DC-3 aircraft Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The DC-3 provided the developing airline industry with a reliable and versatile craft. It was so popular with both customers and companies that it consolidated the industry’s place in America’s transportation network.

The DC-3 was the result of cooperation between a business,Douglas Aircraft CompanyDouglas Aircraft Company, and a customer, American AirlinesAmerican Airlines. American Airlines wanted to compete with TWA, which was flying the smaller DC-2, and United Airlines, which was flying the Boeing 247. American therefore approached Douglas with a proposal for a superior plane that would be roomy enough for sleeping berths and that could fly at least halfway across the country without stopping for gas. At the time, transcontinental flights normally made two or three stops along the way, allowing passengers to sleep overnight in hotels, so it typically took three or four days to make the trip.DC-3 aircraftAircraft industry;DC-3

A DC-3 in flight in 1959.

(Library of Congress)

With sales to American guaranteed in advance, Douglas engineers were able to commit the necessary time and costs to develop a remarkable new plane. The DC-3 made its maiden flight on December 17, 1935. It was big, fast, comfortable, and remarkably reliable. It could cruise at 230 miles per hour, fast enough to fly from Los Angeles to New York in only sixteen hours of flying time. It had variable-pitch propellers, allowing excellent control, and partially retractable landing gear. With a wing span of 64 feet 5 inches, it dwarfed the competition, and its large size allowed the airline to offer sleeping berths in some planes and hot meals prepared in an on-board kitchen.

The DC-3 was an instant success. Its efficiency and appeal meant that airlines could for the first time make money carrying passengers without a government mail subsidy. By the end of 1938, almost all airline traffic in America was on DC-3s. The plane’s high safety margin meant that air travel was perceived to be as safe as train travel, and the pendulum began to swing away from the railroads to the airlines. More than eleven thousand DC-3s were eventually built.

After the start of World War II, most new aircraft construction was for military purposes. The Army version of the DC-3 was called the C-47, and it played an important part in the war effort. As a troop transport and freight plane, it was essential to the Allied efforts.

At the end of World War II, most C-47s were transformed into DC-3s and adopted for commercial transportation. The infusion of so many excellent airplanes jump-started the reemerging civilian airline industry. The DC-3 continued to play an important role in the air travel business for many years. Even into the early twenty-first century, seventy years after the plane’s introduction, several hundred DC-3s remained in flying condition, though they were no longer used for commercial flights.

Further Reading
  • Gradidge, Jennifer M. The Douglas DC-1/DC-2/DC-3: The First Seventy Years. London: Air-Britain, 2006.
  • Holden, H. M. The Legacy of the DC-3. Brawley, Calif.: Wind Canyon Books, 1996.
  • Pearcy, Arthur. Douglas Propliners: DC-1 to DC-7. Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England: Airlife, 1995.

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