Come take a trip in my air ship…

An enthusiast group called the Historical Flight Foundation owns a DC-7B airliner that it has restored. Like the Lockheed Constellation, the DC-7 was one of the ultimate piston-engined airliners whose production run (early to late 1950s) overlapped the first few years of jets. It soon became obsolete. Jets used more fuel but were faster and could fly above weather, so airlines could get more use out of them to outweigh the higher capital and operating costs, and they were more pleasant for passengers. Nonetheless the old prop liners are beautiful and impressive in flight. The video below makes me think of this famous photo. Wouldn’t it be a kick to fly down the Florida coast or up the Hudson at 500 feet in your own DC-7? But, of course, the operating costs are probably huge, and the systems are so complex that you need a flight engineer in addition to two pilots, so operating such a machine is no casual activity.

You could see such aircraft flying out of Miami into the 1990s. I assume they were carrying freight to Caribbean and Central American destinations. At some point the operating costs must have become prohibitive. (Each of the engines in a DC-7B has 28 18 cylinders and they haven’t made them in decades; parts availability is no doubt an issue. It would need much more maintenance than a comparable jet engine, and it was designed to use high-octane leaded gasoline that is no longer available. Another YouTube video mentions that they have to restrict engine power on this plane in order to use modern gas.)

You don’t see many of these old planes any more, not even the ones (like DC-6s and DC-3s) that have more reliable engines. It’s a treat to see one that’s been restored to flying condition and is actually flown.

(There’s another video below the fold.)

29 thoughts on “Come take a trip in my air ship…”

  1. I was reading about the restoration of this plane – in Eastern Air Lines colors. Until I read up on the DC-7 I thought it was just a “hopped up” DC-6 – they look almost identical. But the -7 had more powerful – but far more troublesome – engines – it was so costly to operate that they lasted only a few years.

    Still as you say Jonathan – there is nothing like the sound of a big radial engine plane starting up – they cougar, spit, belch smoke but when they finally fire up…3000-4000 hp is ready!

    I do know that for the Dc6 – a bit slower – but they used those in regional routes for decades – I remember flying in one to SF from Sacramento – all of about 100 miles.

  2. These were/are beautiful airplanes.

    At least the long-range model, the DC-7C (“seven seas”) had an exhaust gas recovery turbine, which was geared to the propeller and recovered about 7% of the power that otherwise would have been wasted.

    There’s a DC-7 on walk-through display at the Air & Space Museum. I overheard one father pointing out to his kid the very impressive instrument & control set in the cockpit and telling the kid that jets were even more complex in their cockpit instrumentation–which is really not at all correct.

  3. I’m not sure the DC 7 was a new airplane. Maybe you know.

    The DC 6 was a wonderful airplane and a huge advance in aircraft construction. The DC 7, my impression was that it had new engines that had problems similar to the B 29 engines. I once spent 13 hours on a DC 7 trying to fly around weather in the central US. We had 7 foot tongues of flame coming out of the exhausts.

    The Constellations were gorgeous. The scene in “The Godfather” of a Connie coming into LA is a great scene. Howard Hughes killed off TWA by waiting too long to go to jets. He loved the Connie and it was beautiful. The 707 was small and short range compared to modern jets but it was the state of the art. I went to England in a 707 in 1977 and it was a sardine can.

  4. From reading Wikipedia, I think the DC-7 was essentially a stretched DC-6 with bigger engines. IIRC the DC-6 used the ubiquitous and reliable P&W R-2800, which I think had two rows of 9 cylinders. They used the R-4360 for more power in the DC-7B (and I believe the B-36). It had four rows of 7 cylinders and must have been a maintenance nightmare. (Didn’t the B-36 have internal walkways for in-flight engine maintenance?)

    IIRC the B-29 and the Constellation both used the Wright 3350. I’ve always seen it asserted that the 3350 with exhaust turbines was the most advanced of the large radial aircraft engines but was unreliable. It generated > 1 HP per cubic inch. I think this was the engine in the later Constellations.

    I agree that the Constellation is beautiful. There are one or two restored ones around. YouTube has quite a few videos of the engines being started on these and similar classic planes.

    I once flew on a Martin 2-0-2 or 4-0-4 on an excursion from a Club Med in Mexico. It was a dirt strip and I guess it was of marginal length for the conditions because the pilot aborted the first takeoff attempt. Then he taxied back to the absolute beginning of the strip, ran the engines up all the way before releasing the brakes and tried again. Everyone cheered when we got off the ground.

  5. Michael – I think the DC7 had the same basic engines as the B29 – both troublesome. But beautiful! And the Connie was the most beautiful of all. And the sad thing – Douglas had the airliner market until Boeing made a huge gamble and got their first – with the 707.

    Funny thing about that – a friend was a DC8 pilot for an air freight company in the 80s – said – maintenance wise – the DC8 was far easier to maintain – which is why you still see them flying – whereas I doubt there are more than a handful of 707s flying – and probably for a 3rd world country that isn’t interested in maintenance

  6. My father worked as a machinist on B 36 engines in the winter when our golf range was closed. He only worked one winter, and turned down a promotion to supervisor, but the B 36 was a mechanical marvel. There is an old Jimmy Stewart movie that shows him flying a B 36. It had six pusher prop engines and four jets.

    My father could fix or operate anything mechanical. He had never worked as a machinist before that winter. I like to think my surgical skills, such as they were, were inherited.

