Happy Birthday, DC-3

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In the rush of Christmas, I’m a little late with this post. I had hoped to have it ready for December 17th, when one old friend turned 75 and another turned 108.

On December 17, 1935, at Santa Monica, California, test pilots tried out the first DC-3. Exactly 32 years earlier, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilber Wright piloted their Wright Flier 1 to what is generally considered the first sustained flight by a self-propelled and pilot-controlled aircraft.

I’m not a pilot, but I enjoy being a passenger. I love both the arriving in some exotic place and—under most conditions—the process of getting there. Maps fascinate me, as does the world they represent. (Ask the two generations of students to whom I have assigned map learning.) Having the earth stretched out beneath me is like enjoying the map in its purest form. I have pressed my nose to the window of multiple crossings of the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Caribbean, and on flights that puddle-jumped across four continents.

I remember all the places I visited, but some of those airplanes I got on, got off, and forgot. By far, my favorite flights were in the airplanes that carried me during the nine years I lived in Colombia. In 1984, I moved my family to Lomalinda, a small Bible-translation and linguistics center on the Colombian
llanos, or eastern plains. When I arrived, the center had three single-engine, Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) Helio Couriers, and an unusual looking plane called the Evangel. In addition, twice a week, the community was served by a DC-3 flight from Bogotá. Primarily, the small planes connected us to the state capital (Villavicencio, a.k.a. “Villao”), or remote areas where indigenous languages were still spoken. Through Bogotá, the DC-3 connected us to the rest of the world.Loading the DC-3, Bogotá, Colombia, October 1985

Lomalinda was 35 miles from the closest paved highway, miles that were always difficult and sometimes impassable. I remember one rainy trip where buses and trucks lined up on both sides of a thousand-yard mud pit while two Caterpillar tractors sloshed back and forth, towing a single vehicle each trip. In good weather, the road trip to Bogotá took 12 hours. The DC-3 could do it in just under an hour.

Cockpit of the DC-3, with seats for pilot,
co-pilot, a third crew-member, and to
offer one passenger a remarkable
vicarious experience.

When the DC-3 went into production in the mid 1930’s, it revolutionized passenger airline service. It cut the New York to Los Angeles trip from 38
½ hours (beginning with a train ride from N.Y. City to Cleveland, and then 13 more stops to L.A.), to 17 ¾ hours, with just three stops. In four years, as one airline after another went to DC-3s, the rate of passenger fatalities per million miles flown fell by four-fifths. Over the same years, the cost of airline tickets fell by half and the volume of passengers more than quintupled. DC-3s had captured 90% of the world’s airline traffic. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Douglas Company had built 507 of the DC-3s. War brought a military version, the C-47, and production that reached 4,878 in 1944 alone.

The DC-3 assembly line shut down in 1945. That means the airplane that carried my family that last leg to Lomalinda could not have been less than 39 years old. It might have been closer to 48. By comparison, I was 35. Before we left California, we junked the Dodge Dart we’d been driving. It died at 19.

It is difficult to pick a date in automotive history as dramatic as Kitty Hawk, but by 1903, motorcars had almost a century of experimentation behind them and were in production in both Europe and the United States. Still, by 1984, most pre-1945 models saved their public appearances for car shows. Few pre-’45 buses had regular runs and few pre-’45 trucks hauled freight. The DC-3 arrived 32 years into aviation history, and then served widely for roughly 50. This would be like the common-place usage today of a 1940’s telephone, or a 1980 photocopier.

My daughter, earning
her wings as a stewardess.

After World War II, cheap military surplus DC-3s made possible the beginnings of many new airlines, or fell into private hands. From Lomalinda, it was 35 miles in one direction and 60 in the other to find airstrips capable of handling a DC-3. Therefore, when storms sealed off either destination, airplanes landed on our strip to wait out the weather. I remember once counting 13 aircraft crowded in our little parking lot, half of them DC-3s.

