The Douglas DC-3 is one of those aircraft that has a firmly established larger-than-life persona. Like the Supermarine Spitfire or the B-17 Flying Fortress, it has a reputation for coming through, again and again, where other planes might not. The DC-3 was originally designed for commercial aviation and when it was first introduced in 1936, it was revolutionary: a relatively long-range aircraft capable of eight hours’ flight time (without reserve tanks) that made the first true transcontinental service possible. For the first time, flying across the USA became a practical reality; it took only fifteen hours, with refueling stops and the DC-3 could even fly to Europe, stopping in Greenland and Iceland for gas. Today, Breitling is operating a DC-3 that left the Douglas Aircraft factory in 1940, and it’s not just going cross-country, it’s going around the world – with five hundred Navitimers hidden somewhere on board. At the completion of the journey this fall, it will become the oldest aircraft to ever have flown around the world.
The DC-3 (“DC” stands for Douglas Commercial) was originally developed as a long haul “sleeper” aircraft, with 14 beds, as the Douglas DST, and the 21-seat version was designated DC-3. The basic design was so robust and reliable that it lent itself to many variations as well. In the USA, 607 were made but if you include the military version – the C-47 Skytrain – and versions produced in Russia and Japan under license, over 16,000 were produced in total.
The DC-3 and its variants attracted a truly remarkable variety of nicknames over the years; pilots and crews called it Dumbo, Old Fatso, Charlie 47, and more (a lot more) but the most popular nickname was “Gooney Bird.” This may not sound like a compliment but it is, albeit a backhanded one. “Gooney Bird,” is a nickname for the albatross, which in airman’s lore is a bird so goofy looking, it looks like it shouldn’t be able to fly. Fly it does though – beautifully – because supposedly, it’s too dumb to know that it can’t. Likewise, the DC-3 was, like the B-17 Flying Fortress, able to tolerate an incredible amount of abuse and keep flying, presumably because like the albatross, it was too dumb to know it shouldn’t. There are numerous anecdotes illustrating this aspect of the aircraft, including one that tells of a C-47 which had a mid-air collision with a Japanese fighter aircraft during the war which removed a large chunk of the tail of the C-47. The fighter crashed but the C-47 managed to get back to base with most of its rudder gone, and was officially credited with an air-to-air kill.
After the war, the market was flooded with war-surplus C-47s and DC-3s, and they were rapidly taken into civilian service. Capable of operating off short runways, easy to service, reliable and economical to operate, they proved incredibly durable and enduring, and there are to this day, DC-3s still operating as commercial aircraft despite their advancing age (though numbers are dwindling, with about 150 in the world still airworthy). They can operate on unpaved runways and their toughness is enshrined in such sayings as “the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3,” and the affectionate description of the plane as “a collection of parts flying in loose formation.”
However, her airframe and other components are all original, including her two Pratt & Whitney R1830-92 engines. The Pratt & Whitney “Twin Wasp” R1830 radial engine is a tale in itself; it was used for, among others, the B-24 Liberator, and it may be the most produced aircraft piston engine in aviation history.
The ’round the world tour of this DC-3 began last March as, obviously, a public relations exercise but the flight has not been without some risks, some of which recall the adventurous image that commercial aviation very much had in the late 1930s when the first DC-3s rolled off the assembly line. Even something as simple as fuel turns out to be problematic. The DC-3 is a piston-engined aircraft and therefore can’t use jet fuel, which nowadays is the most easily found type of aviation fuel; instead it uses Avgas. Jet fuel is kerosene based, while Avgas is a gasoline, and the two are not interchangeable.
Avgas is relatively easy to procure in Europe or the USA but it’s much more difficult to find in the developing world, and on one occasion this nearly left the Breitling DC-3 stranded. At one airport in Asia the crew phoned ahead to the next airport to confirm their fuel, which had been shipped ahead of them, was waiting for them and the airport replied that it was not; it had been sold weeks before to someone willing to pay a high price for it. The decision was made by the pilot and crew to load the plane with enough fuel to reach the next airport after the one where their fuel had been stolen, but this meant making sure they had enough of a tailwind to push them there without exhausting their fuel reserves..
This was not the only part of the trip where fuel reserves were an issue. The range of the DC-3 on a single load of fuel is not sufficient for crossing large stretches of ocean; this was a major challenge on the longest leg of the trip, which was a flight from Obihirio, Japan, to Shemya Island. Shemya is part of the Aleutians and is home to Eareckson Air Station which has had a US military presence on it more or less since 1943, and while it is currently the home of a radar designed to provide SALT II arms treaty verification, it’s also a diversion airfield for aircraft in distress in over the Pacific. What it’s not, is a regular use civil aviation runway, but it was the nearest airfield possible for the Breitling DC-3 to reach from Japan and approval had to be obtained from the Pentagon for a scheduled flight. The only problem is, it’s a ten hour flight, which meant enough fuel had to be crammed into the aircraft to get it to Shemya with a reasonable reserve.