  7. I’d really like to fly in that DC7, a Constellation, or a Boeing 377. Just once. And in nice weather.

  8. “I’d really like to fly in that DC7, a Constellation, or a Boeing 377. Just once. And in nice weather.”

    I don’t know if “377” was a typo or not, but I have flown in all three. The DC 7 was noisy but the most interesting thing that many of you youngsters may not realize is that first class was aft and coach was forward because of the engine noise.

    The plane I would like to fly in was the flying boat, the 314. Some of the Connies were equipped with berths aft for very long flights. My mother-in-law flew to Australia that way. She was Jane Russell’s personal representative and they both usually slept on the floor under their seats on those trips. I don’t think the tail bunks were that comfortable. Lots of flight motion back there.

  9. Michael – those flying boats were glamorous (for the 1930s), expensive – but I think before you got to Wake Island you’d have had enough ;-) BTW if you ever go to SF – across the Bay Bridge – stop and Treasure Island half way – drive around – you will still see the original Pan Am buildings – in art deco – completely with the hanger where they serviced those magnificent planes

  10. “Howard Hughes killed off TWA by waiting too long to go to jets. He loved the Connie and it was beautiful.”

    Hughes was pissed because Trippe of Pan Am had been the first to contract for the 707. But, Hughes surrendered control of TWA in 1961 and TWA grew dramatically over the next 25 years.

    “TWA’s zenith occurred in the summer of 1988, when, for the only time, the airline would carry more than 50 percent of all trans-Atlantic passengers.”

    It was corporate raider Carl Icann who killed TWA in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    “I’d really like to fly in that DC7, a Constellation, or a Boeing 377. Just once. And in nice weather”

    In the 1950s, my hometown, Columbus, OH, did not rate jets. Almost all of the flights then were prop planes, including DC7s and Constellations.

    As I remember, they were really noisy and the vibrations were intense. Flying on them was tiring and I often got sick. I was heartily glad, when smaller jets like the DC9 and the 727 became available and replaced the prop planes.

  11. “Hughes was pissed because Trippe of Pan Am had been the first to contract for the 707. But, Hughes surrendered control of TWA in 1961 and TWA grew dramatically over the next 25 years.”

    Yes, and TWA did then go to jets but they had let the competition catch up. Every airline grew dramatically in that era. I agree that Icahn finished the job on TWA but Hughes waited too long to buy jets. That’s why he was pushed out of TWA.

    TWA and Pan Am were both victims of deregulation and the fact that Pan Am did not have domestic routes. TWA began as a domestic airline (Transcontinental and Western) but the Connie gave it the range for international routes. Foreign flag airlines were also a factor in the death of both airlines.

  12. “I think – what started the death knell for Pan Am was their acquisition of National Airlines”

    Bill, I think they saw the fact that no feeder domestic carrier was going to kill them. Too late.

    The great airline that was killed off unnecessarily was Eastern. Ernest Gann, in his books, asserts that Eastern always had the best pilots. In the old days, if an Eastern pilot reported something, weather or local conditions, every other pilot paid attention.

  13. The R4360 was only used commercially with the 377. The R3350 was used by the DC7 and the Constellation with earlier Connies not having the Turbo-compound feature. The B29s used turbocharging,while I think all commercial 3350s were mechanically supercharged, the turbines being geared to the crankshaft.

    Thanks for the You-tube link-that brought back memories.

  14. “The R4360 was only used commercially with the 377.”

    I flew to basic training in 1959 with the first leg on a Northwest Orient 377. We had first class tickets and Bob Hope was sitting in front of me. Basic was in San Antonio. I think the first leg was to Minneapolis.

  15. Yes, I see that I was mistaken about the engines. The Historical Flight Foundation website confirms that they are 3350s. It also says that the plane is currently out of service due to a problem with one of the engines.

  16. Can you guys imagine whatg it costs the CAF to fly the B29 FiFi? And it just came off a complete overhaul, including new engines –

    Jonathan – that is ironic ;-) First hand evidence why the DC-7 was not in service long!

  17. As I remember, they were really noisy and the vibrations were intense.

    I grew up near McChord AFB, back when they were still flying the Globemaster (this one, that is.)

    Never flew in one, of course, but the sound and vibration they created for us on the ground, at or near full takeoff power, and with the engines not quite all synchronized, was quite something.

  18. I recall that in one of Earnest Gann’s books, he said that the DC-7 was available with both Wright and P&W engines. I’ll have to go re-read that bit tonight.

  19. One unusual airliner was the DeHavilland Heron (DH 114)…only 14 passengers, but 4 engines (250HP each), as opposed to the more usual practice of 2 larger engines for a plane this size. It was even available with fixed rather than retractable landing gear, although I don’t think many were sold in this configuration.

    One of these airplanes was Queen Elizabeth’s personal plane, and as of about a year ago was offered for sale, complete with a full set of spares….this link suggests that it’s still on the market:

  20. An even stranger looking plane, the deHavilland Dragon was used in hospital flights in Australia. Quantas, the national airline, began as “Queensland and Northern Territories Ambulance Service.” One of Neville Shute’s novels is about “The Queen’s Flight.” The novel is “In the Wet,” a future fantasy he wrote in 1950 predicting 1980.

  21. I actually think the Heron (I’ve seen at least one in service, IIRC in Puerto Rico) is a very nice-looking airplane. (I know, there’s no accounting for taste)

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