The legendary DC-3 got its start as an upgraded version of the DC-2, which incorporated sleeping berths into an extended cabin. The DC-3 made its first flight without fanfare on December 17, 1935 during a lunch break at the Douglas Aircraft factory in Santa Monica, California. Factory workers watched the test flight as they ate. Designers had not anticipated the success the DC-3 would quickly achieve, since it was neither the fastest nor largest airplane. However, its combination of size, speed, and most importantly reliability made it the most profitable passenger plane of its era. By the time production of commercial DC-3s ceased in 1942, 80% of all passenger planes operating in the United States were DC-3s.
Easily converted for war, DC-3s were transformed into 12 variants, which came to be known by many names. To the Americans, it was either the ‘DC-47 Skytrain’ or ‘Gooney Bird’, while to the British and Canadians it was always the ‘Dakota’, an acronym for Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft. By the outset of World War II in 1939, thousands of Dakotas were already being used by all of the Commonwealth Air Forces. Inexpensive to repair and able to land on unpaved surfaces, the Dakotas proved to be ideal for supplying soldiers in North Africa and Europe. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) received 182 Dakotas, mostly through lend-lease deals with the Royal Air Force. Many of these planes participated directly in the 1945 invasion of German-occupied France by towing paratroop gliders behind the front lines.
More than 10,000 DC-3s were built between 1935 and 1945 making it the most produced plane in history. Due to its good name and reliability in remote areas, hundreds of DC-3s continue to operate around the world today. In the North, one Canadian company, Buffalo Airways, operates a fleet of a dozen DC-3s and DC-47s from their home base in Yellowknife, NWT. The company bought most of its DC-3s from the military, out of storage, in the 1980s. They were then primarily equipped for ‘combi’ or combined passenger and cargo service.
The secret to the continued success of the DC-3 is the availability of engines and other replacement parts, remnants of the overwhelming numbers of DC-3s produced in the 30s and 40s. Few aircraft can claim 70 years of service and Canadian skies are likely to see century-old Dakotas through the coming decades. In the words of one Buffalo Airways pilot, Darrell Knight, the DC-3s, “… reward each pilot in the airline with a living link to bygone aviation history.”
For Buffalo Airways and ‘Ice Pilots’ merchandise please check out the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada Windsock Giftshop.