The Douglas DC-3 ushers in a new era
Aviation in the United States was on the cusp of major change. Thanks to the US Post Office’s airmail initiative in the 1920s, airlines had found they could operate at a profit. But they were almost entirely reliant on air mail. Flying passengers alone was not commercially feasible.
United and Boeing lead the way
Boeing and United Airlines had a symbiotic relationship. As the only airline part-owned by an aircraft manufacturer, United was able to have aircraft designed to its own specifications and needs. The first major design that sprang from this was the Boeing 247 in 1933. With an all-metal fuselage, two powerful engines (not three as the Ford tri-motor) and retractable wheels, the B-247 was a huge leap forward. All the US airlines wanted them, but Boeing had promised the first 60 to United Airlines exclusively. As a result of this, American and TWA approached Douglas aircraft to design a rival airframe. Douglas promptly did so with the Douglas Commercial Model 2, known as the DC-2.
The B-247 and DC-2 represented a quantum leap in performance. The Boeing was quicker at cruise speed than the fastest fighter the US Army Air Force had at the time. Both aircraft participated in the London to Melbourne Air Race in 1934. The de Havilland Comet racer went onto to be the clear winner – but it was a dedicated performance aircraft only carrying two pilots. A production version of the DC-2 carrying passengers came second and a B-247 third, showing how astonishingly fast they were. But for C.R. Smith, the dynamic CEO of American this still wasn’t enough.
American and Douglas Aircraft reply
CR relentlessly pushed Donald Douglas (the designer), to make the aircraft wider and faster, until the DC-3 was produced with a wider, 92-inch (230 cm) cabin. This was the widest cabin in service and allowed three-abreast seating – an extra row of seven seats was squeezed in, the DC-2 only had two seats per row. For comparison, a modern Boeing B-737 has a cabin of 139 inches (350 cm) not that much wider, with six-abreast seating.
So confident was CR that he had the right aircraft, he ordered 20 of them for American before Douglas had even decided to build it. The aircraft was an instant success and was largely instrumental and making air travel to be seen as a practical and efficient means of transport. More importantly, the seven extra seats CR had insisted on meant that the aircraft could be operated profitably carrying only passengers. By flying the DC-3, airlines were no longer reliant on the subsidy provided by mail revenues. Over 400 DC-3s were sold to US airlines in the 1930s, an unprecedented number for that time.
A worldwide game changer
The DC-3, known as the C-47 by the US military, the Li-2 by the Soviets and the L-2D by the Japanese (both of whom built it under licence) went onto be the most famous propeller aircraft of all time, with over 16,000 produced in the US, the USSR and Japan. It became the transport backbone of the Allies in the Second World War. As most readers will know, the legendary Dakota (as it was popularly known in Britain and the colonies) would be the aircraft that launched Air Ceylon in 1947 – the headline picture of this column. A fine example can be viewed at the SLAF museum in Ratmalana.
So capable was this classic design that many DC-3s are still in active commercial service to this day all over the world.