Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Last Time

Half of the DC-3s in America celebrate the Gooney Bird’s 75th

Number One’s three-blade prop begins to turn-cough-turn. The engine whines, whines, then belches out clots of smoke as the big Wright Cyclone thunders to life. Joe Colmer, 93, feels the rumble through the metal seat. He grips the wooden cane, his ever-present companion since he stepped on a land mine on patrol in Germany during World War II. He looks out the square window at all the people watching the DC-3. The years fall away.

He’s back in the war, sitting hip-to-shoulder with 27 other air-landing GIs in a British Airspeed Horsa troop glider, about to be cut loose to glide to a landing near Sainte-Mère-Église, the infamous post-D-Day battle of June 6, 1944. At 27, Joe is the “old man,” a seasoned three-year vet of nearly all the major campaigns of World War II.

The Horsa rides the other end of a tow line from a C-47 Dakota, the military version of the immortal DC-3 that will become a prime symbol of dependability, hope and victory across 75 years of military and civilian aviation. But to Joe Colmer, the transport ship makes a mere background overture to the terrors of battle looming ahead. He only wants to do his job, then someday walk again under the big tree, through the white fence and up the front porch of home. The Dak is the airplane that’s going to help him—and thousands more—get there.

Legendary today, a legend even in its own time, the DC-3 and all its variants and nicknames—C-47 Skytrain, C-53 Skytrooper, Dak or Dakota, Tabby, Spooky gunship, Puff the Magic Dragon, The Doug and, most universally, the Gooney Bird—still serves, if in ever-diminishing numbers, around the globe. Seventy-five amazing years have passed since Donald Douglas huddled with lead engineer Arthur Raymond in Santa Monica, Calif., to bring forth the design.

In 1939, under the shadow of the European war, near the end of recovery from the Great Depression, Americans bought newspapers for two cents, gas for a dime a gallon and hamburger meat for $.14 a pound. Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt to propose an atomic bomb, the World’s Fair and LaGuardia Airport opened in New York, television broadcasting began, and Gone with the Wind was one of several big film hits.

And if you could summon the sawbucks ($264—one-third the price of a new car!), you could join a privileged few to fly coast to coast on a new American Airlines Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST), a luxury train-style version of the plane that would revolutionize air travel: the Douglas DC (for Douglas Commercial) series. The DC-3 almost overnight made everything that had come before obsolete. On the AA flights, drinks and excellent meals were served to the 14 “guests,” along with sick bags for the routine turbulence encountered just 8,000 feet above sea level! And after lights out, the plane’s captain walked the aisle to check on everyone’s comfort. Another world indeed.


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