The Little Airplane That Could : Lots of Love Lavished on the Low-Tech DC-3 : Douglas Plane Celebrating 50 Years in the Air

Times Staff Writer

There's a new, quieter, unassuming breed of professional pilot. He flies in smooth obedience of every book and all the numbers. He went to college for two years, dates one woman at a time, doesn't smoke, plays racquetball and at journey's end it's a Coors Light before dinner: a cheeseburger at Carl's Jr.

"Sometimes I think I'm too careful," concedes one. "But then I want to be around a long time."

Dwindling now, retiring by daily dozens, is the older, lustier guard. Some still wear leather jackets (Type A-2 . . . U.S. Army Air Forces) and fly with hangovers that would drop a horse.

Bending the Rules

Others bounce between continents where strange loads call for airplane drivers with high experience, no questions, and horseshoes in their hip pockets. It's a life of navigator jokes, multiple divorces and a bowl of Camels for breakfast.

"We used to break our necks to take off and get the job done, even if it did mean bending the rules," remembers a 20,000-hour airline veteran. "The kids today, sharp as they are, are different cats who ask: 'Are we legal to go yet?' "

Generations apart. Few wisdoms could reduce such worlds of aviation difference. Except a certain airplane. Except one still flown by both young hawks and gray eagles. . . .

California-Born

Except, a ubiquitous, waddling, indefatigable, stubborn, tail-dragging, valorous, abused, forgiving, splendid, drafty, adored, California-born, immortal tugboat of an airplane called the Douglas DC-3 that this year celebrates a half century of flight and another coup among countless achievements:

The DC-3 is the only airplane to have outlived its early pilots and outflown their sons and will doubtless outlast the grandsons who are just learning to fly it.

And to focus this year's birthday, say the disciples, consider that this twin-engined transport is being celebrated not as a relic of transportation past, not as some carefully garaged Bugatti or a stored steam locomotive rolled out for a commemorative Sunday afternoon, but as a 50-year-old workhorse airplane that just won't stop carrying passengers, hauling freight, fighting wars or piling up accomplishments.

"You can't kill it with an ax," said Patricia Madera, a Texas airfreight operator. . . .

"Bless her heart, the finest piece of machinery ever put in the sky," enthused Jim Ardy, a 59-year-old airline captain from Phoenix. . . .

"Safer than a crutch," said Dave Elliott, a retired air force colonel from Manhattan Beach. . . .

"I've flown it on one engine, no engines, and out of situations where in any other airplane I'd have been a headline," added Bob Stevens of Fallbrook, aviation cartoonist and ex-military pilot. . . .

"I've probably had more fun with this airplane than with my wife," grinned another flier. He requested anonymity to avoid a divorce. Then he got serious. "Now, if they'd built a DC-3 that could kiss back. . . ."

-- -- --

The wonderful stories began with day one, Dec. 17, 1935, at Santa Monica . . . when nobody showed up to witness the first takeoff of the DC-3, let along photograph it.

Subsequent yarns are a constant brag about the airplane's indestructibility. It has hit Arizona mountains and flown home with 12 feet missing from one wing; crash-landed on the Pacific Ocean only to countermand its pilot by bouncing 50 feet into the air and continue flying; flown out of a jungle strip wearing a replacement wing from a different airplane; landed itself, undamaged, after the crew bailed out; and stayed aloft following a collision with a Japanese fighter. The fighter, incidentally, crashed.

Indestructible? Shortly after World War II, the fuselage of a wrecked DC-3 was converted into an Australian diner. It was recognized several years later, purchased and returned to the air as a replacement fuselage for another DC-3.

Omnipresent? The airplane has carried at least eight numerical designations including R4D (U.S. Navy) and Li2 (Russian Air Force) and 10 nicknames, including Gooney Bird, Dakota, Dizzy Three, Skytrain and The Beast, an odd title from the usually romantic French navy.

35,000 Spark Plugs

Durable? In "Dakota," a recent entry in the huge library of DC-3 volumes (with four more in preparation for the golden anniversary), author Jacques Berge tells of a DC-3 that left the Douglas factory in 1942. Logbooks of the airplane (still in service with the French navy) show that it has used up 700 tires, 35,000 spark plugs and 160 engines.

