Douglas DC-2

“There is not the slightest doubt that American airliners now surpass the designs of every other country. Without prejudice to the other fine ships, the Douglas DC 2 may be recorded as the supreme American achievement in transport design.”Scientific American, January 1935.

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Shown in this Douglas shop photo are: foreground (l) TWA ship #301, NC13711, c/n 1237. Immediately behind it is ship #302, NC 13712, c/n 1238. To the rear is ship # 307, NC 13717, c/n 1243. TWA sold this ship to Northeast Airlines on April 16, 1941. Who in turn sold it to the Treasury Department on July 24, 1942. It was designated a C-32A and was used for pilot training. Its final disposition is unknown; Behind ship #307 is #306, NC 13716, c/n 1242. This ship was sold to Braniff on July 10, 1937 and flew with them until June 1942, when the Defense Supply Corporation bought it. They assigned it to the USAAF as a C-32A and suffered the same anonymous fate; #305, NC13715, c/n 1241 was sold to Braniff on June 11, 1937. It was their ship 40B. Braniff sold it to the Defense Supply Corporation in June 1942. It received the registration number 42-70863 as a C-32A. It became one of the planes the Army turned over to the civilian airlines to fly priority passengers. Among the airlines that used it were Northeast Airlines and American Airlines who used it as a trainer and cargo plane. Sometime after 1945 it was sold to Hazel Pollack in Fairbanks Alaska. In 1947 it carried the registration NC 13715 when it was owned by Elbert M. Calvert. It had two names during its career, “MAGICIAN,” and “JOHN CALVERT.” It crashed in Burbank, CA., in 1947. To the immediate right is TWA ship #303, NC 13713 c/n 1239. (Photograph McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Company).


Douglas Aircraft, dc3 dakota,Swiss Air Lines HB-ITO was Fokker ship #10, c/n 1332, and also flew with them until 1952. It was sold to Phoenix Airlines in South Africa, in March 1952, as ZS-DFX, and was damaged in a landing accident at Kosti. Maltuti Air Service flew this DC-2 until 1954, when it was severely damaged in an accident at Tripoli. This ship lay in storage until 1961 when it was repaired with parts from c/n 1322. After it was repaired, Airnautic of France purchased it. It was broken up in 1964. (Photograph courtesy of Swissair.)

Once TWA took possession of the DC-1, it did not take long for them to realize they had a unique airplane. They saw a chance to recapture the market lost after the Rockne crash, so they ordered 20 more DC-1s with some improvements. Some were in the interest of enhancing performance and others for passenger comfort. Combined these changes resulted in a major redesign of the airframe.

Producing an improved DC – was not just a matter of mass producing the DC-1 with some assembly line changes. It meant new drawings, a mock up, and new tooling. The Wright Engine Company had just introduced their 855 hp engine, and with the increased power, Douglas could stretch the DC-1 airframe. He added two feet to the fuselage, which allowed for another row of seats. Stretching the cabin changed the center of gravity so the wing had to be moved, effectively creating a new transport. The Douglas engineers reviewed the changes and decided to call the new aircraft the Douglas Commercial 2 or DC-2.

In deciding to manufacture the DC-2, Douglas took another calculated risk. The DC 1 had cost the company more than $350,000. TWA agreed to pay $65,000 for each DC 2 (sans engines) and Douglas was betting the DC 2 would catch on so he could recoup his research and development costs. When the 76th DC 2 rolled off the line, it put Douglas in the black, clearing the research, development, and losses on the DC 1, and the first 25 DC-2s.

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Douglas DC-2

The DC-1 had taken 58,000 man hours to build and the experts said they had to cut the time to 38,000 hours if they wanted to show a profit. The first 25 DC-2s came off the line before the arrival of Henry Guerin’s hydro presses. Guerin’s presses eliminated much of the manual shaping of the metal, and cut production time down to 32,000 hours.

R4D Marines,DC-4,DC-5,c-117C/n 1329 registered as A-500 was sold to Austria for President Dollfus, in September 1934. It was sold to Swissair in April 1936 and reregistered HB-ISA. This aircraft may have also been with Iberia as either EC-EBB or EC-AAA. This was the former “Oesterrichische Luftverkehrs AG” and was purchased to replace HB-ITI which was destroyed during the bombing of Stuttgart Airport on 29 August 1944. (Photograph courtesy McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Company)

On February 9, 1934, commercial aviation suffered a major setback when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6591. With the stroke of a pen, he canceled all airmail contracts with the airlines. This action resulted from an investigation into airmail contracts awarded by Postmaster Walter Brown, under the Hoover Administration. Accusations of graft, collusion, and favoritism in parceling out the contracts to the big airlines had prompted Roosevelt to take action.

