It could be argued that modern air transportation began in 1931 with the tragic death of Knute Rockne, the much-loved Notre Dame football coach. A national figure of legendary status, his death in a Fokker Tri-motor airliner touched off a national furor to upgrade airline transportation.
The airlines responded immediately with frantic demands to the aircraft industry for faster, safer airplanes. In a good news, bad news scenario, Boeing’s new design, the sleek twin-engine 247, appeared as if it would satisfy all demands — this was the good news. The bad news was that the 247 was effectively shut out of the market when United Airlines bought all of the available production. This forced the other airlines to look elsewhere and that “elsewhere” was Douglas aircraft. In the long run, this turned out to be really good news for the world, in general.
Douglas was already well along with its own design, the DC-1, which mutated into the 16 passenger DC-2 before the series went into production. Then C. R. Smith of American Airlines stepped in and applied the coup de grace necessary to guarantee the airplane’s dominance of air travel for decades to come: he wanted sleeper berths and more seats, which lead to a slightly larger airplane initially known as the Douglas Sleeper Transport. Then they put 21 seats in it and named it the DC-3. Need we say more?
The DC-3 completely rewrote the rules of commercial air transportation. Suddenly the industry had an airplane that could carry enough people fast enough that the operator could actually make money. This was a novel concept at the time because no one had yet figured out how to make a profit carrying passengers. By 1940, a reported 80-90% of all airline passengers in the US were riding in the smooth luxury of DC-3s. Single-handedly, the DC-3 made airline travel not only popular, but also profitable, a winning combination.
Then World War II kicked the DC-3 into high gear. An estimated 455 had been built for the airlines when it became apparent that the airplane would be a terrific troop and freight transport. This turned out to be a gross understatement because matter what or where it was asked to perform the Gooney Bird did so in spades and over 10,000 were built in America alone, with additional thousands built under license in Russia.
Today, the youngest DC-3/C-47 in existence is closing in on sixty years of age, with many of them entering their seventh decade. Still, when today’s high-tech computers analyze what aircraft delivers the lowest cost per freight mile and is capable of withstanding grueling conditions, more often than not the old Gooney is at the top of the list. We don’t see them disgorging passengers at LaGuardia or O’Hare any more, but from the frozen tundra of the north to steaming jungles down south, the old gal is still earning her keep.
–by Budd Davisson