DC-3 plus 82



June 7, 1936 marked the first delivery of one of the most important airplane types ever developed:  the Douglas DC-3, which has been called “the Model T of aviation.”

The story of the DC-3 begain with a very long telephone conversation between the heads of American Airlines and Douglas Aircraft.   AA had been conducting coast-to-coast overnight sleeper service using Curtiss Condor II biplanes, and CR Smith of American wanted a more advanced aircraft for this service. Douglas Aircraft was then fully occupied with production of DC-2s (which were too small for sleeper berths) and Donald Douglas was reluctant to undertake the project.  He was persuaded of the merits of the project over the course of a 2-hour phone call, the bill for which came to something like $5400 in today’s money.

The DC-3 could accommodate 14-16 passengers with berths–see this promotional film–or, alternatively, 21 passengers in a seating-only configuration, which was the more common arrangement.  The type quickly became a huge success.  According to Delta, by 1940 the DC-3 carried 80% of the world’s airline traffic. Thousands of DC-3s (under the military designation C-47) were built in support of the Allied effort in WWII, and after the war a high proportion of these found their way into passenger and freight service.

Perhaps the best way of discussing the characteristics of the DC-3 is in the context of a walkaround and flight.  (I’ve had two opportunities to fly DC-3s with instructors, the first in 2006 and the most recent in 2017)

The most noticeable thing about a DC-3 on the ground is its nose-high attitude: this is a tailwheel airplane, whereas most planes today have a nosewheel.  The tailwheel is better for operations on grass and other unpaved strips, but it does make ground handling and landings a little more tricky.

The airplane has two engines…a few years prior to its introduction, three-engine airplanes had been the thing for passenger traffic, the theory being that the loss of one engine in that case would represent only a 33% loss in total power rather than 50%.  Eliminating the third engine (in the nose) reduced noise and vibration, but required that there be enough reserve power for single-engine flight to be feasible.

The wings have a noticeable sweepback.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with supersonic or near-supersonic aerodynamics, but was done for reasons of balance.  Wing construction used a stressed-skin approach with a cellular, ‘honeycomb’ internal structure.

Entering via the rear passenger door, you walk up a fairly steep inclination to get to either a passenger seat or to the cockpit.  (Douglas devoted considerable attention to ensuring that the passenger seats were comfortable, and also to soundproofing the airplane as much as possible.) Pilot and copilot seats are also reasonably comfortable . Electrical switches are on the overhead panel, engine controls in the center:  prop, throttle, and mixture.


After starting both engines, allow the oil to warm up…this takes a while.  Taxiing is very different from a modern nosewheel airplane…since you don’t have a steerable nosewheel, and the rudder is ineffective at low speeds, you have only two ways to point the airplane where you want it to go: differential power and differential braking.

After engine run-up and after positioning on the runway, the tailwheel lock should be engaged—this helps keep the airplane straight during the initial part of the takeoff run.  Pretty quickly, the tail comes up and the rudder becomes effective.  Fly it off the runway at 84 knots, then raise the landing gear by unlatching the gear lever and pulling it up–then return it to neutral.

Cruising speed is about 140 knots indicated on the airspeed gauge, which is roughly 160 knots true airspeed, or about 185 mph. In cruise, the mixture control is set for Automatic Lean, which adjusts the mixture as required as altitude changes.  (When setting power level and prop RPM, it’s important to note that with the DC-3’s radial engines, there are mechanical reasons for not “letting the prop drive the engine”…for example, 2500 RPM and only 20 inches of manifold pressure would not be a good thing from an engine-life point of view.)

There is no hydraulic boost for the controls:  they are directly cable-driven from the yoke and rudder petals.  (One thing I noticed about the airplane is that it requires a lot more rudder force to roll out of turns than to roll into them.  Not sure what the aerodynamic reason for this might be.)

From a passenger standpoint, the DC-3 is more comfortable in turbulence than was the DC-2, the result of higher wing loading.  There is no air conditioning, other than climbing to higher altitude where the air is cooler.  (But not too high…this is an unpressurized airplane)

For landing, gear down and lower flaps in stages.  Airspeed on final should be 70-80 knots. Wheel landings rather than full-stall are recommended.

My most recent DC-3 flight was in N28AA, which is owned by Jim Sells and based near Atlanta.


In addition to flight experience for pilots, Jim frequently organizes trips for multiple passengers on a cost-sharing basis. Facebook page for the airplane is here:  DC3 Experience.

My earlier flight was in N600NA, which was then based in Florida.

I see that this airplane has now been sold to a Russian man who is trying to put together an example of each airplane type which was supplied to his country under Lend-Lease during WWII…not sure if this is going to be a museum, or strictly a private collection.  A worthy thing to do, either way.

There are still many DC-3s flying revenue operations around the world. Buffalo Airways, based in Yellowknife Canada, hauls freight throughout the Canadian North, and sometimes into the United States as well.