Roosevelt called on the Army Air Corps to bridge the gap, and fly the mail. Their outdated equipment consisted of a motley bunch of old bombers, and fighter planes. The pilots had little bad weather or night flying experience. They improvised by removing seats and used the bomb bays to hold the mail sacks, and they flew dangerously overloaded machines.

During the week of training, before they began flying the mail, three pilots died in crashes. During the first week of actual operations, violent storms covered most of the mail routes. Two more pilots died, six were injured, and eight planes destroyed. Eddie Rickenbacker, vice president of Eastern Air Transport, called it, “legalized murder.”

On February 18, 1934, the day before TWA’s mail contract expired, Jack Frye called Donald Douglas and asked if he could use a new DC-2 coming off the line. Douglas replied that none would be ready until April. Frye had an idea. He wanted to show that private operators could fly the mail more efficiently than the Army, and he wanted to showcase the new airplanes the airlines were pioneering.

Frye called Rickenbacker and told him of his plan and Rickenbacker agreed to help. They loaded the TWA DC-2 with as much mail as it would hold, and departed Glendale, California, eastbound for Newark, New Jersey.

They landed at Newark Airport 13 hours, 2 minutes later, and set a cross country speed record. They also delivered the last sacks of contracted mail safely. The DC-2 averaged 230 miles per hour over the 2,609 mile trip (including two stops for gas), bettering the previous record by five hours. One newspaper reported on the flight saying, “the DC-2 made all other air transport equipment obsolete in this country and Europe.”

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This was TWA ship #324, NC 13786, c/n 1296. It was delivered to TWA in February 1935 and flew in their fleet until April 3, 1940 when it crashed at Pittsburgh. (Photograph courtesy McDonald Douglas/Boeing Company).

“TWA received the first of their DC-2s on May 14, 1934, with the delivery of ship #301. It made its first airline flight on May 18, when it flew the Columbus – Newark – Pittsburgh route.
To assure a marketplace, TWA introduced in-flight movies on the new Douglas. The Flying Hostess” was the first feature film. This “extra” drew even more passengers. American and European airlines all wanted the new DC-2. Eastern Air Lines.

The DC-2 was a giant step in commercial aviation. New improved technology made it the safest aircraft in the sky, and it made the Boeing 247 obsolete.

American and European airlines all wanted the new DC-2. Eastern Air Lines ordered 14, and introduced them on their East Coast routes. Pan American Airways ordered 16, and was soon using them on their Caribbean and South American routes. American Airlines took delivery of their first DC-2s in last quarter of 1934 and quickly put them into service on their New York to Los Angeles route. KLM, the oldest European airline, ordered two. They were the first to introduce it to the European air traveler along routes between Amsterdam and the principal cities in Europe. KLM ordered 18 more, but it was the initial order that would make Donald Douglas and the plane famous in Europe.

“KLM’s DC-2, PH-AJU, named “Uiver” (for Stork), would go on to world fame, by winning the 1934 MacRobertson London to Melbourne Air Race. The prize was a $2,000 gold trophy and $75,000 in cash. More importantly, the winning aircraft earned a solid reputation.

There were twenty-two entries in the race, and three were American, a Boeing 247, a Gee Bee Racer, and the Douglas DC-2.

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Braniff NC13716, c/n 1242. Photograph courtesy Braniff Airlines

TWA had introduced the DC-2 on their Newark to Chicago run, and it was giving United Airlines stiff competition. The DC-2 made the trip in thirty minutes less than the Boeing 247. That was not the only advantage the DC-2 offered. It was roomier and quieter than the Boeing 247. The evolution of the commercial airplane had followed closely the evolution of the air traveler. Business travelers replaced the adventurers who flew in the Ford and Boeing trimotors, and they flew because flying was a faster and more comfortable way to travel. If an airline could cut a half hour off the trip to Chicago, the traveler would switch to that airline. United Airlines tried unsuccessfully to compete with the Douglas DC-2 spending over one million dollars to upgrade their 247s.

To attract more passengers, United Airlines entered a Boeing 247 in the London to Melbourne air race. This shocked the aviation world. A British newspaper called it, “American propaganda . . . an audacious assumption that such a ship could expect to compete with the fastest planes and designs on the continent…”

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This photo shows the inauguration of DC-2 service for General Airlines. Among those pictured are pilot C.N. “Jimmy” James, (l) Fred Kelly (r) who went on to fame at Boeing and Eddie Rickenbacker to the right of the logo. GAL ship #1, in the foreground is NC 13731, c/n 1257. Behind it is ship #2, c/n 1258. Ship #1 was originally ordered by TWA, but delivered to GAL in September 1934. GAL sold it to Eastern Airlines on December 15, 1934 as EAL fleet #321. EAL sold it to the British Purchasing Commission in 1941, where it went to Australian National Airlines. (Photograph Delta Air Lines.)

