The Douglas DC-3 was once considered by many the greatest airplane of all time. Its ease of operation, low maintenance, and comfortable interior allowed it to change the airline industry forever, and in the late 1930s it became the first aircraft in history to make a profit by transporting passengers. Due to its unforgettable effect on the aviation industry, we have a DC-3 in our collection that, up until recently, was hanging in the America By Air exhibition. The aircraft was first installed at our location on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in the Air Transportation hall in 1975, prior to the museum’s official opening. Recently the aircraft was the object of extensive preparation as museum staff from the Collections Department moved the artifact to a new storage facility. The move was one in a host of recent artifact transfers at the museum over the past year. The National Air and Space Museum is currently undergoing a renovation of our flagship building downtown. During the seven-year project, which began in 2018, the museum in D.C., including all 23 galleries and presentation spaces, will be transformed as we reimagine the way we engage the world in telling the story of flight. As a result, many of its galleries are now closed and the artifacts in those galleries have been relocated to our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
The DC-3 moved from D.C. to Chantilly in 2019, and for several weeks after its delivery, preservation and restoration specialists worked hard at restoring and cleaning the aircraft. Once their work was completed, the DC-3 was moved to a temporary storage facility for staging until it can return to its permanent display downtown in the newly-renovated America by Air.
Although the transfer from the Udvar-Hazy Center to its temporary storage facility was only a few miles away, the size of the partially disassembled DC-3 presented a unique set of challenges. The fuselage is 65 feet long (nearly 20 meters) and 24 feet wide (7.5 meters) with the engines still attached and around 10,000 pounds with a forward center of gravity. So how do you move a five-ton airplane? Moving the aircraft to temporary storage required a team of museum specialists, a detailed plan, specialized handling equipment, and good weather conditions. Since the length of the aircraft exceeds most standard trailer lengths, it was moved on a Fontaine Renegade LTX 40 extendable trailer. In order to lift the aircraft onto the trailer, we used a 30-ton mobile crane and forklift.
To begin this process, we staged the handling equipment outside the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar and prepared to open the large hangar doors. Once open, we towed the aircraft forward out of the building using a tug while controlling the side to side movement with tag lines on the tail. After moving the aircraft outside, the following priority was to close the hangar doors to reduce the loss of the climate-controlled environment. Next, the rigging was attached to the aircraft at the wings and tail and then connected to the crane. A designated person used hand signals to guide both the crane and the forklift operators simultaneously. This must be done very slowly to ensure the aircraft remains at a stable orientation. The front end of the DC-3 is significantly heavier than the rear and can quickly nose over if not well balanced.
While the aircraft was suspended, the stand was removed from underneath the aircraft and placed on the trailer. This placement was important to ensure the nose of the aircraft would not hit any portion of the truck while turning, and it also situated the airplane forward enough to allow the tail to be placed at the end of the trailer. With the stand secured, we were able to line the Renegade LTX 40 trailer up to the aircraft and extend it. Due to the size and weight of the DC-3, we knew we could not fully rely on the stand during transport and had to support the tail section separately. Extending the trailer allowed the team to line up the raised section in the rear of the trailer with the tail gear, decreasing the amount of overhang off the end of the trailer. After the aircraft was fully secured to the stand and trailer, it was ready for transport. Once at the storage facility the entire process was performed in reverse.
Now in its temporary storage location, the DC-3 sits beside many other large celebrated aircraft like the Douglas 247-D, Ford Tri-Motor, Rutan Voyager, Douglas D-558, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, and the North American X-15.
Ironically, although the DC-3 has a flight range of over 1,400 miles, once an aircraft becomes an artifact in our collection, moving it even a few short miles involves a range of complexities. Protecting and caring for the vast and uniquely large artifacts is the primary function of the Collections Department at the National Air and Space Museum. This includes an array of dedicated and specially trained individuals: artifact handlers, restoration specialists, conservators, volunteers, photographers, and more. Their enthusiasm and dedication ensure that the nation’s aviation and aerospace heritage is protected for future generations, and with every move the community is one step closer to a new and awe-inspiring National Air and Space Museum.