American Airlines


In the early 1930s, the American Airlines fleet consisted generally  of Curtiss Condor biplane sleepers, Ford Tri-Motors and Fokker tri-motors. There were two problems. American Airlines needed to modernize their fleet because they  were losing millions of dollars in revenue. They needed a modern air-  plane, with sleeper berths since they attracted the luxury passengers. American Airlines first took delivery of their Douglas DC-2s in last quarter of 1934 and quickly put them into service on their New York to Los Angeles, route.   

 The DC-2 was a vast improvement but it was too narrow to fit a comfortable sleeper  berth. American Airlines decided they needed a bigger airplane.

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Curtiss Condor (Author’s collection)

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Fokker Trimotor (Author’s collection

Cyrus Rowlett Smith, (C.R.) President of American Airlines,  and William Littlewood, American Airlines’ vice president of engineering,  had both flown in the DC-2 and did not like some of its performance characteristics, although it was a marked improvement over the other airplanes in the fleet. It had the highest rated engines in use at the time, but they felt it lacked power, but it carried 14 passengers, two more than the DC-1. Moreover it could not make New York to Chicago, non-stop, although it was faster than any other airliner on that route. They also had pilot reports that at times, it was difficult to land, with heavy aileron, and rudder control. Additional reports of directional instability, propeller and fin icing problems and yawing excessively in turbulence also concerned them. These problems were even more reason Smith and Littlewood wanted a new design.    

Littlewood wanted to convince Donald Douglas that the new airplane they wanted was possible, so he sat with his engineers in late 1934 and began to redesign the DC-2. Littlewood’s sketches of the proposed sleeper would closely resemble the actual later Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST). As the American Airlines team began to put requirements on paper, and they invited Arthur Raymond, Douglas’ chief engineer, to join the discussions. By May 10, 1935, Raymond had produced “Douglas Aircraft Report No. 1004,” which outlined performance and other characteristics of the developing transport. It would be used for the initial engineering of the airplane.      Soon after C. R. Smith read the report, he telephoned Donald Douglas with a proposal. Smith had decided what kind of airplane American needed. He was looking for a larger, and more comfortable airplane than his Condors or Ford Tri-Motors. He also wanted something bigger than the DC-2. Smith wanted to give his customers safe, comfortable, and reliable transportation, and the Condors  and Fords did not measure up to these standards. The airplane Smith was looking for was described in Raymond’s report.

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DC-2 at Glendale Airport (author’s collection)

At first, Donald Douglas did not react positively to Smith’s proposal. Douglas was reluctant to take on a new design.  The DC-2 was in full production with 102 machines already manufactured, and an-other 90 orders on the assembly line. A new model would mean new tooling and starting over – an expensive gamble.

Smith spent over $300 on a two-hour long distance call, before he finally convinced Douglas to modify a DC-2, to American’s sleeper requirements. There are some who have said that if Smith had not persisted, and made an offer, Douglas would never have built the DC-3.

Douglas nevertheless was skeptical. Night flying was about as popular as the plague, and he wondered about Smith’s business sense. Where would Smith get the millions of dollars needed to finance this airplane, and who would wanted to sleep in it?

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NC14988 American Airlines first DST (author’s collection)

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NC14988 data plate (author’s collection)

The Great Depression had devastated many of America ‘s industries and the government had formed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to loan money to the private sector. C.R. Smith obtained a loan from this agency to fund the development of the new design. On July 8, 1935 Smith sent a telegram to Douglas ordering ten of the new transports totaling $795,000. The actual specifications for Smith’s pro-posed airplane arrived at Douglas Aircraft on November 14, 1935 (long after construction had begun). Before the first flight of the DC-3, American Airlines doubled their initial order to eight DSTs and 12DC-3s. By the time the actual contract was signed on April 8, 1936, American Airlines and Donald Douglas both had a heavy financial commitment. In today’s business environment the contract always precedes work, but in 1935, American Airlines  and Douglas had such faith in each other’s dependability and integrity that the order came first and the contract after delivery.

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The plan called for using the DC-2 design as a starting point. Widening and rounding the fuselage would allow enough space for the berths, and increasing the power would help lift the larger plane. Littlewood had discussed the design with engineers at Curtis-Wright, and they told him they could modify the 855 hp engines on the DC-2 to deliver 1000-hp. Littlewood then thought, more power, more airplane.     