A DC-3 evacuated then Col. Jimmy Doolittle from China after his famed raid on Tokyo, was the first airplane to land at the North Pole and the South Pole, and when Eastern Airlines purchased '3s in 1936, director Eddie Rickenbacker signed the receipts.

John Wayne owned one. So did Cary Grant. Until a year ago, according to Federal Aviation Administration listings, a TravolAir of Beverly Hills was the registered owner of DC-3 N500A. That corporate name covers the identity of actor-pilot John Travolta.

Even failures of the DC-3 have added something to its aura.

Remember those two Hollywood stars who spent their last hours aboard DC-3s? Leslie Howard and Carole Lombard?

-- -- --

Frank Collbohm of Palm Desert has a monumental confession concerning the first flight of the DC-3.

He cannot remember it.

And he was the co-pilot.

"It was so routine . . . we'd been flying the (DC) 1s a lot and then the DC-2 and so the (DC) 3 was just another airplane in the line . . . no, I don't remember the first flight at all."

Collbohm is 78. Carl Cover, the Douglas test pilot who commanded that first flight, died in a plane crash in the '40s. Fred Herman, a Douglas engineer and third person aboard the airplane, is dead. Of natural causes. But Art Raymond survives. He is 86 and lives in Brentwood. In 1935 he was vice president of engineering at Douglas Aircraft. Then there's Ivar Shogran, power plant engineer, living in Laguna Hills; Bailey Oswald, aerodynamicist of West Los Angeles; and Mal Oleson of Pacific Palisades, project engineer for the 1936-46 production life of the airplane . . . men of the original team whose longevity to date has been a pretty close match for their airplane.

A Common Question

And to these aviators, at their reunions, from biographers and talk show hosts come the common question: What touch of genius or miracle was performed in building this airplane?

"Nothing, really," Raymond said. "As a matter of fact, the DC-3 was two-thirds done before we started because we were so far ahead (in design and development) with work done on the DC-1 and the DC-2."

The DC-1 (Douglas Commercial No. 1) was built in 1933. The DC-2 flew a year later. Both were built to answer airline demands for larger, faster, warmer, quieter, safer, less expensive alternatives to air travel in biplanes, open cockpits and the clanking Tri-Motors of Ford and Fokker. And they were born as other branches of industry were breaking through with ingenuity upon innovation.

Said Raymond: "So we just did the best we could by taking advantage of (new) things such as cowled (for streamlining) engines, wing flaps (for improved low-speed control), variable pitch propellers (for maintaining engine efficiency), retractable gear, sound insulation and moncoque (stress borne by fuselage shell) engineering, the egg-crate design.

Model T of the Air

"Just like the Model T, the DC-1 filled a niche, but it wasn't a perfect airplane by any means. Then there was the DC-2, basically the same airplane but modified and improved. With the '3, we were able to concentrate on what we already had and the problems of the past . . . and to make a number of improvements, rounding out the fuselage for three abreast seating, probably the first of the so-called wide bodies, going to improved engines."

The era certainly helped: "It was an airplane built in a time when product life was designed to be indefinite."

The state of the aviation arts provided an assist: "Unlike the sophistications of today, our airplane was a basic design with basic engineering and basic purpose."

Then there were the unknown subtleties duplicating whatever fortunate formulas gave the world Zippo lighters and Victor mousetraps: "I guess it was a combination of elements, all intangible. But there does come a time when all things come together and that certainly was the case with the DC-3."

Mal Oleson flew new DC-3s in 1936. Last year, he commanded an old DC-3 on a charter to Mexico. In between he has logged 5,000 hours with the airplane, flown later generations of DC jets and celebrated his 75th birthday.

"It's not a fast airplane," goes his critique. "It is longitudinally and laterally unstable and you find that out the hard way . . . but, shoot, it was the best thing flying in its day when people didn't know what longitudinal stability meant.

"And it's around today mainly because there's still not another airplane with that payload that can get in and out of short fields at slow speed."

-- -- --

Within a business as romantic and as dashing as flying, exaggerations are common, superlatives shaky and the truth has a habit of diminishing with altitude.

But for this year's anniversary of the maiden flight of the DC-3 from Clover Field (now disappeared, urbanized and enlarged as Santa Monica Municipal Airport) the problem will be balancing all that is absolutely legendary with everything that is truly extraordinary about the airplane.