Truly a remarkable airplane–long may the type fly!

See also my related post Lighted Airways and the Radio Range

18 thoughts on “DC-3 plus 82”

  1. The Ford Model-A of aircraft, I think – a perfect and serviceable design which went on serving for decades and decades… Thanks for the look!

  2. Really neat. We should organize a Chicagoboyz barnstorming tour with David at the helm. I wonder if that Russian collector would be willing to branch out into North America.

  3. I have a very faint recollection of being a passenger on a DC-3 in 1967 in Alaska. The flight was from Fairbanks
    to Point Barrow, then to Anchorage. I was a 16 YO snot nosed kid, travelling solo.

  4. It’s a remarkable airplane – a bit of sadness; the runway that saw the birth of so many DC3s – will be closed soon in Santa Monica due to the complaints of homeowners. Actually it is the airport that will be closed. While a docent at our local museum, I learned an interesting factoid: Know what a C-53 is? It is a C-47/DC-3 with a strengthened floor.


    Thought you’d like to see this video too David


  5. I remember as a kid seeing a fleet of Ozark Airlines DC-3s at Lambert Field in St. Louis. They sat just beside a TWA Super Constellation four engine ship. If you fly into the Brownsville Texas airport anytime there are usually several all silver unmarked DC-3s at the cargo facility. What they fly and where is anyones guess!

  6. It strikes me that a DC-3 might be a good campaign plane for a nontraditional Presidential candidate….visit a lot of places where not only the jets don’t go, but Amtrak doesn’t go either.

  7. I remember flying a DC-3 on PBA from Boston the Provincetown on Cape Code about 30 years ago.

    I loved the comfortable seats.

  8. In the mid 1980’s I flew in a South African Air Force DC-3 [they called them “Dakotas”] From Pretoria to Walvis Bay. Trip took 8 hours with a refuel stop in Eppington. One time when I was at the 201 Battalion Bushman base, I saw a funny thing. A Dakota was getting ready to leave, but one engine wouldn’t start. Soldiers then looped a long rope around the hub in front of the propeller of the non-starting engine and tied the other end to a Land Rover. The Land Rover then roared ahead attempting to turn the hub and propeller around in hope of a “manual” firing up of the engine. Apparently this had worked in the past but, after several attempts, they gave up and the plane sat there awaiting a part to be flown in. A rugged, reliable airplane, for sure!

  9. The story is that the last plane to fly out of the Brit airfield at Rangoon before the Japanese entered was the world’s only DC-2 1/2. A group of flight mechanics that didn’t have high enough rating to merit evacuation looked around and found that they had a DC2 with a destroyed cabin, and hulk of crashed DC3 that had been slid through the trees, destroying the wings and engine mounts.
    With two days of labor under incoming artillery (a great motivator), they had transplanted the DC-2 wings and engines on to the DC-3 body. Or maybe vice-versa. It made one flight (the only one it needed to). It used a huge amount of runway, but it got them out of there.
    On landing it was found to have 87 people on board.

  10. Earnest K Gann, who was a 1930s airline pilot before he was an author, noted in his autobiography that he was once assigned a DC 2 on a flight which turned out to save his life. They encountered heavy icing conditions and the DC 2 would carry much more ice than the DC 3.

    The title of his book is “Fate is the Hunter.”

    I read all his books years ago and once drove by his home on San Juan Island.

  11. That was a wonderful book Mike –

    A quick Gann story – I remember reading a letter to the editor from a regional pilot who picked up Gann at his home on one of the islands in Washington – or honestly I can’t remember the circumstances but he had Gann in his small plane. When he landed Gann complimented him and he was walking on clouds for some time after that

  12. After a 30 year career in the airline business, Fate is the Hunter is till my favorite book about flying. Ernie absolutely nailed the spirit of the whole thing. The technical details change, but his evocation of what goes on in your head is as true today as back then. The first chapter, with it’s ‘hours of ennui followed by a flash of terror’ theme is terrific, and spot on.
    On a separate note, I was privileged to sit in the cockpit of the very DC-3 in the picture. Shortly thereafter,I transitioned from copilot on the then state of the art Boeing 767, to captain on the MD-80 (officially the DC-9 Series 80). I was was charmed/aghast at the similarities to the DC-3, in terms of the cable-operated flight controls, and many other details. It was a tough, reliable plane though, and lots of fun to fly. The folks at Douglas Aircraft made great airplanes.

  13. “The folks at Douglas Aircraft made great airplanes.”

    Long ago, in another life, I worked for Douglas.

    A friend is an airline captain. He used to say “If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going, ” but now he flies an Airbus.

    I see the Airbus 380s are being scrapped. I saw one in Paris when they were new.

    It would be like being on a cruise shop with 5,000 passengers. It’s OK until you dock.

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