Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow Feature Stories

By: Warbirds Over Wanaka  05-Apr-2012

Feature story

The World Famous DC 3.

'It groaned, it protested, it rattled, it ran hot, it ran cold, it ran rough, it staggered along on hot days and scared you half to death. 'Its wings flexed and twisted in a horrifying manner, it sank back to earth with a great sigh of relief. But it flew and it flew and it flew.' This is the memorable description by Captain Len Morgan, a former pilot with Braniff Airways, of the unique challenge of flying a Douglas DC-3.

The DC-3 served in World War II , Korea and Vietnam and was a favorite among pilots.

For more than 70 years, the aircraft known by a variety of nicknames - the Doug, the Dizzy, Old Methuselah, the Gooney Bird (US Air Force), the Grand Old Lady - but which to most of us simply the Dakota has been the workhorse of the skies.

With its distinctive nose-up profile when on the ground and extraordinary capabilities in the air, it transformed passenger travel and served in just about every military conflict from World War II onwards.

Now the Douglas DC-3 - the most successful plane ever made, which first took to the skies just over 30 years after the Wright Brothers' historic first flight - is to carry passengers in Britain for the last time. Romeo Alpha and Papa Yankee, the last two passenger-carrying Dakotas in the UK , are being forced into retirement because of - yes, you've guessed it - health and safety rules.

Their owner, Coventry-based Air Atlantique, has reluctantly decided it would be too expensive to fit the required emergency escape slides and weather radar systems required by new European rules for their 65-year-old planes, which served with the RAF during the war.

The most remarkable aircraft ever built, it surpassed all others in length of service, dependability and achievement. It has been a luxury airliner, transport plane, bomber, fighter and flying hospital and introduced millions of people to the concept of air travel. It has flown more miles, broken more records, carried more passengers and cargo, accumulated more flying time and performed more 'impossible' feats than any other plane in history, even in these days of super-jumbos that can circle the world non-stop. Indeed, at one point, 90 per cent of the world's air traffic was operated by DC-3s. More than 10,500 DC-3s have been built since the prototype was rolled out to astonished onlookers at Douglas's Santa Monica factory in 1935.

With its eagle beak, large square windows and sleek metal fuselage, it was luxurious beyond belief, in contrast to the wood-and- canvas bone shakers of the day, where passengers had to huddle under blankets against the cold. Even in the 1930s, the early Dakotas had many of the comforts we take for granted today, like on-board loos and a galley that could prepare hot food.

For the first time, passengers were able to stand up and walk around while the plane was airborne.

But the design had one vital feature, ordered by pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was a director of TWA, which placed the first order for the plane. The DC-3 should always, Lindbergh directed, be able to fly on one engine.

Captain Len Morgan says: 'The Dakota could lift virtually any load strapped to its back and carry it anywhere and in any weather safely.' With no pressurization in the cabin, it flies low and slow. (The name, incidentally, is an acronym for Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft.) But it is for heroic feats in military service that the legendary plane is most distinguished.

It played a major role in the invasion of Sicily , the D-Day landings, the Berlin Airlift and the Korean and Vietnam wars, performing astonishing feats along the way. When General Eisenhower was asked what he believed were the foundation stones for America 's success in World War II he named the bulldozer, the jeep, the half-ton truck and the Dakota. When the Burma Road was captured by the Japanese and the only way to send supplies into China was over the mountains at 19,000ft, the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek said: 'Give me 50 DC-3s and the Japs can have the Burma Road .'

During the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, a Dakota crew managed to cram aboard 98 Vietnamese orphans, although the plane was supposed to carry no more than 30 passengers. In addition to its rugged military service, it was the DC-3 which transformed commercial passenger flying in the post-war years.

Easily converted to a passenger plane, it introduced the idea of affordable air travel to a world which had previously seen it as exclusively for the rich. Flights across America could be completed in about 15 hours (with three stops for refueling), compared with the previous reliance on short hops in commuter aircraft during the day and train travel overnight.

The DC-3's record has not always been perfect. After the war, military-surplus Dakotas were cheap, often poorly maintained and pushed to the limit by their owners. Accidents were frequent.

Nearly three-quarters of a century after they first entered service, it's still possible to get a Dakota ride somewhere in the world. Today, many DC-3s live on throughout-the world as crop-sprayers, surveillance patrols, air freighters in forgotten African states and even luxury executive transports.

So what is the enduring secret of the DC-3? David Egerton, professor of the history of science and technology at Imperial College, London, says we should rid our minds of the idea that the most recent inventions are always the best. 'The very fact that the DC-3 is still around, and performing a useful role in the world, is a powerful reminder that the latest and most expensive technology is not always the one that changes history,' he says. It's long been an aviation axiom that 'the only replacement for the DC-3 is another DC-3'.

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