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Two American Airlines DC-3s await passengers circa 1938 (author’s collection)

Littlewood’s drawings suggested the new design would have the DC-2 center section, and outer wing panels, but a larger cockpit, and tail surface than the DC-2. Littlewood tried to work within the frame-work of the DC-2, because he knew he could not sell Douglas on a brand new design. When Douglas engineers reviewed Littlewood’s drawings, they estimated they would reuse about 80% of the originalDC-2 design. That was satisfactory to Douglas.

As the engineers began to create the detailed drawings it became apparent that a new airplane was evolving. This bothered Douglas, because it meant new tooling. What Littlewood had in mind was developing into the first “wide bodied” airplane, a super DC-2, but Douglas also saw its potential.

  Littlewood, his assistant, Otto Kirchner, and Arthur Raymond, worked nearly six months on the design. “We gave Bill Littlewood almost a free hand in establishing the dimensions in the cabin,” said Raymond, “and deciding what went into the cockpit layout. The DC-3 was a product of teamwork. This was the primary reason it was so successful. My relationship with Bill, (Littlewood) and our relationship with the American Airlines people influenced that airplane a lot.”   

The new  design went through exhaustive tests. American Airlines flew a Curtis’s Condor to Santa Monica, so the Douglas engineers could study the berths, and improve them. Bill Littlewood and Douglas’ chief shop engineer Harry Wetzel, laid down in the mock-up berths to judge the size and to find the best position for the reading light, call button, and airsick cup. Littlewood even made up the sleeper berths, and restored them to the day coach configuration to test their workability.    

C.R. Smith came up with an innovation for passenger comfort. He insisted on a right side door to the airplane. There were two reasons for this. It would standardize American’s operations where they had ramp facilities to accommodate their right side door Ford Tri-Motors, but more importantly, Smith’s philosophy behind the right side door was that pilots started the left engine first preparatory to departure. Boarding passengers would not be buffeted by the prop wash as they boarded the aircraft if the left engine were running. In the past, most airlines had ramp facilities to accommodate left-sided door airplanes. Other airlines soon followed this precedent.

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Flagship Elkins

What rolled out of the shop on December 14, 1935 was much more than Littlewood had put on paper. It was a totally new aircraft, both in design and size. It had a wider and longer fuselage, greater wingspan, more tail area, stronger landing gear, and more power than the DC-2. The final product used only about 10 percent interchangeable DC-2 parts.

Arthur Raymond said, “The DC-3 was almost a new airplane as far as actual parts.” There was a strong emphasis on comfort because the DC-3 was not pressurized, and flew at altitudes where there was turbulence present.

Aviation had taken giant steps in a few short years. Aircraft design had moved out of the flying corrugated metal box design of the Ford Tri-Motor to streamlined comfort and power. Douglas engineers discovered certain color combinations tied into a general uneasiness among passengers. The DST did not use certain shades of green, since tests revealed it gave some passengers balance problems, and air-sickness. Patterns in colors, although the colors were satisfactory, also caused passenger discomfort.      Carpets in the American Airlines DST were dark to give the feeling of strength, and security underfoot. The walls and ceiling were light in color to prevent an uncomfortable feeling of confinement, and evoke a feeling of “airiness and freedom.”

December 17, 1935, was a sunny but cool afternoon in Santa Monica, CA. The holidays were coming and spirits were high in the Douglas Aircraft Company. It was another ordinary day at Clover Field. A big, polished propeller caught the sun’s light as it began to turn. Slowly it revolved and then a belch of blue smoke appeared. A second propeller came to life. For a few minutes the engines roared and then the plane began moving forward. A few engineers and draftsmen watched the shiny airplane taxi out to the runway.


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NC16015 Flagship Kentucky over Niagara Falls

The DST sat at the edge of the runway for about five minutes, its engines running at full throttle. Then it began to move, slowly at first but within 1,000 feet it lifted off, effortlessly. The lives of millions of people throughout the world for decades to come were about to change.      In contrast to maiden flights of today’s aircraft, covered extensively by the media, this flight, like the maiden flight of the DC-1 went unnoticed by the Press. But the event on a runway in Santa Monica, California would be one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. The historic flight drew so little corporate attention that no one thought to photograph the event.

 For the next two weeks, Carl Cover, and American Airlines test pilots Dan Beard, and EllingVelben, logged 25 hours 41 minutes of test flying. They put the DST through its paces without any major problems. The only major change during the six month test period was an added dorsal fillet, to the fin, to improve directional stability.