The DC-2 was such a success that orders poured into Santa Monica. Douglas had estimated he might have to fill orders for fifty to saturate the market. To Douglas’ surprise, six months after the introduction of the DC-2, he had orders for 75.

In 1935, aviation pioneer Grover Loening, characterized the DC-2 as at least as economical as the automobile. “A Douglas plane,” he said, “transporting fifteen persons at 180 miles per hour uses sixty gallons of gas per hour. That’s about three miles to the gallon, fifteen miles per gallon for a five-seat load, not any more than a Ford or Chevy.”

He took the analogy to the source of the economy. “Consider the engine,” he said. “It is cruising at 1,800 rpm but it knows not whether the plane is flying at ninety miles per hour, as on an old Condor, or at 180 miles per hour like a Douglas. So the airline, for the same engine hours, gets twice the air mileage at no extra cost. All this because the designer folded the landing gear, improved the shape of the body, made better wing sections, and devised ways of saving weight…

Donald Douglas introduced the DC-2 into the world market with a clever series of marketing moves. Everywhere it went it was in demand. When Douglas shut down production of the DC-2, it carried the flag of 21 foreign countries.

The DC-2 impressed Tony Fokker, and when he heard Albert Plesman, president of KLM, was going to buy DC-2s, for his fleet, he beat him to the punch. KLM had always used Fokker aircraft, and was Fokker’s best customer. To have Plesman buy the DC-2 would have seriously affected Fokker’s business. Fokker captured the European market by negotiating the sales and manufacturing rights from Douglas for $100,000. At the time, more than fifty commercial airlines, in thirty countries in Europe, and the United States, were using Fokker’s planes as standard equipment.9 It was a bitter-sweet pill for Fokker to swallow.

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This Pan American Grace
Airways NC 14271, c/n 1304 was delivered in September 1934, and Pan American sold it to Panagra in December the same year. As with most DC-2 in foreign service it found its way to the RAF a HK-821 with Squadron 31. It faded
sometime during 1943. (Photograph courtesy Pan Am)

Fokker and Douglas made it possible for the European air traveler to fly with speed, comfort, and safety. Fokker never exercised the manufacturing rights because he was so successful as a salesperson. By 1935, twenty European airlines were flying DC-2s. Its performance, and press relations were so positive that airlines without the DC-2 were at a disadvantage.

Not since the Ford Tri-Motor did an American airplane have such world-wide appeal. The first modern American transport built after the Ford was the Boeing 247, but it was not exported until it had been up-staged by the DC-2.

Spain’s “Lineas Aeroeas Postales Espanolas” (L.A.P.E.) purchased five DC-2s, and the only DC-1. These aircraft were the first Douglas Commercials to see combat, serving as transports in the Spanish Civil War. When the war began in 1936, Spain converted three DC-2s to bombers. They put machine guns in the last two windows, and a third swivel-mounted machine gun in the roof, above and behind the cockpit. A rack carried the bombs to the doorway where a crewmember threw them by hand. After the war, these aircraft went back into airline service.

Poland’s Polskie Linie Lotnicze (LOT) ordered two DC-2s from Fokker, and with the cooperation of the Douglas Company, reengined them with Bristol 750 hp engines.

The Soviets purchased a single DC-2, copied it without license, and designated it the ANT-35. The copies had Rhone-Gnome M85 engines, and the wing, and tail contours were changed slightly.


“When the DC-2 arrived on the scene in 1934, the Nakajima Company of Japan immediately showed an interest. Japan was building its industrial power, and it needed modern air transportation. This led Japan’s Nakajima Aircraft Company to open negotiations with the Douglas Aircraft Company. At the time, Japan was looking to replace its ageing Fokker Super Universals and trimotors, and the DC-2 caught their attention as it did elsewhere around the world.

On March 27, 1934, the Japanese aircraft builder, Nakajima Hikoki KK, purchased the rights to build the DC-2 (for $80,000) and sell it in Japan and Manchuria. To enable them to begin almost immediate production, the Nakajima Company purchased one fully assembled DC-2 (NC 14284, c/n 1323 to J-BBOI) on November 22, 1934. When it arrived in Japan, it was put on public display. The Japanese aircraft engineers and manufacturers then realized just how far behind they were technologically in design and manufacture. After engineers studied the airframe it went into service in Manchuria.