Passengers: A census in the December issue of Flight International, a British periodical, notes that of 10,926 DC-3s built in the United States (an estimated 3,200 were built under license by Japan and Russia) about 375 (of a surviving 1,500 or so) remain in regular service with 150 airlines from Florida to Ethiopia. Provincetown-Boston Airlines, the nation's largest commuter airline, operates a dozen DC-3s on short runs, including a 1937 model that has logged more flying time than any other commercial passenger plane in the Western world. As of a recent tally, this grand dowager had flown 87,584 hours and still sets a new record with every takeoff.

It's a Living

Freight: A few days ago, a Lt. Col. Forrester at Vandenberg Air Force Base received a package from the Kennedy Space Center at Houston. White mice and guinea pigs from Charles River Breeding Laboratories of Wilmington, Mass., went to a sinister euphemism listed as "The Vivarium" at UC Santa Barbara. They were flown from LAX to Santa Barbara and Santa Maria by a 1942 DC-3 owned by Atorie Air of El Paso. There's also Salair of Seattle and Florida Airmotive and Air Molokai and a dozen other U.S. lines making a living from the durable, reliable, piston-engined DC-3 and its unrivaled purpose--short runs to small towns when delivery time is not that important and an hour in the air costs hundreds, not thousands of dollars.

Wars: The combined service records of Audie Murphy, the F-86 and the USS New Jersey weren't this good. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower once described his four most important weapons of World War II. The Jeep, the bazooka and the A-bomb were the other three. The DC-3 flew supplies over The Hump and dropped paratroopers for D-Day and supplies to Bastogne. It was with all nations in Korea, with the French in Indochina and with the Americans in the same country when it had become South Vietnam.

The Berlin Airlift. Algeria. Suez. Twenty years ago in Vietnam, two dozen DC-3s (flown by the U.S. Air Force as the C-47) were fitted with trios of Gatling guns. They devastated night formations of Viet Cong troops. The airplane became "Puff the Magic Dragon."

"Puff" remains at war--in El Salvador.

-- -- --

They are, quite clearly, his charges.

" 'Hellican' was built in 1944 and flew, I think, for Air Indiana," said Ed Scott, an equal partner in Atorie Air of El Paso. "Anyway, it was repossessed on its last flight to Danville, Ill., and sat there for three years until we bought it.

" 'Puff,' named for the song, not the warplane, is 1942 and we know it was used to survey for oil in Venezuela because you can still see the registration letters on the tail.

"Then there's 'Ahmed,' 1943, once flown by Meridian Airline. When we picked her up in West Memphis, Ark., it was full of snakes, but that son of a gun will haul from now to forever.

"Then we've got 'Pegasus. . . .' " The planes are, of course, DC-3s. Only that breed commands such affection. Or justifies names and artwork on their lofty noses, high-tech paint jobs on old-tech surfaces and all the other tender loving care that Scott and Atorie Air ("the 'A' to be first in the telephone book," says co-owner Pat Madera, "and then Ed has a daughter named Torie") lavish on their airplanes.

On-Time Factor of 99%

Atorie has four DC-3s. "What we do," explained Scott, "is take 40-year-old airplanes and run 'em against jets . . . sometimes flying 'em 12 hours a day . . . 1,679 flights last year on a contract with Emery Worldwide and an on-time departure and arrival factor of 99%.

"There's really not anything like a DC-3 nor will there ever be again. They built that airplane, for crying out loud, when they didn't have computers to flex-test a wing. They (Douglas engineers) actually ran a steamroller over it."

Scott, 50, an aviation mechanic since his teens, and Madera, 43, an accountant, pilot and former rancher, feel their airplanes. Madera knows their personalities and sees the fleet as her family. Of course Scott talks to them.

Still, no airline lives by sentiment alone.

There are charters to hustle--dolphins to Pennsylvania and chicks to Guaymas--and complaints to handle from protection leagues who see flying living loads in an unpressurized, unheated DC-3 as a medieval cruelty to animals. There's the Emery contract and its daily runs between Los Angeles, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and Las Vegas to maintain. Daily service between El Paso and Los Angeles is in preparation.

