Douglas DC-3

Display Status:

This object is not on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It is either on loan or in storage.

Collection Item Summary:

Douglas DC-3

First flown in 1935, the Douglas DC-3 became the most successful airliner in the formative years of air transportation, and was the first to fly profitably without government subsidy. More than 13,000 DC-3s, both civil and military versions, U.S. and foreign built, were produced. Many are still flying.

An enlarged variant of the popular 14-seat DC-2, the 21-seat DC-3 was comfortable by the standards of its time and very safe, because of its strong, multiple-spar wing and all-metal construction. The airlines liked it because it was reliable, inexpensive to operate, and therefore profitable. Pilots liked its stability, ease of handling, and excellent single-engine performance.

The airplane on display above flew more than 56,700 hours with Eastern Air Lines. Its last commercial flight was on October 12, 1952, when it flew from San Salvador to Miami. It was subsequently presented to the Museum by Eastern’s president, Edward V. Rickenbacker.

Gift of Eastern Air Lines

Wingspan: 29 m (95 ft)

Length: 19.7 m (64 ft 6 in)

Height: 5 m (16 ft 11 in)

Weight, gross: 11,430 kg (25,200 lb)

Weight, empty: 7,650 kg (16,865)

Top speed: 370 km/h (230 mph)

Engine: 2 Wright SGR 1820-71, 1,200 hp

Manufacturer: Douglas Aircraft Co., Santa Monica, Calif., 1936

Collection Item Long Description:

The development of the Douglas DC-3 was brought about by the commercial airlines demand for an economical passenger-carrying airplane. Up to 1934, airline passenger craft were too slow and carried too few passengers to be really profitable. United Air Lines had ordered sixty of the new Boeing 247s, the first truly modern airliners and had effectively tied up production. The 247 carried ten passengers at 160 mph and made all other transports obsolete. The other carriers were thus forced to find another plane if they wished to be competitive in the passenger-carrying business.

In 1933 the Douglas Aircraft Company designed a new passenger plane, as ordered by Transcontinental and Western airlines, to compete with the Boeing 247. The first model, the DC-1, was soon succeeded by the DC-2 and the start of quantity production. American Airlines, at the time, was using the slow Curtiss Condor, which was fitted with sleeper berths. American needed a new airplane able to compete with the DC-2 and the Boeing 247, but one with sleeping accommodations.

In 1935 C. R. Smith, president of American Airlines, made a direct request of Douglas to build a larger, more comfortable plane which could lure the luxury trade." On December 17, 1935, the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) made its first flight


The original plane was designed as a luxury sleeper with seven upper and seven lower berths and a private forward cabin. The day plane version, known as the DC-3, had twenty-one seats instead of fourteen berths. The design included cantilever wings, all-metal construction, two cowled Wright SGR-1820 1,000 hp radial engines, retractable landing gear, and trailing edge flaps. The controls included an automatic pilot and two sets of instruments. The original design was so satisfactory that the basic specifications were never changed.

American Airlines initiated DST nonstop New York-to-Chicago service on June 25, 1936. and in September started service with the DC-3. A year later, with the DC-3 in service, Smith stated, "It was the first airplane in the world that could make money just by hauling passengers" This was the beginning of an immortal airplane known the world over. As the success of the DC-3, with its larger capacity for passengers, its speed, and its economical operation, was realized, airlines throughout the world began placing orders with Douglas.

In the United States the big three transcontinental lines were very competitive. With the advent of DST coast-to-coast service by American Airlines, Trans World Airlines obtained DSTs and DC-3s for such flights also. When United Airlines, with its Boeing 247s, saw that the Douglas plane was outclassing its own service, the company purchased ten DSTs and five DC-3s, and began flights on January 1, 1937. In July of that same year United introduced sleeper service between New York and California.

By 1938, 95 percent of all U.S. commercial airline traffic was on DC-3s. Two hundred sixty DC-3s, 80 percent of the number of airliners, were in service in 1942 on domestic carriers. As of December 31, 1969, thirty DC-3s were still being used by U.S airlines.

Foreign companies also began to order the economical Douglas-built plane. KLM was the first European airline to own and operate DC-3s, in 1936, followed by companies in Sweden, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and elsewhere. By 1938 DC-3s were flown by thirty foreign airlines, and by 1939, 90 percent of the world's airline traffic was being carried by these aircraft.

The impact of the DC-3 was felt the world over. In July 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Donald W. Douglas, head of Douglas Aircraft, with the Collier Trophy. Recognizing the DC-3 as the outstanding twin-engined commercial plane,' the citation read, 'This airplane, by reason of its high speed, economy, and quiet passenger comfort, has been generally adopted by transport lines throughout the United States. Its merit has been further recognized by its adoption abroad, and its influence on foreign design is already apparent."

In 1939 the DC-3 was called on to aid the military fleets of the world. Many commercial carriers in Europe put their DC-3s to use as military transports. The United States ordered new versions of the DC-3 modified for troop transport and cargo carrying. These were designated as C-47s and C-53s. As military versions were built, they were put into operation in European and Pacific theaters during World War II. C-47s initiated the Berlin Airlift in 1948. In military service since 1941, the C-47 proved most useful in many endeavors.

Many names and numbers were assigned to the DC-3. England labeled it the "Dakota" or "Dak." American pilots, during World War II, called it the 'Skytrain," "Skytrooper," "Doug," or "Gooney Bird." The U.S. military's official titles were C-47, C-53, C-117, and R4D. The airlines called it "The Three." Of all the names the affectionate title "Gooney Bird" lingers on.

The normal gross weight for the aircraft was 25,200 pounds, with twenty-one passengers. Many times these weights were exceeded as conditions required. The normal range was 1,500 miles, but this could be extended by adding fuel tanks. The cruising speed varied from 155 mph to 190 mph depending on the load carried and the power used. The DC-3's safety record was better than that of most airplanes, primarily because of its great structural strength and efficient single-engine performance.

Since 1935, 803 commercial transports and 10,123 military versions have been built. In addition, about 3,000 have been constructed under license in Russia (Li-2) and almost 500 in Japan. In service since 1936, the DC-3 is still in use today throughout the world.