Douglas DC-3


The Genesis of the DC-3 Legend

“We made the DC-3 without a computer to test it. There was plenty of data from the DC-1 and DC-2 to formulate the design. Often we got down on the floor and worked things out ourselves. There was personal ingenuity, and application, and we made things happen overnight.” Ivar Shogran ; Chief Power Plant Engineer “; Douglas Aircraft Company

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Cyrus Rowlett Smith, 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 Boeing 247. It had the highest rated engines in use at the time, but they felt it lacked power. 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 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.

While the DC-2 performed better with an engine failure than the tri motors, or Boeing 247, a training crew exercising a single engine go-around created a nearly fatal spin incident. Douglas engineers extended the fin area and increased the margin between the single engine climb speed, and the vertical fin stall speed. That solved the problem. These problems were even more reason Smith and Littlewood wanted a new design.

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C. R. Smith

Littlewood was anxious to convince Douglas that what he 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 Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST). Once created,, the Douglas DC-3 aircraft would become one of the most significant airplanes in aviation history. Soon after the American Airlines team began to put requirements on paper, they invited Arthur Raymond to join the discussions. By May 10, 1935, Arthur Raymond had produced “Douglas Aircraft Report No. 1004.” This report outlined performance and other characteristics of the developing transport, and 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 Fords, and better than the Boeing 247. He also wanted something bigger than the DC-2. Smith wanted to give his customers safe, comfortable, and reliable transportation, and his Condor “Sleepers” and Fords simply did not measure up to these standards. The airplane Smith was looking for had been described in Raymond’s report.

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

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At first, Douglas did not react strongly or positively to Smith’s proposal. He was reluctant to take on a new design and the associated headaches. The DC-2 was in full production with 102 machines already manufactured, and another 90 orders on the assembly line.2 A new model would mean new tooling and starting over another 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. Some have said 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 venture and who would want to sleep in an airplane? After all, the Fords were noisy and the Condors were cramped. history of aviation, plane museum, airplane engines

XB-DYU c/n 19057, Seen here in the 1980s, in the Arizona boneyard (Marana – Avra Valley) Delivered to USAAF in Nov 1943 and served in Hawaii. It was declared surplus in 1946 and registered NC67578 with Stewart Services in California. In 1969 it was sold to Bolivia as XA-TEH. In 1978 it was reregistered as XB-DYU. In the mid 1990s it was scrapped for spares for the rebuild of another C-47 N3753N. (Todd Hackbarth)

After there was general agreement among the airlines on the potential, a detailed evaluation process began. The airline’s total needs, from the number of aircraft, to passenger accommodations, facility requirements, and total economic impact was part of the evaluation.

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

At the Newcomen Society’s annual dinner in 1955, Cyrus Smith introduced Donald Douglas as the honored speaker. In response to Smith’s gracious testimonial, Douglas gave Smith his due. “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.”

DC3 transport plane, douglas dc3 for sale, douglas dc3 model, douglas dc3 model planeN143D c/n2054 DC-3-227A Fokker D 09Oct38 – HB-IRO Swissair 31Oct38 – N2817D Fleetwings Inc. 08Mar55 – N143DOzark (DC-3A) (RHD) Fairchild-Hiller B03Oct67 – Granite Aircraft Lsg Corp, Garden City, NY1968 -Enterprise Fl Svce Inc, Enterprise, AL Feb70 – Jim Hankins Air Svce Inc, Jackson, MS Oct72 -A/L Aviation Academy (Academy A/L), Griffin, GA R 18Jan74. N143D is named ‘Miss Ali Gater’. Regd to Airline Aviation Academy. Currently flying with Gryder LLC (Henry M. Holden)


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.

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 framework of the DC-2, because he knew he could not sell Douglas on a brand new design.

Y08When Douglas engineers reviewed Littlewood’s drawings, they estimated they would reuse about 80% of the original DC-2 design, something Douglas could live with.

As Douglas had found out with the DC-1, sketches do not fly off drawing boards. 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, and Douglas saw its potential.

