Hoist by Their Own PetardThe story of how the Douglas Aircraft Company, of Santa Monica, California, came to enter the commercial airliner field is one of the best known in air transport history. The Boeing Airplane Company, of Seattle, Washington, had, in 1933, produced an aircraft, the Model 247, which was so much in advance of the types of only a few years previously that it quite literally began a new era. Its justifiable claims for the title of the first modern airliner were well-based, incorporating as it did two NACA-owled Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines, stressed skin surfaces, a monocoque fuselage, and partially retractable landing gear, among other refinements. By comparison, the 95 mph Ford Tri-Motor was completely outclassed by the 165 mph 247, and looked ponderous by comparison, as indeed it was.
The Boeing 247 first flew on 8 February 1933 and entered service with United Air Lines on 1 June, enabling the latter to steal a march on the competition. At the time, before the 1934 Air Mail Act was passed to prohibit such associations, the manufacturer, Boeing, belonged to the same industrial group as the launching customer, United. When approached by a rival airline, T.W A., eager to keep up with the 247's pace, Boeing declared that the production of the first 60 aircraft was allocated to United, and that T.W.A. would have to wait.
Jack Frye, T.W. A.'s vice-president of operations, was not so inclined. He sent a letter to five other manufacturers with a specification of an airliner that was to be about ten percent better than the 247 in every respect: speed, range, size, and airfield performance. Douglas's proposal came close enough to pass the stringent tests imposed by Charles Lindbergh, serving as T.W.A.'s technical adviser at the time. Thus, the DC-1, or the Douglas Commercial Model One, was born.
Birth of a New BreedThere was only one DC-1. The designers quickly realized that a simple modification would permit two extra seats, so that the production version became the DC-2. As the accompanying table shows, the DC-2 was another step ahead of the competition, and it stopped the sales of the 247 completely to all airlines except United, and further development ceased. What the table does not show, but which was nevertheless a contributing factor in the Douglas aircraft's success, was the superior comfort. The Douglas passenger cabin had seven seats on each side of an unencumbered aisle which the low-wing design permitted. The Boeing 247 had five seats on each side, but the aisle was interrupted by two spars, the inevitable result of the mid-wing design. Passengers had to step over one spar to reach the front seats.
Boeing had certainly led the way, but by a corporate misjudgment, had managed to let in the competition. Boeing sold 75 of its Model 247. Douglas sold 220 DC-2s and the airline world beat a pathway to the door. Furthermore, the orders came in so thick and fast that the Santa Monica plant was the first to incorporate mass production methods for building commercial aircraft; and these techniques served the company well as it developed the DC-2 into an even more successful airliner, the world-famous DC-3.
Pan Am Joins the ClubJuan Trippe was in no hurry to take his place in line with the airlines which rushed to Santa Monica, California, to follow American Airlines' example in taking the wider-bodied version of the now well-proved DC-2. Douglas had already received orders from the Big Four U.S. domestic airlines and from four European airlines (not to mention one from the Soviet Union and a subcontract from Fokker) before Pan American, with its associate PANAGRA, joined the queue.
But it soon made up for lost time. After the first one (NC 18113) was delivered on 1 October 1937, eight more were added to the fleet before the end of the year, and two more in 1939. These were powered by the popular Wright Cyclone engine, as were most of the early production DSTs (Douglas Sleeper Transports) and DC-3s, but thereafter, the Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines were preferred.
Post-War AcquisitionsAfter the war, Pan Am did something it had never done before it bought second-hand aircraft ó DC-3s, of course. No doubt its engineering staff ensured that it had the cream of the crop of war-surplus C-47s, C-53s, and other varieties of the basic breed, but the fact of the matter was that even Pan Am could not pass up the opportunity to acquire perfectly serviceable workhorse airliners for about $5000 to $8000 each.
It is sufficient to state that Pan American and its cohorts probably owned, at one time or another, about 90 DC-3s, including ex-military conversions; and that is a substantial number, by any standards.
DevelopmentAmerican Airlines' sponsorship of the DC-3, at the recommendation of its chief engineer, Bill Littlewood, to his president, C. R. Smith, is one of the best known stories in the entire history of airline folklore. Originally specified as a sleeper, with 14 berths, it first went into service as a 21-seat dayplane between New York and Chicago on 25 June 1936. With its fuselage widened to accommodate three abreast seating against the DC-2's two (and this was later increased to four abreast with improved seat design) the DC-3s, success was guaranteed. As C. R. Smith was never tired of recalling, the Douglas airliner heralded the realization that, given good loads, an airline could make money without subsidy or mail payments.
By the 1940s, some 85% of the fleets of all the U.S. domestic airlines consisted of DC-3s and much of the balance was made up of DC-2s. With this aircraft, Douglas attained a commercial airliner leadership which it did not surrender until the advent of the jet age.
The NumbersDC-3 production statistics, at least the astonishing total of more than 13,000 of all versions, civil and military, are almost as well known as the launching story. For the record, 10,926 were built in the United States, of which, however, only 433 were originally DC-3s or DSTs. All the rest were converted from military types, mainly C-47s. 803 DC-3s of all types rolled off the production lines at Santa Monica. More than 4,000 were built at Long Beach and more than 6,000 at Oklahoma City and Chicago. Exact figures are difficult to assess with absolute precision, as a few aircraft were rebuilt, and may have been counted twice.
Overseas, a few were assembled by Fokker, and 487 were built in Japan, 71 by Nakajima, all for the Japanese Navy, and 416 by Showa. The number of DC-3s built under license in the Soviet Union, as Lisunov Li-2s, is uncertain. Approximately 2,500 are believed to have been built during World War II, but there are also reports that production continued after the war.
Because of the enormous wartime production, and the aircraft's own inherent qualities, the DC-3 has more nearly approached immortality than any other aircraft, military or civil. Perhaps the most amazing statistic of all is that, without counting hulks or derelicts, there are still at least 800, and possibly more, of the veteran Douglas twin flying today - none less than 42 years old. The type has never been grounded.