The Douglas DC-3: 85 Years and Going Strong

The Douglas DC-3 Doesn’t Know the Meaning of the Word “Quit”

The same year the German airship Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic, the still-flying-today Douglas DC-3 was introduced to the world. The DC-3 is widely viewed as one of the most significant transport aircraft in history, due to its massive and long-lasting impact on the airline industry, and aerospace engineering. I got the chance to interview Ric Hallquist, the retired Chief DC-3 Pilot for Missionary Flights International who flew and worked on the beefy twin engine transport plane for over 30 years.

Douglas DC-3’s Impact on Civilian Transport

Just three years after its introduction, the DC-3 (along with its predecessor the DC-2) were carrying over 90% of all airline passengers in the United States. It was thought to be the height of both luxury for the passengers and operating efficiency for the airlines; a rare combination. The DC-3 sat and slept 14 passengers in comfort for overnight flights, or 28 passengers for shorter flights. Because the DC-3 was so well-constructed and reliable (with remarkable fuel efficiency for its day), American Airlines C.R. Smith said the DC-3 was the first airplane that made passenger transport profitable. Prior to that, airliners had to haul mail and other things to earn government subsidies. Like many civilian aircraft of the 1930’s and 40’s, production ended when the war began in 1942. Even so, of the 10,655 Douglas DC-3s built, there are an estimated 2,000 DC-3s still in commercial service all over the globe (which includes the C-47 military conversion).

The DC-3 (named for Douglas Corporation) was designed as a significantly improved version of the DC-2, the popular transport plane predecessor, of which 198 were built. The DC-3 was an all-metal twin-piston monoplane with the landing gear in a tailwheel configuration. Though the earlier version could seat 28 passengers on short flights, the airline version sold to United Airlines and American Airlines sat 21 and had no sleeping berths.


General Specifications of the Douglas DC-3

The crew of the DC-3 was generally made up of two pilots and one flight attendant. The taildragger configuration of the landing gear (retractable oleo strut gear) made for a steep climb up to one’s seat via the single entry door near the empennage. The DC-3 also had a modest bathroom in the rear, complete with a small window.

Accommodations*21-32 seats
Length64 ft 8 in (19.7 m)
Height16 ft 11 in (5.16 m)
Wingspan95 ft 2 in (29.0 m)
Empty Weight16,865 lb (7,650 kg)
Gross Weight25,199 lb (11,430 kg)
Fuel Capacity822 gal (3111 L)

Depending on how the DC-3 was outfitted, it could hold 14 sleeper passengers, 21 to 28 day passengers, or between 3,725 and 4,000 pounds of freight.

Performance Characteristics of the Douglas DC-3

The Douglas DC-3 was originally powered by two massive 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone R-1820 radial engines and pulled by two three-blade steel Hamilton Standard (now UTC Aerospace Systems) propellers. The radial engines weighed over a thousand pounds each! Later models, including military versions, used the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engine (which also clocked in at an impressive weight of 1,250 pounds). Today, many still-flying DC-3s and C-47s have been retrofitted with PT6s (Pratt and Whitney PT6A turboprop engine) which weigh just about 500 lbs each.11 Still not “light,” but for an aircraft with a useful load of 13,750 pounds, I think the DC-3 can handle it.

Fuel Burn100 gph (378 L)
Range1,500 nm (2,778 km)
Cruise Speed180 kts (333 km/h)
Max Cruise200 kts (370 km/h)
Stall Speed58.2 kts (108 km/h)
Climb Rate1,130 fpm (5.7 m/s)
Service Ceiling23,200 ft (7,100 m)
“D-Day Commemoration- briefing the paratroops” by Geoff Collins, used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Military Applications of the DC-3

When the United States entered World War II, they brought with them the C-47, a DC-3-turned-military carrier. The C-47 had been upgraded with more powerful engines (giving the plane an additional 200 HP) and was refit and reinforced for large cargo shipments. The “Gooney Bird,” as it was nicknamed, officially had accommodations for 32 passengers, 28 combat equipped troops, or 21 stretchers.5 In actuality, the C-47 often carried twice its official capacity in the midst of the war.

In addition to its ability to haul troops, Jeeps, and howitzers, the C-47 also had remarkable short-field takeoff and landing performance, reportedly being able to take-off from rough fields less than half a mile long, and land in even shorter distances. There’s a lot of information about flying and landing DC-3s out there, but one thing that most pilots seem to agree on is that while a 3-point landing is possible in a DC-3, it’s generally not necessary or advisable as it can put much more stress on the airframe. 6

The US military had over 10,000 C-47s (and their variants) built during the war. Thanks to that, the military surplus that existed after the war contributed to the DC-3 sticking around ‘til today.

Read the rest of this great article at Disciples of Flight.

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