"After two years, we're paying the bills," said Madera, "because we're using inexpensive equipment on short runs. If you run jets from here into Tucson or Albuquerque at 500 or 600 miles an hour, they will be in about 15 minutes before us because they have to get up to altitude. But their operating costs are something like $4,000 an hour compared to ours of about $700 or $800 an hour."

Added Scott: "You just don't need a limousine if you're delivering pizza."

Wheeling, Dealing Daily

But to deliver his pizza, Scott must wheel and deal daily to keep 'em flying. Factory parts are no longer manufactured for DC-3s and that puts a premium on supplies of the reconditioned and cannibalized. And with only 1,500 DC-3s estimated to be operating worldwide, the search for replacement airplanes that are airworthy, affordable and relatively youthful isn't getting any easier.

Scott must pay close to $100,000 for a broken-down clunker.

That's almost what a DC-3 cost new.

Almost paternally, Scott handpicks the men who fly his airplanes. "If they don't appreciate the equipment I supply for them," he said, "they don't fly."

Scott doesn't care if his pilots are ex-military or former Pan American, come in leather jackets or designer jeans, from Bakersfield or New Zealand, in their 60s or their 20s, with 10,000 hours in the DC-3 or 200 . . . as long as they respect the airplane and its heritage, have an affection for its quirks and will fly it firmly but gently within performance limits.

Thou shalt not abuse brakes and engines. Thou shalt not strike runways from great heights. Thou shall be prepared to sweep out the airplane for a low of $1,500 a month or a high of $27,000 per annum.

Paul McKibben, at 25, is such a pilot.

He's a well-credentialed gypsy with 3,000 hours in the air and an airline transport pilot rating. Home is wherever his El Camino is parked. Sure, one day he'd like to fly big jets for Northwest Orient. But for now, he's enjoying the DC-3 because he's "proud to be flying a 43-year-old airplane . . . because we get recognition from flying it."

Waves From the Big Guys

True. When McKibben taxies "Puff" across LAX, there are waves from pilots of 747s and DC-10s. They probably began their careers on DC-3s. McKibben and co-pilot Jeff Wright of Santa Ynez wave back. They are Little Leaguers welcomed to the Dodgers dugout.

McKibben has prowled his airplane in search of history. Three eyelets for heavy shackles are in the tail. Old attachment points for military gliders? There are red and green drop lights for signaling paratroopers inside the door. Did "Puff" drop part of the 82nd Airborne at Ste.-Mere-Eglise for D-Day? A bulkhead carries a plate noting that the airplane once was registered at G-AVPW. So "Puff" has indeed done civilian business from Great Britain.

"She's my favorite," admitted McKibben. "It flies the nicest and it's not showing its years.

"It's more stable and starts every time . . . but then I'm taking very little out of it now compared to the past. We're not flying it at 17,000 feet over the Andes and covering her with ice. She seems to like that."

A Gallant End

Yet not every pilot cares. Scott remembers one hotshot and the DC-3 he purchased from Atorie in November. They became part of an organization flying contraband, Sony television sets and stereos, into Mexico.

Late last year, groping through night fog while attempting to land at an unlighted strip, the airplane hit trees. One engine was wrenched from its mounts and died. Vibrations from a bent propeller began shaking the other engine.

It was a gallant, typical end. Three tons of television sets were dumped overboard and somehow the DC-3 stayed aloft on one faltering engine for another 10 minutes. There even was sufficient power and control for a flat, wheels-up landing in raw desert. Both pilots survived.

But to avoid identification and detention, they committed an obscenity. They torched the airplane.

-- -- --

Each morning, around 8 a.m., a lone DC-3 climbs in no particular hurry above Los Angeles. It is Paul McKibben and Jeff Wright in "Puff." They are outbound for Santa Barbara.

What irony. Their course allows a full look at Santa Monica Municipal Airport. That's where the DC-3 began. And that was before freeways, President Truman, "Gone With the Wind," Terry and the Pirates, nylons, television, Rosie the Riveter, Andy Hardy, penicillin and most of Los Angeles.

There was a golf course around Clover Field in 1935. It has been torn up. The plant and offices of Douglas Aircraft were at the airport. They've been pulled down.

Donald Douglas is dead. His company has been soaked up by another. And recently, McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis dropped "DC" as an aircraft designation.

Everything has changed.

Except the DC-3.

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