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Douglas DC-3 Dakota Celebrates its 85 Birthday

The Douglas DC-3 recently celebrated its 85 birthday, the first flight was made on17 December 1935 on a sunny but cool afternoon in Santa Monica, California. The DC-3, that made air travel popular and airline profits possible, is universally recognized as the greatest aircraft of its time. Some would argue that it is the greatest of all time.

Design work began in 1934 at the insistence of C.R. Smith, president of American Airlines. Smith wanted two new planes — a longer DC-2 that would carry more day passengers and another with railroad-type sleeping berths, to carry overnight passengers.

Douglas DC-2

The first DC-3 built was the Douglas Sleeper Transport — also known as Skysleepers by airline customers — and it was the height of luxury. Fourteen plush seats in four main compartments could be folded in pairs to form seven berths, while seven more folded down from the cabin ceiling.

The plane could accommodate 14 overnight passengers or 28 for shorter daytime flights. The first was delivered to American Airlines in June 1936, followed two months later by the first standard 21-passenger DC-3.

In November 1936, United Airlines, which had been a subsidiary of Boeing until 1934, became the second DC-3 customer. The DC-2 had proved more economical than the Model 247, and United assumed the DC-3 would continue that lead. Initial orders from American and United were soon followed by orders from more than 30 other airlines in the next two years.

The DC-3 was not only comfortable and reliable, it also made air transportation profitable. American's C.R. Smith said the DC-3 was the first aircraft that could make money just by hauling passengers, without relying on government subsidies.

As a result, by 1939, more than 90 per cent of the nation's airline passengers were flying on DC-2s and DC-3s.

In addition to the 455 DC-3 commercial transports built for the airlines, 10,174 were produced as C-47 military transports during World War II.


For both airline and military use, the DC-3 proved to be tough, flexible, and easy to operate and maintain. Its exploits during the war became the stuff of legend. Today, more than eight decades after the last one was delivered, hundreds of DC-3s are still flying and still earning their keep by carrying passengers or cargo.

The South African Airforce took on charge a large number of Dakotas during World War II and allocated them the serials 6801 - 6884.

At the cessation of hostilities in 1945 a large number of surplus Dakotas were disposed of, including transferring some to the South African Airways. The survivors of the SAA fleet found their way back to the SAAF in 1971 when they were allocated the serials 6885 to 6889.

When sanctions were imposed on South Africa from about 1975, other plans were devised to obtain aircraft and a number of Dakotas were purchased from various sources to supplement those still in SAAF service. In total 16 were added to the SAAF strength and most were given “old” serials.

One of the most successful “coups” was the purchase of 5 Royal New Zealand Air Force Dakotas which were withdrawn from that service in 1977. These were purchased by a concern in the Comores Islands with the name Island Associates and given Comores registrations before flying from New Zealand to the Comores. Once they were safely in the Comores, the next leg of the “coup” was to fly them to South Africa. In SAAF service they were given “old” serials, and some of them have found their way into the "Turbo Dak" program.

As a result of the rationalisation that has taken place over the last few years, a number of the “Turbo Daks” have been offered for sale during late 1997 and early 1998 and most of them have been bought by customers in the United States.

The only remaining operational Dakotas are those serving with 35 Squadron in Cape Town and which have been converted to the maritime role to patrol the long South African coastline. Those no longer required for service have been stored, pending disposal. One of the most remarkable "Dak" stories came from the SAAF in 1986, a Dakota while on a flight to Ondangwa at about 8000 ft was hit with a soviet SAM-7 missile. The explosion ripped off most of the Dakota’s tail. To add additional pressure, the Dakota was full of military VIP passengers including the Chief of the Army.

Captain Colin Green slowed the Dakota down to 100 knots in order to keep it under control and called for help. There was a chopper in the area which formatted on him and relayed the damage to him. The chopper also took the picture’s. Apparently Captain Green ordered the passengers around the aircraft to regulate the centre of gravity before going into land. Using flaps and power to control the pitch, he landed it onto the tarmac. Captain Colin Green was later awarded The Chief of the SADF Commendation for his exceptional flying skills.

Perhaps unique among prewar aircraft, the DC-3 continues to fly daily in active commercial and military service more than eighty years after the type's first flight. There are still small operators with DC-3's in revenue service and as cargo aircraft. The common saying among aviation enthusiasts and pilots is that "the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3". The aircraft's legendary ruggedness is enshrined in the lighthearted description of the DC-3 as "a collection of parts flying in loose formation". Its ability to use grass or dirt runways makes it popular in developing countries, where runways are not always paved.

Current uses of the DC-3 include aerial spraying, freight transport, passenger service, military transport, surveying, missionary flying, skydiver shuttling and sightseeing.

DC-3 Survey Aircraft


The very large number of civil and military operators of the DC-3/C-47s and related types makes a listing of all the airlines, air forces and other current operators impractical. As of 2012, DC-3 #10 is still used daily for flights in Colombia. Buffalo Airways, based in Canada's Northwest Territories, operated a scheduled DC-3 passenger service between its main base in Yellowknife and Hay River; however, this is currently suspended. They continue to offer some passenger charter operations using DC-3s. Some DC-3s are also used by the airline for cargo operations.

The oldest surviving DST is N133D, the sixth Douglas Sleeper Transport built-in 1936. This aircraft was delivered to American Airlines on July 12, 1936, as NC16005. As of 2011, the aircraft was at Shell Creek Airport, Punta Gorda, Florida, where it was undergoing restoration. The aircraft was to be restored to Douglas Sleeper Transport standards, and full airworthiness.


The oldest DC-3 still flying is the original American Airlines Flagship Detroit (c/n 1920, the 43rd aircraft of the Santa Monica production line and delivered on March 2, 1937), which can be seen at airshows around the United States and is owned and operated by the nonprofit Flagship Detroit Foundation.

The oldest DC-3 still flying Photo: Steve Homewood

General characteristics

Crew: two

Capacity: 21–32 passengers

Length: 64 ft 8 in (19.7 m)

Wingspan: 95 ft 2 in (29.0 m)

Height: 16 ft 11 in (5.16 m)

Wing area: 987 sq ft (91.7 m2)

Aspect ratio: 9.17

Airfoil: NACA2215 / NACA2206

Empty weight: 16,865 lb (7,650 kg)

Gross weight: 25,199 lb (11,430 kg)

Fuel capacity: 822 gal. (3736 l)

Powerplant: 2 × Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9-cyl. air-cooled radial piston engine, 1,100 hp (820 kW) each

Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-S1C3G Twin Wasp 14-cyl. air-cooled two-row radial piston engine, 1,200 hp (890 kW) each

Propellers: 3-bladed Hamilton Standard 23E50 series, 11 ft 6 in (3.51 m) diameter


Maximum speed: 200 kn; 370 km/h (230 mph) at 8,500 ft (2,590 m)

Cruise speed: 180 kn; 333 km/h (207 mph)

Stall speed: 58.2 kn (67 mph; 108 km/h)

Service ceiling: 23,200 ft (7,100 m)

Rate of climb: 1,130 ft/min (5.7 m/s)

Wing loading: 25.5 lb/sq ft (125 kg/m2)

Power/mass: 0.0952 hp/lb (156.5 W/kg)