Turbo-Power Keeps Some DC-3s Alive and Flying

By Henry M. Holden

In the late 1930s, the DC-3 was a common sight in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  In 1995, sixty years later, it is still a common sight there.  Wittman Regional Airport, in Oshkosh, is a Mecca for the tired Gooney Birds.  Like homing pigeons, from Alaska to New Zealand, DC-3s are returning to Oshkosh.  What attracts the tired old bird is the promise of a new life through modern technology and Warren Basler.  So many of these tired birds get new feathers at Basler Turbo Conversions, Inc., that Oshkosh has become the unofficial DC-3 capital of the world.

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N21BF is awaiting its conversion to turbo power (Henry M. Holden July 2006)

Basler began his company (at the time called Basler Flight Services) back in 1955, but Warren Basler, didn’t get into the DC-3 business until six years later.  When Basler bought his first DC-3, he refurbished it, sold it and went into partnership with his customer, arranging charter flights.

Warren Basler found (like everyone else) the DC-3 fit perfectly into his plans to expand his freight business.  It wasn’t long before he had seven Gooney Birds in the air.  Soon he was doing maintenance for other operators.  His commitment to the DC-3 led him to become the primary agent for an informal DC-3 network through which he would hear of DC-3s available for sale.  Basler, who has over 26,000 flying hours with more than 10,000 of those hours in DC-3s, is an expert on the DC-3.  Since 1960, he has purchased more than seventy of these airplanes.  Each time he sells one, he retains the rights to repurchase it, should the owner ever decide to sell the plane.  He has owned one DC-3 five times .

The main attractions Basler and others find in the DC-3 are its dependability and economy. (It is cheap enough to let it  sit idle during the day (cargo is usually flown at night).  Many of his customers are in the freight business. Some are Third World Nations, where airports are short dirt strips, but he still gets an occasional call from an airline. (The USAir/Piedmont DC-3 {see Winter 1994 issue}  was refitted at Basler’s)

In 1982, Basler spent $2.5 million to build a DC-3 turboprop for Friendship Air, in Fairbanks, Alaska.  He replaced the standard 14-cylinder radial engines with two PT6A-45R turboprop engines that boosted the speed from 165 miles per hour to more than 200 miles per hour.  By 1989, these engines had accumulated over 5,000 hours of trouble-free operation.

Basler feels turboprop power is the most practical way to keep the DC-3 going.  He admits it’s initially expensive to replace the radial engines but on a comparative basis, (to a Short 360 which costs $4.5 million) it’s a good deal.  Originally radial engines cost $9,000,  but today they run above $35,000.

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When N21BF rolls out of the Basler facility it will look like this conversion. (Henry M. Holden July 2006)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basler discovered it’s becoming more difficult to find good, clean, corrosion-free airframes, and because of frequent overhauls spare radial engine parts are also becoming scarce.  Since there are few abandoned or even good DC-3s for sale in the U.S., he searches world-wide.  Several years ago Basler heard of two French Air Force DC-3s for sale, in the southwestern Pacific island of New Caledonia.  He flew parts and mechanics to the tropical island where they overhauled the engines and airframes, and when the planes were airworthy, island-hopped them back to the United States.  The Italian Air Force, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) have also been sources for some of his acquisitions.  He recently purchased all the remaining RCAF C-47 “Dakotas” when that air force retired them. Though he is pleased with his purchase, he admits it is not as pleasant to retrieve a DC-3 from a remote field in Canada, as it is from some lush tropical island like New Caledonia.  One acquisition he made was five DC-3s  he obtained from the  French Navy in Nimes, France.  It took him a month to make them airworthy and then he flew them home without a hitch.  Basler prefers military planes to civilian DC-3s, because they are usually better maintained.  In 1993, Basler purchased the last six Royal Canadian Air Force DC-3s.

Warren Basler has done many things to the DC-3.  He has redesigned the plane’s interior, installed reconditioned engines, replaced old instruments, and just about everything else except build a new DC-3.  He has created some unusual adaptations of the old Gooney Bird including “metalizing” the control surfaces, thus eliminating the constant maintenance of the fabric surface.  He developed an additional cargo door on top of the original door, large enough to fit the LD-3 container normally carried in the belly of a DC-10.  He’s added 400 gallon fuel tanks in each wing to adapt the plane for search and rescue or surveillance missions.

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Unlike Henry Ford who gave his customers only black paint on the Model T, Basler will provide any color the customer wants. (Basler Turbo Conversions)

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps  the most noticeable and enduring adaptation is Basler’s use of turbine power.  At 10,000 feet the PT6A-67R engines pull the DC-3 along at 230 mph and burn 140 gallons per hour of jet fuel.  When you consider the extra speed of the jet equipped DC-3, it will go from point A to point B on the same amount of fuel as the radial equipped DC-3, but the jet  fuel is cheaper and the engines are more reliable than the old radial engines.  Maintenance is less  because overhaul time on the PT6 jet engine  is every 6,000 hours versus 1,500 for the radials.

Basler has even increased the fuel capacity on the turbo conversions.  The original DC-3 carried all the fuel in the center section.  If additional range is needed, two wing tanks now  bring the fuel capacity to 1,600 gallons.  In April 1988, Basler began working on the Basler Turbo-67.  The plane rolled out in June 1989 for flight tests and certification.  The Turbo-67 is designed for high elevation airports.  With the new engines and modifications to the airframe,  the gross weight went from 26,900 pounds on the original Turbo to 28,750 with a useful load of 13,000 pounds.  That is more than twice the original load of the DC-3.  The Turbo-67 can fly at 21,000 feet for 15 hours making the plane excellent for surveillance, and it can cruise at a top speed of 250 mph.  On February 27, 1990 all of Basler’s hard work paid off when he received a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for his conversion.  Since then Basler has moved forward with turbo-conversions.  He built a 75,000 square foot conversion facility that cost more than $3 million. He has sold at least two conversions to the US Forest Service (used in fire suppression), several to private contractors in the United States, the Asian market,  Air Columbia and several conversions outfitted as gunships to air forces in Central and South America.

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BT-67 on approach with props synced. (Henry M. Holden, July 1999)

A standard feature on a conversion is the over wing exhaust.  This is especially helpful to the air forces seeking to squelch criminal activity.  The exhaust pipes are enclosed in shrouds within the nacelle and considerable cooling takes place prior to venting the exhausts over the wing.  Tests have shown that the infra-red footprint common to the old DC-3 is effectively eliminated as the exhaust conversion makes its footprints  less vulnerable to heat-seeking missiles.

Some of the advantages of the BT-67 over  the old DC-3 are, 35 percent more interior volume, 43 percent more useful load, 24 percent more speed, 76 percent more productivity, higher single engine ceiling up to 100% more fuel capacity and  lower approach speed, to name a few.  According to Flight International who flew the BT-67 and published a positive evaluation of the aircraft, the BT-67 is more competitive when compared to the Shorts S360-300, the Casa CN235 and the AMI-65TP, a competitor DC-3 conversion.  It looks like the radial engine is headed for the bone yard, since the Turbo DC-3 will operate for less and without the day-to-day maintenance and downtime required for the radial engines.  Basler is so sure of the turbo-powered DC-3 he is going to use 15 of them for his own business. There is also a great deal of interest coming from some governments and the private sector as well.

Reprint DC-3/Dakota Journal Spring 1995

Copyright Henry M. Holden 1995, 2013

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

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