By Marie Martin
My DC-3 adventure began because my aunt was private secretary to some bigwig in the Airlines. Family gossip said she may have been more than just his secretary. I was about four years old at the time and 1 didn’t care if my Aunt went to bed with her teddy bear. What I did care about was that my Aunt always went home to Florida on airplanes. I heard my mother denouncing her scandalous behavior. The scandalous behavior, of course, was flying on airplanes.
It was 1948 or 1949, and we were going to Newark Airport to see her off. We drove from Manhattan in my Uncle’s new Pontiac, a pea-green fastback with the lighted plastic profile of an Indian on the hood: very upscale for its time. It just reeked of that new car smell, at least it did until I got car sick, then it just reeked. I loved my Uncle very much, and I felt bad My Uncle must have loved me very much too, because he didn’t kill me.
It is odd that I was so excited about planes. Nobody in our family flew. Mother did once going to the Bahamas on an American Clipper. She was so terrified that she sailed home. She was airsick out and seasick back. I may not have inherited my love of flying from her. but I did inherit her habit of barfing
I knew that I wasn’t going to actually get to fly on a plane. My family was not of a caste that went flitting about in airplanes. We didn’t even own a car! Once I thought that I was going to get to go into a plane to see my aunt off. My aunt walked through a gate, I went with the rest of the family to an icy cold observation deck. Below us was a huge gleaming silver bird they called the Douglas DC-3. I remember being dumb-founded by its size, by the strange angle it made with the ground, and by its sheer dazzling beauty.
People filed into the plane, and then they closed the little door in the side. Then the machine emitted an insane noise and spewed smoke all over the place! When it cleared three things were happening: (1) My mother was ranting about the insanity of ever entering such a dangerous contraption. (2) Two silver propellers were whirling noisily. (3) l was deeply in love.
Like most love affairs, this one turned quickly to heartache. The plane moved away, and 1. perplexed. asked my daddy when we were getting aboard. Mother sniffed that we weren’t going anywhere near that awful thing. and one very docile, usually well-behaved four year old threw a tantrum suitable for framing!
Fifteen years later I finally got to go on an airplane. My first flight was in a 707 and I loved every minute of it.
Fast forward… the. four year-old is now six months shy of her thirtieth birthday: unmarried, not dating, and unhappy. l decided it was either the time to take flying lessons or commit suicide. Of course, there were times when the flying lessons seemed like attempted suicide, but they did get me through a very bad time.
I flew airplanes, then helicopters. I got my commercial and my turbine transition. You would think there were no more worlds, or at least no more skies to conquer. And old love affairs die hard, and the lure of that big clunky old legendary DC-3 was still out there.
Then, I put a nonce in the Whirly Girls, International Women Helicopter Pilots newsletter, asking if any of my sisters in the sky could tell me how I might get to fly a Gooney Bird. 1 got four responses. The only sure thing was a flight school in Texas.
I called and talked to a nice man who sounded like former President Lyndon Johnson (L.B.J.). I told him that I would plan to be in Texas for a week, since in aviation, breakdowns and bad weather are always a possibility.
‘L.B.J.’ assured me that the weather was almost always good, and they had three DC-3s. So it would be unlikely that breakdown would be a problem.
I flew to Harlingen, Texas, and drove to McAllen International Airport. I saw- a DC-3 on the ramp with an engine cowling removed. When I went in to talk to ”L.B.J.” and his wife, I got the news that the second DC-3 was flying car parts to El Humidor and the third one had been sold the day before. The really bad news was the one on the one on the tarmac needed a new engine (to be flown in from Oklahoma). and probably wouldn’t be flying for at least Iwo weeks. I then took an expensive return flight back to Los Angeles
Two months later I got a phone call saying the DC-3 was ready to fly but had been flown at the Brownsville Confederate Air Force air show, and if I got my buns down to Texas really fast I could get to fly it back to its home base in McAllen.
Now I must digress to explain my obsession with this aircraft. Quoting Ernest Gann, “The DC-3 was, and is unique. For no other flying machine has been part of the international flying scene and action for so many years. It cruised every sky known to mankind, been so ubiquitous, admired, cherished, and sparked so many maudlin tributes. Iit was without question the most successful aircraft ever built. And even in this jet age it seems possible the surviving Douglas DC-3s may fly about their business forever.”
My desire to fly one might have remained forever in the realm of a dream were not for Gann’s influence. His descriptions of hi first attempts to fly the DC-3 gave me hopes. He did not soar effortlessly into the air. He sweated and goofed up, and blundered. But he stayed with it and became an airline captain in the end. If Gann could master the Great Silver Bird perhaps I could fly it just once.
