FLYING THE DC-3 – A Private Pilot’s Experience

by Barry Schiff

In June, 1994, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. The first French town to be liberated on ‘D-Day” June 6, 1944, was Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In that small town is a museum that pays tribute to the 15,000 paratroopers who dropped behind Ger­man lines that day. There is only one airplane in that museum; the airplane that General Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the most important in ensuring the Allied victory of World War II. It is not a P-51 or a B-17, but a C-47 (the military version of the DC-3), one of thousands that flew across the English Channel to help liberate Eu­rope.

I have always had a strong desire to check out in a DC-3, and perhaps it was serendipity, or fate, but when a DC-3 recently became avail­able for training at my home airport, I knew that my dream was to become a reality.

The DC-3, N7500A, based at Cloverfield Aviation at Santa Monica Municipal Airport is owned by the husband and wife team of Jan (pronounced Von, as in Don) and Britt Aarvik. Jan was a pilot in the Norwegian Air Force and has more than 17,000 hours of flight time (4,000 in DC-3s). Hle has been using the aircraft to train pilots, haul skydivers, and fly in a variety of television and motion-picture productions.

Douglas DC-1 / DC-2/R2D / DC-3 Dakota / C-47/R4D Skytrain / C-53 Skytrooper,DC3, C47, Dakota, R4D, Gooney Bird, DAK, DST, C-53, C-117, C-49

N7500, c/n11693 (ex C-53d 42-68766) over Newport Beach, CA. December 17, 1995. Written off after hurricane in 2008.(Frank Mormillo)

A 7,000-hour pilot, his wife Britt also is rated in the “Three.” So, too, is their son, Thomas, who also serves as crew chief and copilot for the family airplane.

N7500A is powered by a pair of 1200-hp, nine-cylinder Wright Cyclone radial engines. From the firewalls forward, these are the same supercharged engines used on the 13-17 Flying Fortress, Many other DC-3s have 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps that deliver the same power.

Oil drips can be found anywhere within 50 yards of either Wright Cyclone engine and seems to have an affinity for expensive clothing.

It is said that a pilot’s experience in a DC-3 is measured more accurately by the number and value of shirts destroyed by oil stains than by the hours in his log.

Checking oil and fuel quantity during the preflight requires climbing atop the wings. The oil tanks have a capacity of 232 quarts of oil, which is more than the fuel capacity of many light planes.

The plexiglass landing-light covers on the leading edge of each wing must be inspected to ensure that each is secured by a pair of crossed wires. These prevent the plexiglass from blowing out due to strong pressure changes at large an­gles of attack,

The wing flaps are split, like those on a Cessna 310. On the ‘Three,” however, they span all the way from one aileron to the other (including under the fuselage). They increase lift by 35 percent and parasite drag by 300 percent. Slips are allowed with the flaps fully extended.

The DC-3 is an all metal airplane except for the primary flight control surfaces which are usually fabric covered to save weight and facili­tate field repair.

Climbing into the cockpit makes it obvious why a DC-3 pilot should not have to have a medical certificate. Climbing the long and steep­ly sloped cabin several times a day without pass­ing out should be a sufficient testament of health.

Stirring an engine to life requires simulta­neously engaging the starter and primer switch­es, waiting for the propeller to turn through four revolutions (“count 12 blades”), and then turning on the mags. With a little Iuck, the big radial will show some sign of life, which is the signal to enrich the mixture. The Wright Cy­clone awakens one cylinder at a time, belching and coughing great swarms of smoke that are guaranteed to create IFR conditions for anyone standing behind the engines.

When taxiing a DC-3, the aircraft moans and groans, and creaks and squeaks, as if it was a mechanized, prehistoric monster. Maintaining control of this oversized taildragger is not diffi­cult as long as the tailwheel lock is engaged. Otherwise, the Gooney Bird seems to have a mind of its own and acts like a weathervane into the slightest zephyr (even when there is none). One also must be mindful of the 95-fool wing span when taxiing in tight quarters. It is cornforting to know that if the wing tips clear an obstacle while turning, so will the tail. Nego­tiating narrow taxiways and tight turns is made easier by visualizing that the main-gear wheels are directly behind the engines, Over-the-nose visibility is excellent, better than in most small tail draggers.

When retracted, the main-gear tires extend I I inches below the nacelles. The wheels remain free to rotate so that normal braking is available during a gear-up landing (not !hat this is the preferred way to land).

When depressing the tops of the convention­al rudder pedals, hydraulic pressure inflates a doughnut-shaped expander tube that has com­position brake pads mounted on its outer perim­eter. These press against the brake drum to slow the aircraft.

The DC-3 is a very hydraulic airplane. In addition to hydraulic brakes and landing gear, hydraulic power also is used to operate the cowl flaps, autopilot, and — believe it or not — the windshield wipers.

The runup and preflight checks are conven­tional. After taxiing into position, lining up with the runway, locking the tailwheel and applying the brakes, The throttles are advanced to 25 inches of manifold pressure. Each pilot then looks at the engine on his or her side to ensure that the cowlings are not shaking or vibrating. The brakes are then released and the throttles advanced for takeoff: 45.5 inches and 2,500 rpm.

Each cowling has a ring of 16 large cowl flaps that surround thebig radials. They are wide open for takeoff but create so much drag that they should be closed to the trail position shortly after setting climb power 39.5 inches and 2,300 rpm). This eliminates enough drag to noticeably improve engine-out climb perfor­mance. Partially closing the cowl flaps also re­duces airframe buffeting.

