75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

Three-quarters of a century ago, a single iconic airplane made its first flight. Wired.com's Jason Paur explores the impact of the Douglas DC-3. - Ed.

The aviation era started 107 years ago when the Wright brothers first took flight. But the era of the airlines for the flying public didn't really take off until 1935 when the venerable Douglas DC-3 first took to the skies.

Seventy-five years ago the DC-3 ushered in the era of utility flight, one that continues to this day. Oh sure, the DC-3 may not top a lot of people's list of their favorite planes. It's not sleek. It's not sexy. And it's not fast. But despite a production run of just 11 years, the DC-3 remains one of the most important airplanes in the history of aviation.

In the Beginning

The DC-3 first flew Dec. 17, 1935, 32 years to the day after the Wright brothers' first flight.

The DC-3 was a simple evolutionary advance from the DC-1 and DC-2. A pair of 1,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines allowed the plane to carry 21 passengers 1,480 miles at 195 mph. Within a few years airlines had bought more than 400 DC-3s. The government bought more than 10,000 of them as military transports, the C-47.

Photo: Boeing

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

United We Fly

Like most airliners, the DC-3 was developed at the request of an airline looking for a better way to carry passengers. American Airlines was flying its predecessor, the DC-2, but it wanted to carry more passengers farther and faster. It also wanted something with sleeper berths.

The answer was an evolutionary step forward in the DC line but a revolutionary leap forward in the transportation of people and cargoes. The DC-3 became a workhorse in almost every area. The venerable plane is still working hard today.

Before the DC-3 entered service, passengers could fly coast-to-coast, sort of. On aircraft such as the Boeing 247 and even the DC-2, passengers would usually fly shorter legs during the day, and often take a train at night. The increased range, and to some extent the speed, of the DC-3 allowed passengers to fly coast-to-coast with only three refueling stops, in a blazing 15 hours eastbound - the westbound headwinds added a few more hours.

United Airlines snapped up DC-3s after airlines like American and TWA added them to their fleets. They were faster than the Boeing 247 and could carry more passengers, making them especially attractive to airlines. This DC-3 is owned by Clay Lacy and is still flown regularly.

Photo: KristaLAPrincess/Flickr

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

DC-3 x Military = C-47

The DC-3 is largely seen as the airplane to popularize air travel. It has also served with distinction with the military as well. The United States Army Air Forces used the military version, the C-47 (affectionately known as the Gooney Bird), for everything during World War II - from dropping paratroopers into France on D-Day to towing combat gliders and flying supplies "over the hump," better known as the Himalayas.

The C-47 remained a key part of the military's air fleet for years after the war, and the plane played a key role in the Berlin Airlift. It also saw duty in Korea.

More than 30 years after its introduction, the Gooney Bird flew missions in Vietnam, where as a heavily laden gunship it was known as "Puff the Magic Dragon." Updated versions of the DC-3 still fly in combat zones today, including Afghanistan, though usually under the auspices of other branches of the government.

Left: The C-47 is perhaps the best known military transport ever. More than 10,000 of them saw duty in the U.S. military, and thousands more were built under license in Russia and Japan over the years.

Photo: U.S. Air Force

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

Duggy the DC-3

Douglas stopped building the DC-3 in 1946, and the last one off the line was delivered to Belgium's Sabena Airlines. Although no one knows just how many DC-3s remain in service, the figure is widely pegged at around 400. Many old-timers have well above 60,000 hours of flight time, and one DC-3 based in Oregon has more than 91,000 hours on its sturdy airframe.

The surviving planes perform an impressive variety of tasks. The U.S. Forest Service uses them to fight fires. Several countries rely upon them to deliver cargo and people to research sites in Antarctica. And Buffalo Airlines, a tiny carrier in Canada, still uses them for scheduled flights.

Many more are flown by collectors who lovingly restore them and show them off at air shows.

Despite celebrating its 75th anniversary, the DC-3 is going strong. Modernized versions with turbine engines and modern avionics make it almost certain it will still be working hard on its 100th birthday as well.

Left: Duggy was built in 1939 and flew in Europe during World War II. At some point it was sold as surplus for $1,789. Nowadays it makes the rounds of air shows and even has its own website.

Observe the Banana/Flickr

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

Rosie the Riveter

Women throughout the country chipped in to help the war effort, and scores of them work for the Douglas Aircraft Company building planes like the C-47, the military version of the DC-3. This photo is from 1942.
Photos: Alfred T. Palmer/U.S. Office of War Information. Courtesy Library of Congress.

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

A Workhorse of the War

The C-47 flew countless missions during World War II, carrying troops and cargo and dropping paratroopers into battle. In this photo from 1942, paratroopers await orders to jump during maneuvers somewhere in England.

Among other missions, C-47s carried the men of Easy Company over occupied France on D-Day, a story chronicled in the book and TV series, Band of Brothers.
Photos: U.S. Army. Courtesy Library of Congress.

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

C-47 Inspection

The C-47, the military version of the DC-3, was a workhorse during World War II. It ferried men and materiel vast distances, towed gliders and dropped paratroopers into battle. The plane's remarkable performance was due in part to its two radial engines producing up to 1,200 horsepower and its three-blade variable-pitch propellers. In this 1942 photo, a C-47 gets an inspection at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, California.
Photos: Alfred T. Palmer/U.S. Office of War Information. Courtesy Library of Congress.

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

Super DC-3 1950

The Super DC-3 was a major modification of the DC-3 with new wings and empennage, redesigned landing gear, lengthened fuselage and more powerful engines. As a replacement for the DC-3, it had considerable appeal to the military, and a few were converted to airline use.

Photo: Boeing

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

At the Controls

The cockpit of the DC-3 is familiar to pilots of today. The familiar yoke sits in front of the pilot and co-pilot. The engine controls for propeller pitch, throttle and fuel mixture are in the middle.

Photo: NunoCardoso/Flickr

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

Still Working Hard

Several companies have updated the DC-3 over the years to keep the planes working hard. One firm, Basler Turbo Conversions rebuilds DC-3s and calls the turbine-powered planes the BT-67. They can carry more than 40 percent more cargo and fly more than 20 percent faster than an original DC-3. Granted, that still isn't terribly fast.

Outfitted with a pair of 1,600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney PT-6 turbines, Basler's airplanes serve around the world. In this photo, a BT-67 used by the U.S. Forest Service is touching down at a remote airstrip in Idaho.

Photo: Basler Turbo Conversions

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

Right at Home in Extreme Conditions

Basler BT-67s have served in both the Arctic and Antarctic for years. Here a trio of turbine converted DC-3s operated by Kenn Borek Air sit on skis near McMurdo Station. That's Mount Erebus in the background.

Photo: Basler Turbo Conversions

75th Anniversary Of The Plane That Changed Everything

Book Your Flight Now

Buffalo Airlines of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, operates the last scheduled DC-3 passenger service. The company mostly hauls cargo, but there are seats available for flights between Hay River and Yellowknife if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

sahlgoode/Flickr