The one slitting out on the tarmac at the Brownsville airport, -November 32 Mike Sierra (c/n 4978), had flown 55,000 hours! As ate began the preflight, I was horrified to see ”LBJ” walking quite far out on the wing. Anything I had ever flown up until then would have either buckled or tipped over. We checked the fuel, and poked here and prodded there. All the time getting more and more covered with oil. The plane was huge. The flaps are as big as the wings of a Cherokee. The tires looked like they came off a mud bog winner.
Next I was sitting in the steamy heat of the cockpit and reading off the checklist The master switch was a big red handle on the floor, and there were switches and doodads everywhere, most of them unfamiliar. And of course, there were two of everything because it’s a twin-engined airplane. In order to release/set the brakes I needed to step really hard on the toe brakes while releasing a little knob under the throttle quadrant. It took all the strength in my legs to press the pedals. and then my butt was off the seat and I couldn’t reach the knob.
Holding half a dozen switches down at the same time got the engines turning. I thought of my mom and how alarmed at the sight of all the smoke and noise as I cranked them up.
“LBJ” says that any monkey can fly a DC-3 but it takes a pilot to taxi it. Just hand me a banana… I taxied all over the grass as well as the taxiway.
The run up was satisfyingly noisy, and frightenly complex. I already knew that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Next, the tower cleared us for takeoff. I wandered all over the runway before the wheels cleared the ground.
One of the most famous and appropriate similes ever written describing a high performance airplane is it “climbs like a homesick angel.” It crossed my mind that N32MS climbed like a homesick anvil. Oh my God. I’m doing it! I’m Flying a DC-3.
I grinned like an idiot. I was flying like an idiot. 1 couldn’t keep in altitude within 100 feet and my turns were uncoordinated. You have to use your feet for something besides standing, on them,” LBJ” tells me. No matter. I was still on cloud nine or somewhere between cloud eight and a half and cloud nine and a half, because 1 couldn’t hold my altitude.
We practiced steep mushy turns. The plane felt like a slug on steroids. I kept stealing glances back at the large beautiful wings, and mighty engines. They made me feel like a real pilot. On the other hand, stealing a look at the 64 feet of aluminum following behind scared the hell out of me.
Later, my approach to McAllen International was really lousy. Despite the hugeness and slowness of the aircraft, I flitted this way and that like a deranged bat.
With much help from “LBJ” I did get the airplane onto the ground, using up all 7,000 feet of runway in the process. As we rolled out I was humiliated to see the fire trucks rolling alongside. Is that for ME”? I asked in horror. ‘”LBJ” tried to save my feelings. “Oh They just do that for practice.”’ He Lied, I think.To borrow a phrase from my hero Gann, “I wallowed in the vileness…”
Oh well. good or bad, I had flown the DC-3. Now I had to taxi in„ shutdown down, chock the wheels and leave the Lovely Lady staring wistfully at the sky.
We all went across the street to a pilot bar to drink beer and tell lies.
Then came the tornado.
Reprinted from the DC-3/Dakota Journal Summer 1995. Copyright Henry M. Holden 1995, 2013
Intended for delivery to Northwest Airlines as Douglas DC-3A-453 NC30025, it was drafted before delivery by the USAAF as a C-53C Skytrooper, delivered on 13oct42 with serial 43-2022. It was reconfigured back again in 1945 to DC-3A standard and reregistered N33315 for Continental Airlines.
It was registered to Southern on 02Sep58 and reregistered N89SA later in 1958. Much later, on Nov67, it was registered to American Nat’l Bank Corp., of Jacksonville, FL.
It flew for Gilley Airways of Myrtle Beach, SC and was registered to Airlease Corp., of Beaufort, SC on 16Oct68. It received a new tail number when it was registered as N32MS for Marion Air Services in Jan75, but was cancelled from the FAA Register two years later. Again two years later it was registered to Air Lease Corporation again.
During the 1980s we see it reappear as N32MS for Starflite Corp., of Miami, FL (18May87). This did not last long as by 17May88 it was bought by KDD Aviation Leasing of Upper Saddle Ridge, NJ. Ownership moved on as it was bought on 11Jul90 by Excavators Leasing Corp. of Medford,OR.
On 10dec96 N32MS was registered to Randsburg Corp., Portland, OR. It was bought in 1997 by Mr. Driessen of the Netherlands and ferried to Europe; it was intended to be kept in airworthy condition as part of his intended Wings of Liberation Museum. Unfortunately, the aircraft suffered a serious engine fire the next year on Soesterberg AB. It was moved by ground transport and will not fly again, unfortunately.
For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see: “The Legacy of the DC-3″