The plane that taught the world to fly turns 86

December 13, 2021

She taught the world to fly and she turns 86 this week but she had an extraordinary, almost uncaring birth. The man who wanted her couldn’t afford her, the man who built her was reluctant to build her and the men who first flew her on December 17th, 1935, didn’t bother to arrange a photographer to capture commercial aviation’s greatest moment.

Legendary American Airlines’ President Cyrus Smith who wanted the DC-3 as a sleeper transport was in “a cold sweat because he just didn’t have the money to pay for them,” according to Donald Douglas Sr., famed founder of Douglas Aircraft Company in a 1965 interview.

Donald Douglas and Cyrus Smith on Mr. Douglas’s boat. Picture colorized by Benoit Vienne

Mr. Smith spent $300 ($5,500 today) on a 2-hour telephone conversation with Mr. Douglas trying to convince him to widen his existing – and very successful – 14-passenger plane the DC-2. “I did not like it at all,” Mr. Douglas recounted in the interview. “Why should I have liked it? I had plenty of DC-2s on order.”

But Mr. Smith was persuasive and ordered 20 of the larger DC-3s that would have 50 per cent more capacity than its smaller sibling, so Mr. Douglas gave in. As Mr. Smith did not have the money, he flew to Washington to successfully beg a colleague who ran President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation for a $4.5 million loan.

A 1971 photo of Cyrus Smith (left) and Mr. Douglas (3rd from right in light brown jacket.)

On December 17th, 1935 Douglas Aircraft Company chief pilot and VP of Sales Carl Cover, accompanied by flight engineers Fred Stineman and Frank Collbohm, boarded plane X14988 at 2:15 pm local time, ran the engines up for about 30 minutes and taxied for take-off at Clover Field in Santa Monica, California.

Mr. Collbohm, who occupied the right seat, recalled 40 years later that “it was just a routine flight. I can’t separate it in my mind from any other test flights we made in those days.”

Chief designer of the DC-3 Arthur Raymond didn’t remember the event either: “When the plane was ready, I suppose Carl and the others simply got aboard and took off.” And take off they did into the history books at 3 p.m. for a 1 hr. 40 min. flight, landing just as dusk was approaching. With it, came nightfall for every other commercial plane flying.

Key to the development was the pool of brilliant engineers that were part of the Douglas Aircraft Company in the 1930s. Many of the brightest young engineers went west to work for “Doug” as they called Mr. Douglas.

This 1959 photo shows the key designers of the DC-3; L:R Jake Moxness, Bailey Oswald, Frank Collbohm, George Strompl, Donald Douglas, Dutch Kindelberger, Ed Burton, Lee Atwood, and Arthur Raymond. Jack Northrop was also part of the team.

Many of the engineers, would go on to forge independent careers. Kindleberger and Atwood would form North American, which built the B-25 and Mustang, while Northrop and Douglas were in partnership in the Northrop Corporation. That corporation was dissolved in 1937 and absorbed into Douglas as the El Segundo Division. Northrop would form his own company in 1939.

The DC-3 instantly redefined travel because it was the first plane that could make money just carrying passengers freeing airlines from government mail contracts and stops at tiny out-of-the-way places. Now airlines could link bigger cities non-stop and slash traveling times.

Within three years, 95 per cent of all passengers in the US were flying on DC-2s or DC-3s. Globally that number was 90 per cent. Movie stars, such as Shirley Temple, also played a big role in helping sell the DC-2 and larger DC-3, and “flying on a Douglas” quickly became “the thing to do.”

Shirley Temple (Shirley Blake) in the 1934 film Bright Eyes sings the Good Ship Lollipop with James Dunn playing James “Loop” Merritt, a 33-year-old bachelor pilot and Shirley’s godfather.

And as recently as 2008 the DC-3 was still in the movies helping James Bond out of one of his many tight spots. In the “Quantum of Solace,” Daniel Craig was in the cockpit of a DC-3 with the lines; “Let’s see if this thing will fly.” It did and some!

And just as James Bond impresses with technological wizardry the DC-3 was a marvel for its day. Duplicate instrumentation for pilot and co-pilot as an added safety measure, new cockpit lighting for night flying, automatic hydraulically actuated retracting undercarriage, foot brakes, and hydraulically operated wing flaps were all introduced on the DC-3.

The host of innovations and the sleek design gave the DC-3 unmatched economics. Mr Douglas in his address to the Board of Directors in early 1936 said: “The DC-3’s payload is one third more than any of the previous airliners. More important he emphasized, “our estimates show that it costs about 69 cents per mile to operate the plane which is about on a par with the costs of operating the Ford Tri-Motor. The difference is the DC-3 carries three times as much in payload.”