If you look carefully at the above photo of the interior of the DC-3 you will notice that there is a rather large space amidships where there are no seats. During long-haul legs of the ’round the world trip this space is occupied by giant fuel bladders, turning the plane into a flying gas can (in the photo below, the front seats have been removed as well).
The flight from Obihirio to Eareckson Air Station didn’t quite push the DC-3 and her crew to the edge of survival, but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. The flight was ten hours, and because air temperature at altitude over the North Pacific even during late spring is cold enough to cause icing problems, the DC-3 had to stay low; the maximum altitude possible for that leg of the circumnavigation was only around 1000 feet, with much of the last part of the flight at only 500 feet. Moreover, by the time the aircraft reached Eareckson, there was a major storm front moving in so the crew had no time to rest – in four hours, the DC-3 was refueled and airborne again, headed for Cold Bay Island, further west along the Aleutians. This was another eight hour leg, and by the time the crew landed in Cold Bay, they had gone without sleep for over 30 hours.
It’s pretty incredible performance for a 77 year old aircraft; obviously, however, Douglas built their DC-3s to last. They were an engineering marvel in their day, with over half a mile of control cables (the control surfaces are mechanically linked to the stick and rudder pedals) and an astonishing 500,000 rivets per airplane. DC-3s and C-47s have in the line of duty shown a remarkable ability to get airborne even when grossly overloaded; in one case, a C-47 tasked with bringing home Lt. Colonel Jimmy Dolittle after the famous Dolittle air raid, managed to get into the air with Dolittle and 74 passengers on board (and bear in mind, the first DC-3s were designed for 21 passengers).
You can’t help but think about the fact that all those rivets were put in place in 1940 (I imagine the pilots must think about it from time to time; or maybe they’re really good at not thinking about it at all).
One other interesting detail: we mentioned that the Breitling DC-3 is carrying 500 Navitimers somewhere on board. These Swiss movements Breitling Navitimer replica watches are a limited edition, which will feature an engraving of the aircraft as well as a commemorative message.
They’ll be available through Breitling boutiques and retailers, but as they’re flying around the world with the DC-3 they will not be available until the end of the global circumnavigation, which will conclude this September at the Breitling Sion Airshow. Getting the reliable Breitling fake watches online around the world unscathed was apparently a bit of a trick. The problem in taking them along for the ride was that 500 Navitimer 01 watches is a total of $3.98 million (full retail) worth of watches and this makes for a fairly tempting target for theft.
As a way of discouraging attempts along the way (especially in parts of the world where airport security may be along the sketchy-to-nonexistent spectrum) the watches are hidden somewhere on board the aircraft in a location difficult enough to get to that, in the words of pilot Francisco Agullo, “even if you knew where they were it would still take over two hours to get at them.” The fact that the watches are never actually taken off the aircraft at any point, not only ensures they don’t suddenly become compact financial instruments as well as watches; it also obviates any necessity to involve every traveling watch lover’s favorite bureaucrat, the customs officer.
The DC-3 is one of those airplanes that as a young aviation buff, I admit I somewhat overlooked; high performance fighters were my thing and anything from a World War I era Spad VII to the great monoplane fighters of World War II, to early jet age warriors of the sky like the F-86 Sabrejet and the Mig-15, all the way up to the monster that is the SR-71/A-12, were easy to fall in love with. The DC-3, however, is no second fiddle. Simple, versatile, easy to repair, and above all, dependable to a fault, the DC-3 has a lot of the virtues that mechanical watch lovers see in mechanical timepieces, including longevity, repairability, and the devotion to making machines that can take a licking and keep on ticking (to borrow a phrase) that certainly, modern aviation seems to struggle to embody.
A reader asked us during the last Friday Live episode, why “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” Better technology overtakes any machine, sooner or later. But every once in a while, a machine comes along that’s such an optimum solution that while it may be easy to imagine a more modern one, it’s hard to imagine a truly better one. The DC-3, and a good mechanical watch, have a lot in common in this respect and both, if taken care of properly and treated respectfully, are capable of serving their intended purposes for what by all appearances is a very, very long time.
Breitling will be donating 2CHF per nautical mile flown to UNICEF programs. Follow the Breitling DC-3 and its 500 Navitimer “passengers” as they head back across the Atlantic, right here. The hot-selling fake Breitling Navitimer 01 Limited Editions will be available at the conclusion of the World Tour this fall; price will be $8,750 on a strap.