Like the prototype DC-1, the DC-3 design specifications went through exhaustive tests. American Airlines flew a Curtis Condor to Santa Monica, so the Douglas engineers could study the berths and improve them. Littlewood and 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.

“Conceptually the DC-3 design was easy. In reality, however, we spent more than half our time in the shop,” said Raymond, “and we had over 400 engineers and draftsmen working on the design. We spent many long nights producing more than 3,500 drawings, but it was worth it.”

flagship TX (3)

The prototype DST “Flagship Texas” (NC14988, c/n 1494) flew for American Airlines until July 1936 when TWA purchased it. In July 1942, the Army turned it into a C-49E (USAAF 42-43619) and used it to ferry troops in the United States. On October 15, 1942, with six and a half years of service, it had an engine failure, crashed and burned at Knobnoster, Missouri, outside Sedalia Army Air Corps Field. It had 17,166 hours on the airframe.(The last DC-3 built was delivered to Sabena in mid-1946 as OO-AWH. It crashed at London’s Heathrow Airport on March 2, 1948.) (American Airlines)

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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Dance troupe deplaning Flagship Texas for a show in NYC in 1939. (NJAHOF)


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, but it was two-thirds finished before we started because we were so far ahead (in design and development) with work on the DC-2.” There was a strong emphasis on comfort because the DC-3 was not pressurized, and flew at altitudes where turbulence was present. Douglas engineers adapted ideas in use at the time by the Pullman Company, designers of the railway sleeper car to provide passengers with a measure of comfort.

Douglas had a highly motivated team. “We made the DC-3 without a computer to test it,” said Ivar Shogran. “There was plenty of data from the DC-1 and DC-2 to formulate the design. Often, we got down on the floor and worked things out ourselves. There was personal ingenuity, and application, and we made things happen overnight.”


December 17, 1935, was a sunny but cool afternoon in Santa Monica, California. 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-white smoke appeared. The engine roared into life, and the propeller was lost in its own motion. A second propeller came to life. For a few minutes, the engines roared and then the plane began to move forward. A few engineers and draftsmen watched the shiny airplane taxi out to the runway.

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 were about to change.

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N1XP c/n 4733 served in Australia during WWII and was surplused in 1945. It then went to Canada and served for their Department of Transportation until 1995 and then sold. 1995 – It was purchased by Harry Thompson and Robert Odegaard was restored to the original colors of the North Dakota Air Guard. In Feb. 2005 it was reconditioned as “Duggy the DC-3,” by Robert Odegaard, Rob Challans . It rolled out in April 2005 and has been flying the Air Show season since.(Henry M. Holden)

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 DST remained airborne from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.14 Carl Cover reported everything went smoothly unlike his hair-raising maiden flight of the DC-1. Frank Collbohm, the copilot on the flight, described it as, “ routine.” None of the company executives took time out for the historic moment. The historic flight drew so little corporate attention that no one thought to photograph the event.15 Frank Collbohm, assistant to Arthur Raymond, said fifty years later, “I don’t even remember whether it happened in the morning or afternoon. I can’t separate it in my mind from any of the other test flights we made in those days. Everything was fine. There was nothing special, it was just another airplane going up.”

It is fitting that as the co-creator of the DC-3 that American Airlines also be the airline that used the most machines over the years. They used 114 DC-3s/DSTs and it all started with the acceptance of the first DST on April 29, 1936. photo4

United Airlines N25675 Chicago Municipal 1945. C/n 2147 DC-3-194H PH-AXH KLM “Havik” R17Dec39 not del – NC25675 United 24Apr 40-(DC3A) – C-48C USAAF2-38327 15Mar42 – North Atlantic Wing ATC 29May43-NC25675 United “Tacoma” 05Dec43 Cr.31 Jan46 Mt Elko, WY. (Author’s CollectC-GPNR c/n 12222, YSAAF 42-93423 Flying for Buffalo Airways as the last scheduled DC-3 service in the world. (Henry M. Holden)

Years later, Carl Cover had the same lack of recall, “I remember nothing beyond that it took place on that day. It was unremarkable, just another routine flight, similar to hundreds of others.”