It is fitting that as the CO-creator of the DC-3 that American Airlines also became the airline that used the most DC-3s  over the years. They used 114 DC-3s/DSTs and it all started with the acceptance of the first DST on April 29, 1936. Financial conditions at American Airlines mirrored the national economy -depressed. To save several thousand dollars in California sales tax, they accepted the airplane in Phoenix, Arizona. After acceptance, they flew it back to Santa Monica. They continued this practice until 1940.

American Airlines flagship phoenix, nc21745, Douglas aircraft, dc3 dakota history, dakota history, dc3 dakota historical societyOn June 26, 1936 American Airlines inaugurated its DC-3 Flagship service with simultaneous ceremonies introducing American Airline’s “Flagship New York,” (NC16001) at Newark, New Jersey, and the “Flagship Illinois, (NC16002) at Chicago’s Midway Airport.

By the end of 1936, 30 DST/DC-3s had been delivered to the airlines;  and American Airlines had its 20 “Flagships.”

The DST, was the first aircraft off the production line, but American Airlines used it as a day plane until the DC-3s came off the line in September. Coast-to-coast air travel on American Airlines’ new DST Sleeper Service began on September 18, 1936 with the new Douglas making the trip westbound in 17.45hours. By the end of the year seven DSTs replaced the Condors on American’s coast-to-coast run. American’s DC-3 American’s DC-3 “Mercury Service,” reduced coast-to-coast time to 15 hours westbound, and 19.5 hours eastbound. The fare was $269.90 round trip but today the same trip due to inflation would cost the air traveler about $2,350.

One attraction that lured people to the new Douglas planes was the free hot meals. American Airiness DST was the first American aircraft to have hot kitchen facilities. No longer did captive passengers have to eat boxed lunches consisting of a cold sandwich, and a piece of fruit. Now flight attendants served hot, full course meals. A flight attendant could serve 21 passengers in just over an hour.

American’s “Flagship Mercury” service from Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, California, offered three breakfast, lunch and dinner menus served on genuine Syracuse china with Reed and Barton silverware. Wild rice pancakes with blueberry syrup, cheese omelets, or Julienne of Ham omelet were the breakfast choices. For dinner there was, Chicken Kiev, Long Island Duckling with Orange al’ orange, Breast of Chicken Jeanette, Strip Sirloin, or Filet Mignon, a choice of salads, and pastries for dessert. Luncheons were on the light side with consommé, fried chicken, peas, and mashed potatoes. Deserts included ice cream, and chocolate sundaes.

Air travel continued to grow in popularity. In 1938, American Airlines received the National Safety Council Award for having flown over 410,338,000 passenger-miles without a single passenger fatality.   The DC-3 greatly affected airline revenues. Between 1934, and 1935, American Airlines had lost more than $3 million. C.R. Smith had gone on record as saying, either mail rates go up, or American Airlines would go out of business.

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When American Airlines put its DC-3s on the line they became the number one airline in the United States . In 1936, American showed its first profit in years, of $4,590. By 1937, their earnings were up more than $1,400,000, with a 22 percent increase in revenue passengers. They carried more passengers than United, and twice as many as TWA. The DC-3 enabled the airline to fly passengers only, and show a profit. It also enabled them expand, and open new, profitable routes where there was no mail subsidy. Years later, C.R. Smith said, “The DC-3 freed the airlines from complete dependence upon government mail pay. It was an airplane that could make money by just handling passengers. With previous planes, if you multiplied the number of seats by the fares you couldn’t break even, not even with 100 percent load”    

The popularity of the DC-3 prompted American Airlines to take a sophisticated, and aggressive approach to attract passengers. Instead of competing with the other airlines for passengers, they aimed their advertising at the business person who traveled by train. Their advertisements encouraged travel in the winter, when air traffic normally dropped off, and they pictured executives traveling with their families in the advertisements. The ads implied non-fliers were missing the fun, besides possibly losing business to competitor who flew.

For a deposit of $425, American Airlines issued an “Air Travel Card.” The card encouraged frequent flyers by billing the company or individual at a 15% discount. By 1941, seventeen airlines had inter-carrier agreements and half the airlines’ revenue came from air travel card users.

In 1955, at the Newcomen Society’s annual dinner, Donald Douglas honored C.R. Smith’s role in developing the DC-3. “This is an ideal time, to acknowledge our debt of gratitude to my good friend, C.R. Smith for his part in the development of the DC-3. He had tremendous faith in us, and in the future of air travel. His boundless energy, clear vision, and uncanny knack in making the right decision at the right time were the catalytic agents that greatly influenced us in taking steps to build that famous airplane.”

