By Henry M.. Holden
Almost 75 years after the DC-3/C-47 was first built, its history is a long way from being completed. Stories continue to surface about the almost indestructible Gooney Bird aka C-47, Dakota, or DAK. Years after its operational life was theoretically over, the Gooney Bird continued to see military operational service in some parts of the world. South Africa was no exception.
Over the years, incidents involving C-47/Dakotas have proven beyond a doubt its indestructibility and survivability.
The following story goes back to1986 and Operation Alpha Centauri, a military operation by the South African Defense Force during the South African Border War and Angolan Civil War, but because of security regulations, the story was classified for years.
Green had just transported some troops from an outlying airfield to the main base, and the aircraft had taken off on its return journey.
Halfway back to the base, the aircraft and crew had settled in level flight with the autopilot engaged. The constant drone of the Pratt and Whitney engines was suddenly shattered by an ear-crushing explosion. An enemy surface-to-air (SAM) 7 missile had hit the tail. The explosion destroyed nearly all the rudder and 80 percent of the elevator control surfaces.
Green lost control of the aircraft but regained control by reducing power and airspeed. The controls were sluggish, and large elevator movements were necessary to stop the aircraft from porpoising.
After Green transmitted a Mayday, a helicopter was dispatched to try and assist the crippled aircraft. The pilot of the chopper gave a physical assessment of the damage and some much-needed encouragement, but there was little else he could do.
The loadmaster surveyed the damage to the aircraft and reported that most of the back section had been blown off, and pieces were continuing to separate from the aircraft.
Green’s control was degrading, and he decided to descend in case he had to land quickly. Green was a little apprehensive about landing due to the loss of control surfaces, but the landing turned out to be straight in and nearly normal.
When Green inspected the damage the aircraft had sustained, his conclusion was that they were lucky to make it back. The old Dakota stood with her nose proudly in the air, but her tail feathers were all torn,” Green said. “We realized that only a 50-year-old Gooney Bird could have brought us back after the damage we sustained!’
Reprinted with permission Warbirds Magazine July 2010
Copyright Henry M. Holden 2010, 2013
For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see “Legacy of the DC-3″