Arthur Raymond does not clearly remember the flight either. “When the plane was ready, Carl and the others (Collbohm and Fred Steinman) simply got aboard, and took off. Of course none of us had any idea it marked the start of an era.”


On June 26, 1936, American 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.

Douglas had been reluctant to tool up for the DC-3 and had anticipated only a small production line. Incoming orders grew to 50, and then to 100. By the end of 1936, 30 DSTs/DC-3s had been delivered; American Airlines had 20 “Flagships,” United had 10 “Mainliners,” and Douglas had firm orders from TWA for eight “Skysleeper” DSTs. Eastern Air Lines also ordered ten for their “Great Silver Fleet.” With a steady stream of orders from Pan American Airways, KLM, Western Air Express, Swissair, and others, it became clear to Douglas the DC-2 would be obsolescent, and the DST/DC-3 production line would carry all Douglas commercial production. Not even the most irresponsible optimist counted on Douglas producing 10,629 DC-3s or World War II making it a legend. (Almost ninety-eight percent of all DC-3s/C-47s were manufactured or modified under military contract.)

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In December 1937, just two years after the first flight of the DST, the Douglas Company announced an all-time high in production. That month alone, they produced 36 aircraft and parts totaling almost $3,000,000 with the DC-3 making up the major portion of this revenue. There was also a backlog of more than $5,300,000 in foreign orders for the DC-3 and an additional $2,000,000 in domestic orders.

Arthur Raymond said, “People keep asking me ‘did we have any idea this airplane would last fifty years?” Of course we didn’t! Our biggest decision was the question to design the fuselage tooling for 25 airplanes or 50. We took a deep breath and we said let’s go for 50. Off that tooling, we built 300. We made another set of tooling, three plants, and the rest is history. We didn’t have any idea what was evolving. Looking back, we were right to be conservative. We didn’t know we were building a legend.


The “Golddiggers 1937” dance troupe is seen “unloading” a piano from the “Flagship New York” which they chartered for the trip. (NJAHOF



One attraction that lured people to the new Douglas planes was the free hot meals. The 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. However, hot meals were not an innovation of Douglas, or American Airlines. As early as 1928, Lufthansa Airlines had served pre-heated meals in-flight. The DC-3 introduced the American flying public to quality in-flight hot meals.

American’s “Flagship Mercury” service from Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, California, offered three breakfast 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 sauce, Breast of Chicken Jeanette, Strip Sirloin, or Filet Mignon, a choice of salads, and pastries for dessert. Lunch was on the light side with consommé, fried chicken, peas, and mashed potatoes. Deserts included ice cream, and chocolate sundaes. A flight attendant could serve 21 passengers in just over an hour.


Just a few short months after the introduction of the DC-3, United Air Lines (UAL) saw the potential in the new Douglas. “Pat” Patterson, president of United wanted a DC-3 that was different from his competitors. United Airlines was a part of the United Aircraft Technologies Company and as such could not buy an airplane with material from one of its competitors (Wright Engine Company). Coincidently, the Douglas Company did not have the manpower to design a new engine installation for United Airlines so United Airlines made all the engineering drawings for the Pratt & Whitney “Twin Wasp” engine.31 With the new engine, Patterson placed an order for 20 DC-3s with the new 14 cylinder Pratt & Whitney “Twin Wasp” engines (actually two seven cylinder engines mated together). This change cost Patterson more money but added 14 mph to the speed and increased its maximum altitude to 24,300 feet, which was ideal for United’s routes over the Rocky Mountains. In September 1936, UAL took delivery of their first five DC-3s (designated DC-3As), breaking a long-standing tradition of operating Boeing airplanes.


TWA was the third airline to put the new DST in service. They accepted the first eight in April, 1937. On June 1, 1937, they put their “Super Sky liner Sleeper” DSTs outfitted with eight berths up front and nine divan chairs in the rear, in service between New York and Los Angeles. TWA called this flight the “Sun Racer,” although it never quite won the race. It chased the sun across the country, leaving New York at 8:30 a.m., and arriving in Los Angeles at 11:30 p.m. the same day. The entire aviation industry praised the DC-3.

