by Craig O'Donnell
Photos by Charlie Campbell
Edited by Bill Dougherty
If ever a machine deserves an Oscar, this is one.
It can claim to have shared the screen with John Wayne, Richard Burton,
Roger Moore, Errol Flynn, Michael Caine, William Holden - who else but
the Douglas DC-3.
One of these two-engine propeller-powered workhorses has a new home at
Inside the workshop recently, John Williamson said, "I'm sure learning a
lot about DC-3's." Williamson was bending sheet metal.
Meanwhile, Larry Tasker drilled holes and pop-riveted triangular
aluminum sections to reinforce battered and cracked frames in an elevator.
While the plane will never fly again, Williamson and others plan to
restore it to cosmetic perfection.
This particular DC-3 came from a Delaware restaurant called Air
Transport Command. It had a tough life there. Williamson said, for
example, it was hit by a car. The collision damaged one engine.
When the restaurant closed, a group of enthusiasts offered to rescue the
plane. When they finally got the go-ahead, it took a crane and three
trips by tractor-trailer to bring the DC-3, in pieces, to Massey.
The reassembled plane is situated on a grassy spot at the end of the
aerodrome driveway. Aside from missing engines, it looks remarkably
complete. With two main wheels and a tailwheel, the nose points skyward.
It looks ready to leap into the sky.
Passers-by might have assumed the aerodrome's collection of hangar
buildings is part of a farm, but with the DC-3 front and center it's
clear there's an airport along Route 330.
When it became part of the restaurant's décor, it was painted olive to
simulate a military transport. When finally restored the plane will be
repainted silver, said Williamson.
The engines and cowlings will go back on. One engine might be returned
to working order. If so, it could be fired up for the public, he said.
Each 14-cylinder Pratt and Whitney engine develops 1,200 horsepower.
The DC-3 was built of aluminum skin riveted to aluminum frames. "Alclad"
aluminum alloy formed the skin, he said.
But the moveable surfaces to control the airliner - ailerons, elevators,
and rudder - were made up of ribs covered in fabric. The fabric was "doped" to tighten it, Williamson said, and then covered
with aluminum paint.
A shiny silver Douglas DC-3 is displayed in the National Air and Space
Museum's Air Transportation gallery in Washington. The aircraft,
suspended from the ceiling, is sparkling aluminum in Eastern Airlines
The DC-3, a tiny airliner by modern standards, features prominently in
an exhibition on air travel, opening soon, at the museum. It was the
world's first commercially successful airliner.
It is a plane with nine lives. The air and space museum estimates that
300 or 400 DC-3s are still flying; and in Wisconsin, Basler Turbo
Conversions LLC rebuilds used DC-3's. The company adds modern turboprop
engines and state-of-the-art instruments.
Basler also adds three feet to the fuselage, new wingtips and metal
DC-3s once carried 90 percent of the world's airline traffic. By 1938,
essentially all U.S. commercial airline passengers flew in a DC-3. They
were owned and operated by thirty foreign airlines by 1939.
But this workhorse was once a synonym for luxury travel. A cross-country
flight in 1935 in a Boeing 247 took 25 hours, with many stops. American Airlines asked
Douglas Aircraft Company that year to design a long-range sleeper plane
for luxury cross-country travelers.
The prototype first flew Dec. 17, 1935. This plane, called a DST, had
fourteen sleeper berths and a private cabin. It could fly nonstop from
New York to Chicago.
The "day coach" DC-3 had 21 to 28 seats. Later, some were modified for
up to 32 passengers on short hops.
American's new airliners were an immediate hit.
United Airlines quickly followed with its own DC-3s. They went into
service in January 1937. In July, United began transcontinental sleeper
service. A New York-to-Los Angeles flight took under 18 hours with only one fuel stop.
When World War II broke out, Douglas was not long in turning out
thousands of military models.
The Army called its version the C-47 -
popularly dubbed "Gooney Bird" by pilots.
According to the Air and Space Web site, there were 455 commercial and
10,174 military DC-3s (C-47) built in the U.S. Another 2,000 to 3,000 were built under
license in Russia (Li-2) and 485 in Japan after World War II.
Massey's DC-3's small entry (air stair) door is near the tail. Directly inside is a
lavatory and an open galley. Between the two is a fold-down rear seat
for the single stewardess, as flight attendants were once known. Baggage
was kept in the tail section and behind the cockpit.
Once inside, it's an uphill walk to the cockpit. Massey's DC-3 has pairs
of seats on each side of a narrow aisle.
Despite the airliner's external appearance, there's a staggering amount
of work to do inside before the public can climb aboard. The seats are
there, but loose. Flooring panels are missing.
Bucket seats for the pilot and co-pilot are there, but all the
instruments are gone.
Williamson would like to install genuine, but not necessarily
functional, instruments and make the controls work again, so when kids
sit in the cockpit and move the wheel and pedals, they can see and feel
how a plane is controlled.
Does his crew need more help? "Absolutely, absolutely," he said. "We
welcome donations of time, labor and money."
Meanwhile, he is tracing the registration number. He said it was built
for United Airlines in 1937.
It once flew in Florida for Shawnee Airlines, taking tourists to and
from the Magic Kingdom in Orlando.
Later, it apparently saw service in the Bahamas, he said. Remnants of
once-bright yellow shag carpeting hint at sunny isles – along with a
placard warning passengers not to smuggle conch.
Boeing, which merged with McDonnell-Douglas in 1997, provides DC-3
specifications on its Web site. The plane weighs nearly 18,000 pounds empty and
between 28,000 and 30,000 pounds fully loaded. It is 64
feet 5.5 inches long, and has a wingspan of 95 feet.
As-built, the range was 1,495 miles at 155 mph courtesy of two
900 hp (later upgraded to 1,200 hp) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines.