Fabled DC-3 turns 80 this month

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This month marks the 80th anniversary of the first commercial flight of the legendary DC-3, one of the most significant and revolutionary passenger and military aircraft ever built.

That initial flight was made in June, 1936, when American Airlines inaugurated DC-3 passenger service between New York City and Chicago. By the time Douglas Aircraft Corp., ended production of the twin-engine, 28-passenger plane in the late 1940s, 607 commercial and approximately 16,000 military versions of the DC-3 had been produced.

Here in Nevada, the first DC-3s were flown by United Airlines into Reno’s Hubbard Field from Chicago and points west beginning in the late 1930s. Soon, American Airlines began flying into Reno and Las Vegas from Chicago. From the mid- 1950s until the early 1960s, Bonanza Airlines, which later merged with Air West, flew DC-3s on passenger, freight and air mail routes into Northern Nevada from California, Utah and Arizona, with stops at Carson City, Reno, Tonopah and Hawthorne.

Another airline, named Hawthorne Nevada Airlines that carried passengers on gambling excursions from Long Beach, Calif., to Hawthorne, also flew DC-3s. On two of the flights, the DC-3s crashed.

The first accident occurred about 9 p.m. on Aug. 19, 1964, when the aircraft suddenly lost both engines and was forced to glide to a crash-landing on Mud Lake near Tonopah. Although there were critical injuries, none of the three crew members or 31 passengers were killed.

But, sadly, this lack of fatalities was not echoed when a Hawthorne Nevada Airlines DC-3, also bound from Long Beach to Hawthorne, crashed into the peak of 14,500-foot Mt. Whitney near Lone Pine, Calif., before dawn during a snow storm on Feb. 18, 1969. Because of the continuing bad weather and location of the wreckage, rescuers were not able to retrieve all of the bodies until late summer. All three crew members and 32 passengers had been killed when the aircraft hit the mountain.

The cause of the 1964 crash was later attributed by investigators to poor maintenance and missing engine parts. The deadly 1969 crash was caused by deviation from prescribed flight plans and bad weather.

The DC-3, however, has proven over the years to be one of the world’s most rugged, safe, reliable and versatile aircraft, according to my friend and noted aviation expert Byron M. Tarnutzer, who lived across the street from me in Southern California when we were kids.

A long-time pilot who has owned and flown a World War II Navy T-28 “Trojan” trainer and a Bell Jet Ranger 206 B-3 helicopter he piloted while serving as a reserve deputy in the Orange County Sheriff’s Aero Squadron, Bryon, like this columnist and the DC-3, also recently turned 80 years old.

Bryon, who has flown on DC-3 passenger aircraft in East Africa and Mexico, told me that the airplane, which was extensively used by the U.S. and Allied nations’ militaries during WW II, the Berlin Airlift, and the Korean and Vietnam wars, was designated a C-47 “Skytrain” by the U.S. Army, a R4D by the U.S. Navy and a “Dakota” by Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other English-speaking nations. The DC-3, which was a successor to the smaller DC-1 and DC-2, also was nicknamed the “Gooney Bird” by many military pilots.

During both war and peace, the DC-3 had multiple uses. It carried passengers, troops, weapons, small vehicles such as Jeeps and cargo of all kinds. It could land on dirt, sand, gravel and grass airstrips. It was fitted with pontoons to serve as a float plane and skis to land on snow and ice. It was used as a search and rescue aircraft, could carry up to 21 wounded personnel on stretchers and was fitted with gun turrets to serve as a gunship.

The U.S. retired the DC-3, which had a cruising speed of about 220 miles per hour, from military service in 1975, but the Canadian forces kept it in use until 1988. Other world militaries flew DC-3s until just a few years ago.

At the end of WW II, thousands of DC-3s that had been in U.S. wartime service were sold off by the government to airlines in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Far East, North Africa and the Middle East. They also were purchased by museums, private collectors and local government agencies for such roles as firefighting, aerial crop spraying, navigational training for pilots, and aerial ice patrolling and mapping. Some DC-3s have been turned into diners and coffee shops, private homes, motel rooms and apartments, and even as motor homes and delivery vehicles.

In North America, the DC-3 is still in service as a passenger and freight carrier for Buffalo Airways in Canada’s frozen Northwest Territory. Buffalo’s DC-3s are sometimes fitted with skis to land on frozen lakes and meadows to rescue sick and injured persons and fly them to hospitals.

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the fabled DC-3 this month, let’s raise our glasses and toast one of the most remarkable aircraft ever flown.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reached at news@lahontanvalleynews.com.


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