powerful engines) and ordered 20 aircraft. However, the number of improvements meant that the new production version was renamed the DC-2.


The redesigned DC-1 first flew on May 11, 1934. Aircraft for European customers, including KLM, LOT, Swissair, CLS and LAPE, were assembled by Fokker in the Netherlands under licence from Douglas. KLM entered its first DC-2, PH-AJU Uiver (Stork), in the October 1934 MacRobertson Air Race between London and Melbourne, Australia, coming second out of the 20 entrants.

The DC-3 is Born

Swedish Air Lines was an early European user of the DC-3.

The DC-3 is reputed to have resulted from a telephone call between Cyrus (CR) Smith, the then Chief Executive Officer of American Airlines, and Donald Douglas, Smith requesting an improved version of the DC-2. One of the requirements – and hence the initial use of the name DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport) – was to provide sleeping berths and an in-flight kitchen for transcontinental USA flights.

Fitted with a larger wing, more-powerful engines and a wider fuselage, the first DC-3 was pulled into the sunshine and rolled out at Santa Monica, California, on December 14, 1935. Three days later, the aircraft took off on an uneventful 90-minute first flight. Unlike the first flights of aircraft such as the Aerospatiale Concorde or the Boeing 747 Jumbo, this event did not attract much media attention, which now seems odd for a type that has had an illustrious history.

Into service

In 1986, Air Atlantique of the UK painted one of its aircraft in the 50th anniversary colours of Northwest Airlines with the ‘registration’ NW21711.

The major US carriers of the time – such as American, Eastern, TWA and United – ordered over 400 DC-3s between them, and the type quickly replaced trains as the favoured means of long-distance travel across the US. With these transcontinental services, with only three refuelling stops, the flights took approximately 15 hours (eastbound) while westbound trips took 17 hours 30 minutes, because of prevailing headwinds. Previously, such a trip would entail short hops in slower and shorter-range aircraft during the day, coupled with train travel overnight.

In Europe, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines received its first DC-3 in 1936 and, by the start of World War Two, there were 38 airlines (outside of the USA) operating the type. Production naturally went up as the demand for military transports during the war years increased and reached a peak in 1944 when 4,853 were produced in the USA, with over 10,000 C-47 military versions built in total. The aircraft proved rugged and sturdy, and without it landings such as D-Day and Arnhem could not have been attempted.

Most countries in Europe have a DC-3 operated in ‘period’ colours.

There were literally thousands of DC-3s available after the end of hostilities and, with the boom in air transport, they were used extensively throughout the world. The type’s ability to operate from unprepared surfaces paved the way for operations in many third-world countries where there were few, if any, paved runways.

With the major carriers, the advent of larger and more sophisticated designs – such as the DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7 from the Douglas stable – meant the DC-3 was initially relegated to shorter sectors; and then to second and third-tier carriers before it was eventually completely retired by the larger airlines.

Most countries in Europe have a DC-3 operated in ‘period’ colours.

Replaced by aircraft such as the Fokker F-27, Handley-Page Herald, the Convairliners and the Vickers Viscount, was this the end of the DC-3? Not quite. Its rugged simplicity, ease of operation and the availability of spare parts meant that niche carriers all over the world could still make good use of it. And that remains true in 2010.

With a large production run in the USA, and examples being built under licence in Japan (by Kakajima and Showa as the L2D2-L2D5 Type 0 Transport) and Russia (by Lisunov as the Li-2 – NATO codename Cab), there are conflicting reports as to exactly how many were built. Certainly, the total is over 16,000 – with reported figures of 10,655 at Santa Monica and Long Beach in California plus Oklahoma City, 4,937 in Russia and 487 in Japan.

For more on this story and other Airliners past see Airliner Classics, the latest special from the editorial team of Airliner World magazine and on sale now.

In its military guises, the DC-3 was used initially as a transport and also had a major role in dropping parachutists. In its later life examples have been adapted as gunships, calibration aircraft and for electronic countermeasures – as well as fulfilling the basic transport role.

The piston-engined DC-3 is still in commercial use today in Northern Canada, South America, Africa and Australia along with those converted to turboprops. Add the 100 or so that are used as flying museums and display aircraft, and the operational fleet is probably well in excess of 300.

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