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Flagship Newark (NJAHOF)


In 1949, William Littlewood, then vice president of American Airlines, spoke at the retirement ceremonies of the last DC-3 in their fleet, the “Flagship Newark” (c/n 1921). “The DC-3 is the victim of progress,” he said.

“There are so many advantages in speed, comfort and safety in the newer DC-6s and Convair Flagships that the old DC-3 is outmoded.  Delivered to American Airlines on  August 28, 1936, the ‘Flagship Newark’ was the seventh ship built.  She has spent four of her thirteen years in the air.  This ship has been through a war, and survived with little more than a damaged wing tip.  She has been through two conversions, and seven complete overhauls.  Somebody will buy and fly the ‘Flagship Newark,’ because she will probably never wear out.”

Author’s note: The Flagship “Newark/New York,” c/n 1921, was the 44th ship off the production line, delivered on March 11, 1937.  It was sold to Colonial and crashed overshooting the runway at Burlingham, Vermont on September 9, 1948.  The seventh ship delivered to American Airlines was c/n 1500, a DST named “Arizona,” NC16006, delivered on July 18, 1936.  After the war it was renamed “Indianapolis” and went overseas as PP-YPS around 1951. Only three DC-3s were delivered to American Airlines in August 1936.  One, on the 18th, c/n 1545, “District of Columbia,” NC16009.  One on the 28th, c/n 1549, “California,” NC16007 (also renamed “Indianapolis” after the war).  The last on the 30th, c/n 1546, “Maryland.”  (C/n 1547 and 1548 were delayed on the production line and were not delivered until early September.)  C/n 1545 went overseas in 1951 and was cut in half by a C-46, but rebuilt with the rear fuselage from c/n 34293.  C/n 1546 went to Colombia in 1950, and c/n 1549 went overseas in 1951.   

A decade later, on December 31, 1971, 1,470 DC-3s were still in airline service worldwide, and there were 831 Boeing 727 jets in service.  By 1975, however, the picture had changed.  There were only 400 DC-3s reported still in scheduled airline service, and the jet aircraft figure had doubled.

Robert C. Ruasch, a Scripps-Howard columnist noted for his chilling and unsympathetic attitudes, said, “She was a wonderful old hunk of tin.  The old Three was a clincher in converting the land bound boy to a casual acceptance of air travel as a safe and practical avenue.  She was small, and she was slow, but never cranky or apt to blow in a crisis.  Never were fine girls more insulted than the Threes.  They thrived on a steady diet of neglect and overwork.  They flew with sand in the carburetors, while cannibals and aborigines maintained them.  They rattled, banged, jumped and bounced but they flew.”

An airline captain said after the ceremony, “The DC-3 will still be flying across remote jungles and deserts, when today’s young pilots are grandfathers.”  He was right.

The fact that American Airlines retired its last DC-3 did not sound the final bell for this fine aircraft.  In June 1949, TWA still had 65 in use.   Delta, who started DC-3 service on January 18, 1941, had 43 in its fleet (it had absorbed Chicago Southern and had acquired their ships in the deal), and Northeast Airlines had 21 DC-3s still in active passenger service.

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Flagship Detroit (Henry M. Holden)

The years that followed found the airlines bursting at the seams.  In 1948, the airlines flew 482,000 passengers, but the statistics were beginning to show a decline in the DC-3 fleet.  In 1948, 513 were flown on scheduled runs, and by 1949, the figure had dropped to 483.  The larger transports were on the scene and many predicted dire consequences for the DC-3s.  As a comparison, in 1939, 90 percent of the U.S. commercial airliners were DC-3s.  Ten years later, less than half of the 1,061 commercial transports in service were DC-3s.  Many thought the end was near.  By 1950 observers were sure the DC-3 wouldn’t last much longer. The airlines needed economical airplanes with increased capacity if they were to stay solvent.

Jack Frye, who had started it all with the DC-1, saw a potential market for a DC-3 replacement.  He had retired from TWA, formed his own company, and attempted to market a four engine replacement for the DC-3, called the “F-1 Safari.”

Frye’s Safari was a high wing monoplane with non retractable, tricycle landing gear.  It cost $350,000 but he said, “It was as cheap as a camel to run per ton-mile, and 100 times faster.” His attempt to replace the DC-3 failed because it lacked financial backer.

 Read the Legacy of the DC-3

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