THE DOUGLAS DC-3 “Gooney Bird”
The Douglas DC-3 is one of the world's most venerated aircraft and a testament to old-fashioned American ingenuity at its finest. Born in the middle of the Great Depression, the prop-driven DC-3 is still labouring away in some of the harshest working conditions on the planet – from deserts and jungles to Canada's high Arctic. Of the 16,000 built, it's estimated that some 400 are still in commercial service.
The DC-3 soon became known by those that flew and serviced her as one of the most reliable and trouble-free aircraft ever built. Its ability to take off and land on grass or dirt strips and improvised runways made it popular in countries and remote regions where runways are not always paved. It was also readily adapted with skis for landing on ice and snow – in temperatures that could regularly hit -40 celcius and colder.
The DC-3 is a pilot's aircraft if there ever was one. Its ruggedness inspired confidence and loyalty amongst those who flew her along with a few affectionate monikers like "Gooney Bird," "a collection of parts flying in loose formation" and "a wonderful old hunk of tin."
The DC-3 has certainly earned its legendary status over the past 70 years or so. This plane, above all others, revolutionized air travel in America during the 1930s and 40s. Its advent allowed for an eastbound transcontinental flight of only 15 hours with just three refueling stops (westbound trips took about 2 ½ hours longer because of prevailing headwinds). Prior to the DC-3, that same trip would have entailed a series of short hops on different aircraft throughout the day and then train travel at night.
The comfort and convenience of the DC-3 meant more people took to the skies, giving rail travel its first serious competition. And, for the first time, some airlines could rely on passenger travel for their main source of revenue, instead of mail service and general cargo.
It was not just in the USA that the DC-3 became synonymous with safe, comfortable and quick travel. KLM Airlines received their first DC-3 in 1936 and used it to travel from Amsterdam to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) and then on to Sydney, Australia. This was by far the longest scheduled airline route in the world at the time. In an interesting side note: Japan and Russia produced DC-3s under license. Russia built almost 5,000 of them as the Lisunov Li-2. Nearly 500 more were built in Japan, known as L2D Type 0 transport.
During World War II, the DC-3 again proved its worth by transporting troops, cargo and battle casualties. There were about 10 thousand DC-3s built for military service, seeing duty as the C-47, C-53, R4D and Dakota. In 1944 alone, some 4,853 of them were delivered. The DC-3s that survived the war became the core of the civil aviation that boomed after the war (it's around this time, in 1945, that Trans-Canada Air Lines took possession of their first DC-3. They operated 30 of the twin-engine workhorses until 1963 when the last two were sold off). This massive pool of surplus military aircraft that were cheap, reliable and easy to service meant that business and vacation travelers could set out to explore the world again, this time by plane instead of by ship.
Buffalo Airways is one of the airlines that remain convinced that their fleet of DC-3s are the best aircraft for the hard work they're routinely called upon to do in serving the remote communities of Canada's Northwest Territories. They, along with a legion of pilots over the past seven decades, agree that "the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3." Who can argue with that!