The Japanese also purchased five unassembled airframes from Douglas (c/n 1418 to 1422). These airframes came with Wright Cyclone 700-hp engines. Once delivered in Japan they were modified with Japanese flight and engine instruments. Initially these aircraft flew for the Japan Air Transport Company (later to become Japan Airlines), on their Fukuoka to Taipei, Formosa route, beginning in 1936. The Japanese designated this aircraft the AT-2 (for Aerial Transport), and later the Ki-34.

DC2 N1934D, nc13711

The only DC2 flying resides at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA. (Henry M. Holden)

This Douglas DC-2 is one of only two examples remaining in the world. Built in 1934, it was first sold to Pan Am and saw service in South America for many years as an early South American airliner. It returned to the United States and eventually wound up in the Dakotas owned by Johnson Flying service and was used as a smoke jump aircraft dropping firefighters into US forestry areas as well as training jumpers on practice runs.DC-2 N13711, (N1934D) is at the Museum of Flight, in Seattle, Washington. (Photo Henry M. Holden)


“The DC-2 was a revolutionary airplane but it did have some undesirable characteristics. Landing gear malfunctions made some landings unpredictable. Pilots also complained that the plane was stiff-legged. The plane absorbed the shock of landing. but they felt it was like an old man, afraid to bend his legs in fear his joints would crack. Pilots had good cause to worry, the landing gear sometimes tended to collapse. The problem, an apparent carry-over from the DC-1, was so serious that four Army Air Corps planes were heavily damaged during landing or taxiing. The difficulty in landing and taxiing beside being dangerous was frustrating. Ernest Gann, an ex-DC-2 pilot, and author, in his book, Flying Circus, summed up the futility: “When taxiing, the braking system in the DC-2 was activated by a heavy horn-shaped handle protruding from
the left side of the instrument panel. By simultaneous use of the rudder and handle, the desired left brake, and right brake could be applied. Since there was an inevitable lag between motion and effect, the DC-2 was stubbornly determined to chase its own tail on the ground, and in the cross-winds, sometimes switching ends to the embarrassment of all aboard…”

Gann also relates in Fate is the Hunter as a copilot, his captain once admonished him, “There are two kinds of airplanes. Those you fly, and those that fly you. With the DC-2 you must have the distinct understanding at the very start who is the boss . . . you will learn to love this airplane; and you will also learn to hate it…”

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GAL ship #2 NC 13732, delivered in September 1934, also was sold to Eastern Airlines on December 15, 1934 as Fleet #322. On December 19, 1936, this airplane crashed during bad weather into a 1,3000 foot mountain. The pilot was Eastern Airlines famous Dick Merrill and all passengers and crew survived. Radio trouble caused loss of the radio direction finder and the pilot became lost. (Photograph Delta Air Lines)


In the United States the DC-2 was not only capturing the attention of the commercial airlines, it was also capturing the private market for executive use. Corporations like Swiftlite, and Standard Oil (the only operator to use the nine-cylinder Pratt & Whitney engines in their DC-2) found economy and comfort in the new airplane. Swiftlite even entered their machine in the 1936 Bendix Air Race, from New York to Los Angeles. Although it came in fourth behind a Beech C-17R, a Lockheed Orion, and a Vultee V-1A, it nevertheless continued to show its potential.


Eventually there was tragedy. On December 21, 1934, KLM’s “Uiver” took off from Amsterdam, on a holiday flight to Java. Twenty-four hours later, it was a charred, twisted hunk of smoldering metal in the Syrian Desert. There were no survivors among the three crew and four passengers.

Weeks later, KLM released the results of its investigation. The DC-2 had hit the ground at full speed, all switches on, throttles wide open, the surface controls in a cruising attitude, and the landing gear retracted. The official report said lightning struck the aircraft killing all on board immediately. The aircraft continued to fly until it flew itself into the ground, somersaulting, and bursting into flames. Five months after the crash, the public was beginning to feel confident with the airplane again. DC-2s had logged more than 20,000,000 miles of safe flying in 21 countries.


The growing concern for public safety forced the airline industry to become more professional. Douglas equipped the DC-2 with the latest navigational aids, and radio equipment. Flying became less physically demanding, and more professional. The airlines established tests for candidate pilots. They took rigorous written and physical exams. Background checks weeded out those with mental problems, and the preferred candidates were college graduates.

Douglas’ new airplane also changed the insurance industry’s hostile attitude regarding life insurance policies for air travelers. Using statistical studies, and meetings with insurance societies, aviation proponents proved air travel was now safe.

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The interior of a TWA DC-2. Note the wide cabin aisle and absence of the wing spars that were found in the Boeing 247. In those days the meal service was served with real plates, cups and saucers. (Photograph courtesy McDonald Douglas/Boeing Company)

©Copyright Henry M. Holden 1996, 2013

For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see “Legacy of the DC-3”


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