Leaning the mixture is a breeze. Use the auto-rich position for takeoff and climb, and the auto-lean position for cruise. Be careful, howev­er, when enriching the mixtures prior to land­ing a Wright-powered DC-3. The controls work backwards so that pushing them forward results in a very quiet and underpowered airplane,

The pilot must forcefully lower the nose to an approximately level attitude, During my first takeoff, this seemed excessive, and I had the distinct impression that I was going to shove the nose into the ground. It takes a whopping 12-degree attitude change to lift the tail 7 feet into the air and prevent the DC-3 from lifting off prematurely (below the 77-knot Vmc). Slight back pressure is applied to the yoke at V1 and V2 (both of which are fixed at 84 knots), and the DC-3 becomes a graceful creature of the sky.

The takeoff from Santa Monica was partic­ularly nostalgic, a flight across the pages of history, This was the runway from which I made my first takeoff in I952. It also is where this 31,000-hour airplane was born and made its maiden flight more than 50 years ago. Santa Monica was the home of the Douglas Aircraft Company and is where almost all of its piston-powered airliners were built.

In flight, the DC-3 is heavy on the controls and sluggish in roll and pitch. This airplane is not flown with the fingertips, and a new pilot quickly learns that the trim tabs are his best friends.

The first DC-3 flew in 1935 (also from Santa Monica) and was so successful that by 1938 it carried 95 percent of all airline traffic in the United States. A year later, 90 percent of the world’s airline passengers flew on DC-3s, a record never likely to be broken.

This DC-3 first flew on April 30, 1943, and was delivered to the Q.J.S. Army Air Force, which used it to drop paratroopers and tow large glid­ers. After the war, it had a career with Eastern Airlines, and then Mercer Airlines. Actor John Travolta bought it in 1977 and he sold it in 1983, to the Aarviks.

Douglas built 10,629 DC-3s, most of which were Army C-47s. Despite their official designa­tions, pilots affectionately refer to the DC-3 as a Gooney Bird, the king-sized, seagull-like Alba­tross bird found on some South-Pacific atolls,

Flying the airplane can be a workout and gives me great respect for the old airline pilots of yore who had to battle weather and turbu­lence a hundred hours a month.

The DC-3 cruises at 157 knots on 50 percent power and gobbles 94 gallons of fuel per hour. Some claim with tongue in cheek that the “‘Three” consumes as much oil as it does fuel.

One would expect that the big, high-lift wings of a DC-3 would have docile stall charac­teristics. Don’t bet on it. Stalls propagate from the wingtips and can result in strong rolling moments and substantial altitude loss. Recovery demands aggressive, albeit normal, manipulation of all primary flight controls.

On a nice day, either pilot can slide open his side window and rest his arm on the win­dow sill as when driving a car, The shape of the front windshield creates a low-pressure zone near the side windows so that only a wall of air can be felt, and the noise level does not increase with an open window. The din of the DC-3 engines assaults the ears equally with the windows open or closed.

When the outside air is cold, a conventional janitrol heater provides warm cabin air. On some older models, heat is provided by a steam boiler in the right engine nacelle.

Although one can make 3-point landings in a Gooney Bird, it’s discouraged because drop­ping in such a heavy airplane can unduly strain the landing gear. Instead, wheel landings are the norm. Just pull off the power when about 10 feet above the ground. There is little or no ten­dency to drop as those big wings slice deeper into ground effect. There also is little tendency to bounce, which makes the DC-3 easier to land on the mains than many light airplanes.

Some experienced pilots claim that they can land shorter in a DC-3 with the tail up than down. The procedure involves simultaneously applying aggressive braking and enough back pressure on the yoke to prevent nosing over. According to Perry Shreffler, a retired captain who flew DC-3s for TWA, this combination of brake and elevator control is so effective that with a little help from a headwind, a forward center of gravity, and a smidgeon of power — a competent pilot can come to a halt with the tail suspended in the air. (I did not have the courage to try this.)

A private-pilot’s certificate is the only pre­requisite for a DC-3 type rating. Aarvik advises that the training required (including the check ride) varies from 3-4 hours (for an experienced tail dragger pilot with round-engine time who wants a VFR-only type rating) to about 10 hours (for a private pilot with limited experience who wants a type rating with instrument privileges). These hours can be reduced, however, if the stu­dent first obtains some instruction in a small tail dragger.

For me, learning to fly a DC3 was a dream come true–even if it did cost $625 per hour.


The DC-3 was designed to seat 21 passen­gers plus the two pilots. Several records have been set over the years for carrying passengers above and beyond the design figure. The first record was set by a China National Airways’ DC-3 that evacuated 75 people from China to Burma during World War II. Among them was James H. ‘Jimmy” Doolittle who had recently completed his bombing raid over Tokyo.

The most recent record which still stands was set by a Continental Air Services DC-3 fly­ing out of Ku Lat, Vietnam evacuating refugees trying to escape from the war. It carried 98 children, five flight attendants and three crew members, a total of 106 people.

Barry Schiff is a private pilot and contributing editor to the AOPA Magazine.

Reprinted from DC-3/Dakota Historical Society Journal – Winter 1994

For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see: “The Legacy of the DC-3″

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One thought on “FLYING THE DC-3 – A Private Pilot’s Experience

  1. Frank Szachta

    After five years as a SAC/USAF B-47 co-pilot in the nuclear bomber B-47, I attended the University of ZNew Hampshire college, and started flying the Gooney Bird/DC-3 airplane. I was made an Instructor Pilot in it for the rest of my USAF career (eight years). Later in about the late 1970’s I checked out as a co-pilot in the Ozark Airlines Museum C-47, that they had purchased from the Israeli Air Force. This was the plane that gave me low altitude ( in the soup) weather flying experience in winter snow and icing conditions in New England, as well as general cross country experience around the entire US . It is a strong and sturdy plane, with super reliable flying attributes. I loved every hour of all that flying experience.


    Frank Szachta
    Maj USAF (ret)

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