“Substantially less work for the pilots of TWA became a reality with the inauguration of the company’s Sky Sleeper planes,” said Paul Richter, TWA’s vice president of operations. “Douglas has simplified the controls aboard the new aircraft, and made those most often used automatic. Because of these features and the automatic pilot, TWA pilots are finding more time for other flying duties.”

The other flight duties he was referring to were monitoring the forty-six panel instruments, seventeen electrical switches, eight radio controls, and others totaling 115 instruments, switches or controls. In the ten years that elapsed since the Ford Tri-Motor’s introduction, flying had evolved into a sophisticated science.

Pilots who had their training on the early mail routes, when wits and reflexes were often more reliable than instruments, flying had become mental anguish. With Bailey Oswald’s performance graphs and tables dancing through their heads, pilots were no longer the glamorous daredevils. Their metamorphosis had been from flamboyant barnstormers to dedicated professionals. The Douglas Commercial transports required a multi-talented pilot, well-versed in aerodynamic theory and the airplane itself.

In the evolution of the Douglas Commercial transports, the DST occupied only a slightly better position than the DC-1. Like the DC-1, progress quickly replaced its younger sister, the DST.

Contrary to popular belief, the DC-3 day plane seating of 21 was not an accident. An engineer noticed that removing the berths made room for a third row of seats, two on one side of the aisle, and one on the other. According to Dan Beard, Littlewood and Kirchner drew up the specifications, and worked out the details with the Douglas engineers for a day plane and a “sleeper” simultaneously. The 21 seat day plane originally started out in mock-up with 24 seats.

With the introduction of the new Wright 1000-hp Cyclone engines, Littlewood felt he could increase the number of seats and baggage allowance. He laid out eight rows of three-abreast seating in the dayplane, and seven passenger sleeping compartments, three full-length (6 foot, 5 inches long) upper and lower berths on the left side of the cabin, four on the right side, plus the private “Sky room” berths. The DST version had a maximum capacity of 28 passengers (although it never flew as a DST in this configuration) since each berth had forward and aft facing double seats.

The accident rate in the early days of the DC-3 was comparatively low. As the DC-3 became more universal, the number of fatal accidents even decreased. In 1936 for example, domestic airlines flew 63,000,000 miles, and had eight fatal accidents; in 1941 there were only four fatal accidents for 133,000,000 miles flown.

To relieve the pressure on the factory, Douglas sold the licenses to manufacture the DC-3 to three countries; Holland, Japan, and Russia. A royalty paid to Douglas for each aircraft manufactured was part of the license agreement. Tony Fokker never manufactured any for Holland, but he distributed 63 before the war in Europe ended his operation. Fokker died of pneumonia complicated by meningitis a week before Germany invaded Holland.


Russia built as many as 20,000 Li-2s. Russia has never paid Douglas a cent in license fees. The PS-84 used the 900 hp Shvetsov M-62 engine (developed from the licensed Wright SGR-1820F which powered the DC-2) and the engine configuration gave the nacelles a narrower chord. Even after they upgraded the engines to 1200 hp ASH-62, the nacelle shape remained close to the first models. More here

When the DC-3 came along, the Japanese immediately recognized its potential, especially since they had such great success with the DC-2. Great Northern Airways and the Far East Fur Trading Company (another Japanese military front company) purchased at least 21 DC-3s from Douglas between 1937 and 1939. The first intended for KLM as PH-ARA, but canceled, arrived in Japan on December 6, 1937. These transports were operated by Dai Nippon Koku and impressed into Imperial service during the war. The surviving transports were scrapped at the end of the war.

On February 24, 1938, a Japanese manufacturer, Mitsui (a subsidiary of Nakajima Hikoki), purchased the production rights and technical data to the DC-3 for $90,000. Unknown to the United States at the time, the sale was directed behind the scenes by the Imperial Japanese Navy (who was planning on using the type in the invasion of the East Indies. More here.

© Henry M. Holden 1996, 2013, 2014, 2015

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

Major U.S. Airline Douglas Fleet Composition, January 1940

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