In fact, the DC-3 cost about 71.6 cents per mile to operate – in 1939 dollars – compared to the 14-passenger DC-2’s 67.4 cents but the additional seven seats meant that the seat-mile costs were 3.4 cents compared with the DC-2’s 4.8 cents. The impact of the DC-3 on the world’s economy was immense. Flying was now safe and economical.

Passengers also loved the additional soundproofing introduced in the DC-3s with one British trade journal commenting at the time that: “Travel in the DC-3 is the most restful affair that can possibly be imagined. The reflections from the widespread of metal wings and from the discs of the slow-running airscrews would send even the most wide-awake European dictator into a pleasant slumber.”

And while there is no record of European dictators flying on the DC-3, movie stars loved that sort of quietness not to mention the performance and the safety. American was able to boast that one DC-3 flight’s passenger list included Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Murray Silverstone, head of United Artists, Charles Chaplin and Sam Goldwyn.

In the US, passenger fatality rates plummeted sevenfold and in 1939 the “Scheduled Airlines of the United States” were awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy for flying 17 months without a single fatality. Owing to the safety record of the DC-3, insurers began offering flight insurance in 1937 for the first time to passengers and pilots while the practice of temporarily canceling policies when passengers set foot on an aircraft was discontinued.

Time magazine commented: “That insurance companies can now bet US$5,000 to two bits (25 cents) against a passenger being killed on a flight of some 800 miles is one of the best pieces of publicity which US airlines ever had.”

And Mr. Douglas would appear three times on the cover of Time magazine in recognition of the DC-3 and his leadership and organization of the US war effort in building 300,000 planes between 1940 and 1945.

The amazing performance and economics of the DC-3 saw a 50 per cent decline in airfares by 1940 compared to when it entered service in 1936.

On May 30, 1935, Mr. Douglas delivered the 23rd Wilbur Wright Memorial Lecture on the progress of commercial aircraft to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. Douglas told the Royal Aeronautical Society that aviation was in a “golden era.”  Douglas listed a host of contributing factors for the emergence of airliners such as the Boeing 247, DC-2, and yet to fly DC-3.

“An alert and ambitious military technical personnel played its part in accelerating the brains of our designers. The growing competition among the airlines spurred the development of faster and safer airliners. A need on the part of the manufacturers for a broader market for their products and an ability, represented in favorable balance sheets, to seek this with newer and newer types, both military and civilian added to activity in this field,” Douglas said.

And he passed credit to Lockheed for its “early attempts at really fast airplanes” saying it pointed the way to others what might be done. “But beyond all this, and certainly marking the time as one of  real accomplishment, has been the fact that all agencies concerned in and contributing to aviation have been most alert, cooperative, and constructive.”

Douglas added: “Our engines have been developing at a pace to permit the airplane designer to raise his sights from time to time. Our instruments and radio people have aided tremendously by furnishing us with means to fly in bad weather. Propeller makers have been most helpful, and in fact, I can say that the development of the variable pitch propeller to the point it has reached today is probably the most fundamentally important development of the period. Without it many of our present airliners would be impractical.”

In a prophetic snapshot of the future of aviation, Douglas added that “for the first time speed through the air was only one function to be solved in the solution of the equation of a successful ship. Speed of inspection and maintenance during fuelling stops, and studies to cut the time required to make replacements, were given great consideration.” The DC-2’s engine installation was a revolution in its day with plug connecting fuel and electrical lines enabling an engine change in two hours.

TWA was the original sponsor of the DC-1, which led to the production of the DC-2 and then the DC-3. Boeing Historical Archives

Douglas also highlighted comfort as a major factor. “Comfort was studied with care and sound engineers developed efficient and practical methods of eliminating the formerly disagreeable and tiring noise of the air transport. Heating and ventilation comparable to that found in modern buildings was affected after the aid of related industries was obtained.”

Even Orville Wright commented on the soundproofing of the DC-3. When TWA inaugurated its DC-3 service to Dayton where Orville lived, he went to inspect the shiny new aircraft, although declined a flight. Wright told author Douglas Ingells: “There is plenty of room and the seats are comfortable. They tell me too, that it’s so soundproof that the passengers can talk to each other without shouting. This is a wonderful improvement. Noise is something that we always knew would have to be eliminated in order to get people to fly. Somehow it is associated with fear.”