In many ways, the DC-3, at age 50, was more comfortable than airplanes fresh off the assembly line today. For one thing, seats seemed roomier, aisles wider, and windows larger. True, the cabins were noisier, and unpressurized. At high altitudes (like over the Andes, to reach Bogotá), passengers sipped oxygen from tubes. I remember one painful flight with a head cold, descending into Lomalinda with the pilot circling the airport an extra two times to give my ears additional time to adjust. But more, I remember the spectacular views of Andes and Llanos.

Sipping oxygen at 16,000 feet
Colombians pass down a story that when God created Colombia, the angels came to complain that no place should be allowed such beauty. God is supposed to have replied, “Yes, but wait until you see what else I will do to it.” In many ways the country has suffered a torturous history, but its landscapes are breath-taking, and to fly over it is dazzling. Few places on earth display as many shades of green, or as wide a variety of clouds, sunsets, or rainbows.

The Colombian Llanos,
under the wing of the DC-3.

I might have ridden the DC-3 eight or ten times. It brought my youngest son home after his birth, brought my in-laws for a visit, and carried my wife and me to a second honeymoon in Bogotá. For part of one flight, I sat in the cockpit’s fourth seat and the pilot pointed out the unremarkable peak of Nevado del Ruiz. On November 13, 1985, a small eruption of the volcano melted the snowcap and sent a wave of boiling mud across the town of Armero, killing some 23,000 in the worst recorded lahar in history. The disaster sent our DC-3 into full-time relief service. Even at fifty, this veteran was not an air-show classic. It was still a workhorse.

For this reason, it came as a shock when the government decided no longer to allow DC-3s over the Andes. Ours had superchargers on the engines that gave them extra power and safety, and our pilots trooped to government offices looking for an exemption, but to no avail. Unable to use it for the Bogotá run, we had no choice but to sell it. My last photographs of the DC-3 are from 1987. I was told the plane had been purchased by a company that flew tourists over the Grand Canyon. It continued to serve.

This year, aficionados celebrated the DC-3’s three-quarters of a century with a formation flight across Wisconsin. Twenty-three DC-3s landed together in Oshkosh; of 26 that had had gathered at Rock Falls, Illinois, to attempt the flight; of the hundred or so still operational in the United States; of the some fifteen thousand made during the decade of their construction. Would you like one? I see this one advertised for only $299,000.

I found some of my history for this here.


I flew as a junior member of the crew of our Colombia DC-3 while in High School, and it has left a lasting impression on me, as has it's flight and ground crew that accepted me as one of their own. It is a beautiful plane, and still one of the best aircraft ever built.

As for the Rock Falls reunion, a good friend from college was part of that group, flying his Herpa DC-3 along with 25 others. He has a lot of pictures and videos online, and he still trains pilots in how to fly the old Goonie Bird. I just wish I could have attended.

I do still work occasionally with Missionary Flights International, out of Ft. Pierce, FL, and they continue to fly 3 (soon to be 4) DC-3 planes to Haiti for mission work there.

Thanks for the great blog!

Kirk Garreans

Kirk Garreans said...
December 29, 2010 at 6:16 PM  

Kirk, what a great experience for a high schooler! Over-and-over again, Lomalinda provided educational experiences no other place could offer. It's remarkable that at age 75, some are still at work, and serving in a needy place like Haiti. By any chance could your friend find out what eventually became of our DC-3?

Brian said...
December 29, 2010 at 11:02 PM  


I always enjoyed and enjoy your stories of Colombia. This is one that adds itself to the list.


Steve said...
December 30, 2010 at 11:37 AM  

After a little research, I see that our old DC-3, HK-2540W, is now registered as N47E, and it flew as part of the Rock Falls Reunion - if you go to their website - www.thelasttime.org, you can see n47E and if you click it, the story tells that it used to be owned and operated by SIL in South America. It looks beautiful now - I hope I get a chance to see her again!

Kirk Garreans said...
January 12, 2011 at 8:47 AM  

I loved your article.Really looking forward to read more.

August 2, 2013 at 1:14 AM  

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