1940 DC-3 stops at John Wayne Airport in attempt at record-setting world tour

A World War II-era aircraft took off from John Wayne Airport on Friday as part of its quest to become the oldest airplane to circle the globe.

The Douglas DC-3 HB-IRJ, built in 1940, is going for the feat under the sponsorship of Swiss watchmaker Breitling, which also puts on the Breitling Huntington Beach Airshow.

The twin-engine airplane was in Van Nuys on Thursday and the Bay Area earlier this week. It was scheduled to depart Orange County for Page, Ariz., and continue flying over the United States, Greenland, Iceland and eventually finish its trek in Switzerland in September.

Breitling’s DC-3 is carrying 500 limited-edition watches on the worldwide journey. The Navitimer models won’t be available until the fall. They’re priced at $8,950.

The world tour began in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 9 — 77 years to the day that the plane, then called the Flagship Cleveland, took its maiden flight.

From Switzerland it flew east, with stops throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Its longest nonstop leg was a 10-hour flight from Japan to Shemya Island, part of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. After stops throughout Alaska, the plane flew south to Seattle and Oregon. It’s scheduled to have a total of 55 destinations in 28 countries, taking about 220 hours of flight time.

The DC-3 has been modified to have fewer passenger seats than its original design so it can hold extra fuel for the long trips, said its Swiss captain, Francisco Agullo. It also has upgraded communication and navigation systems, though its engine, propellers and wings are original. It has no autopilot.

As part of its tour stop Friday outside the Lyon Air Museum, Breitling invited media and other guests for a short flight that left JWA at around 10:30 a.m. and circled around south Orange County before returning to the airport.

Agullo noted how he and his co-pilot, Paul Bazeley, flew about 1,000 feet off the ground during the flight, which enabled passengers to see details like people walking on the sidewalk. The takeoff and landing from JWA were unique, Agullo said, because JWA closely incorporates both commercial airliners and general aviation in its everyday operation.

Agullo said he didn’t have a favorite stop yet on the tour.

“All the places have been special,” he said. He added, however, that Thursday’s passing over Santa Monica was noteworthy because it’s where the DC-3 was built in 1940.

Breitling’s DC-3 was first used by American Airlines. It went into service for the Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1944, carrying troops from the East Coast to Europe. It was used commercially after the war for trips including flights from Florida to the Bahamas.

It was restored in 1995 and 2008. At 77 years, it has some 74,500 flight hours under its wings.

Agullo said DC-3’s were very influential in the history of aviation, particularly as profitable, comfortable and reliable aircraft in the early years of commercial flights. About 16,000 were built.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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