The advance in the DC-3’s soundproofing which reduced the noise in the cabin to around 65 to 70 decibels was put in context by AA pilot and famous author Ernest Gann who said: “A Ford Tri-Motor clangs along at 105 decibels, a number which almost exactly matches its cruising speed.”

The DC-2 and DC-3’s impact on the world’s economy was immense. In the US passenger numbers leaped 265 per cent from 572, 265 to 2.09 million in 1939 and increased 54 per cent in 1940 to 3.16 million. Passenger fatality rates plummeted from one per 11,000,000 miles to one per 81,000,000 miles. In 1939 the “Scheduled Airlines of the United States” were awarded the Collier Trophy for flying seventeen months without a single fatality.

And those millions of passengers replaced mail contracts as the airline’s major source of revenue. In 1931 the fledgling US airline industry earned $24 million of which 82.5 per cent was from mail and the balance passenger revenue. By 1940 the figures were almost revered with 70 per cent of the total industry revenue of $76 million coming from passengers and the balance from mail and express cargo.

So great was the aircraft’s impact that by 1938 the DC-3 was carrying 95 per cent of all commercial traffic in the US and by 1939 was carrying 90 per cent of the world’s airline traffic. And airfares had dropped by 50 per cent from when the DC-3 entered service. And on February 16, 1937, American Airlines proclaimed in an advertisement that it was the first airline in the world to carry one million passengers.

According to Ingells, the transformation was put into context by Grover Loening, one of the US’s pioneer airmen and famed aircraft designers in his book “Our Wings Grow Stronger” when he reflected on the impact of the DC-3 saying: “The railroads are as obsolete today as the Erie Canal was in 1830. The handwriting is on the wall for the steamship also.”

The DC-3 quite simply freed the airline from mail contracts, according to Smith. “It was the first airplane that could make money just by hauling passengers. With previous planes, if you multiplied the number of seats by the fares being charged you couldn’t break even with a 100 per cent load. Economically, the DC-3 allowed us to expand and develop new routes where there was no mail pay.”

And that was really the key. The DC-3 gave airlines the freedom to fly longer legs non-stop, which in itself reduced costs as well as making air travel much faster aside from the additional speed of the aircraft. The DC-3 cruised at 170mph compared to the 110mph for the Ford Tri-Motor and had much greater range transforming a 38-hour 14-stop transcontinental trip into three stops and 17.45 hours. The effect was similar to what Open Skies and liberalization have provided today.

During WW2 the DC-3 or Dakota or C-47 became the backbone of the allies’ transport armada with over 10,000 produced in the US. Most were built by women.

During World War 2, Douglas employed more women by percentage — 85 per cent — than any other defense company, and the company’s peak workforce was 160,000.

By the end of 1941, a total of 507 DC-3s had been built and there were orders for another 369 which were transferred to the US military. Peak US production was in 1944 when 4,878 were built at three plants at Long Beach, Santa Monica and Oklahoma City. Overall production hit a high of one every 34 minutes. In all, Douglas built 10,125 military models of the DC-3. The aircraft was also built in Japan and Russia under license and assembled at Fokker in Holland.

At the conclusion of WWII the military version of the DC-3, mostly C-47s flooded the market and could be purchased for around $8,000 to $15,000 with some picked up for $1,200 in 1945 dollars. These surplus aircraft became the backbone of the global airline system with many staying in trunk-line airline service well into the 1960s and in regional airline service to this day. It is estimated that over 200 are still flying.

While many are only seen at air shows, there are well over 100 still hauling freight and passengers. Cost? A good one goes for $500,000.

While it might be easy to lay credit for the DC-3 and the subsequent transformation of the airline system at the feet of one man, Donald Douglas, that is not the way he saw it.

When he accepted the Robert J. Collier Trophy from President Roosevelt on July 1, 1935, for the development of the DC-2, he said: “There is nothing revolutionary in the airplane business. It is a matter of development. What we’ve got today is the Wright Brothers’ airplane developed and refined. But the basic principles are just what they always were.”

And there is little doubt the DC-3 will keep on going and still be earning money when she reaches 100.





  1. Great article. My log shows three rides on a DC3. First was United Airlines LAX to Catalina Island Sky Harbor around 1951. In 1983 a PBA flight from Ft Meyers to Miami. The last was Air Kenya in 1997, from Masa Marai to Nairobi Wilson. When visiting the CR Smith Museum in Dallas, I noticed their DC3 still has the trace of what these planes smelled like. Metal, oil, etc. What a design, and will still be flying 100 years later. Pretty amazing. Will we see any 787s, say, in 2112? Probably not.