The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Douglas DC-3 revolutionized air travel by providing passenger comfort and operating capabilities and by creating profit-making potential in the fledgling airline industry.

Summary of Event

The Air Mail Act of 1925 authorized the U.S. postmaster general to contract with any individual, firm, or corporation for the carriage of mail by aircraft between points designated by the postmaster general. This legislation signaled the beginning of what would become the airline industry. The Air Mail Act’s first amendment (in 1926) changed the basis for payment to these contract mail carriers, but even with this change, which essentially amounted to subsidization, the young airlines frequently had difficulty generating a profit. The carriers came to recognize that earning additional revenue would be easier if aircraft could carry passengers in addition to mail. This demand eventually led to a larger aircraft, suitable for combined mail and passenger service. The first generation of these aircraft could accommodate from two to six passengers, but soon, larger multiengine aircraft became operational. The most popular of these were the all-metal Ford trimotor and Fokker’s wood and fabric trimotor, which used laminated plywood as the wing skin. It was this plywood wing that ultimately would lead to Donald W. Douglas’s DC series. [kw]DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel, The (June 25, 1936)[DC 3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel, The (June 25, 1936)] [kw]Air Travel, The DC-3 Opens a New Era of (June 25, 1936) [kw]Travel, The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air (June 25, 1936) Airplanes;DC-3[DC 3] Airline industry Aviation;airplanes Transportation;air Douglas Aircraft Company [g]United States;June 25, 1936: The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel[09210] [c]Transportation;June 25, 1936: The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel[09210] [c]Manufacturing and industry;June 25, 1936: The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel[09210] [c]Travel and recreation;June 25, 1936: The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel[09210] [c]Space and aviation;June 25, 1936: The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel[09210] Douglas, Donald W., Sr. Frye, Jack Lindbergh, Charles A. Patterson, W. E. Rickenbacker, Eddie Smith, C. R.

In March, 1931, a Fokker trimotor owned by Transcontinental & Western Air Lines Transcontinental & Western Air Lines[Transcontinental and Western Air Lines] (TWA, which became Trans World Airlines Trans World Airlines in 1950) crashed while en route from Kansas City to Wichita. One of the passengers aboard was Knute Rockne, Rockne, Knute the University of Notre Dame’s famous and beloved football coach, and his death was mourned around the nation. Public pressure began to mount on the Department of Commerce as the news media became increasingly strident in calling for public release of information on the cause of the accident, particularly because Rockne had been one of the passengers. Ultimately, the Department of Commerce concluded not only that the accident was traceable to the Fokker’s wooden wing structure but also that all Fokker F-10’s should be grounded temporarily while inspections and structural fixes were made. Publicity surrounding the accident turned public opinion against Fokker’s trimotors, forcing TWA to depend solely on its Ford trimotors. The airline’s vice president of flight operations, Jack Frye, recognized that a more modern aircraft type was needed as soon as possible.

Frye visited Seattle in an attempt to obtain some of Boeing Aircraft’s Boeing Aircraft new B-247 models. The B-247 Airplanes;B-247[B 247] was a ten-passenger, streamlined, all-metal airplane that Boeing thought would revolutionize air travel. The first sixty B-247’s, two years’ worth of production, were destined for United Air Lines, an affiliated company then under the Boeing umbrella. Frye and his engineers, with technical advice from aviation pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh, then proceeded to develop a set of specifications for a trimotored transport, and proposals were solicited from a number of aircraft-manufacturing companies, the smallest of which was Donald W. Douglas’s company in Santa Monica, California.

Douglas’s engineers, after studying TWA’s specifications, determined that they could meet the stringent requirements with a twin-engine airplane by using new design applications as well as new, more powerful engines then being developed by both the Wright Aeronautical Company and Pratt & Whitney. A contract was signed on September 20, 1932, for the first airplane, at a cost of $125,000; the contract also included a one-year option for up to sixty additional planes priced at $58,000 each. TWA later admitted to Douglas that obtaining financing for the purchase had been difficult. Bankers, it seems, doubted that an aircraft could be built that would meet all of TWA’s specifications. Eleven months after receiving the specifications, Douglas’s first version of this new generation of aircraft, the twelve-passenger Douglas Commercial-1 (DC-1), made its first flight. Even before the plane’s delivery to TWA, the airline asked for design changes that would, among other things, increase the DC-1’s capacity by two passengers. TWA quickly ordered twenty-five units of this new model, the DC-2. Douglas began work on the new version immediately after flight tests had been completed on the DC-1, and in May, 1934, TWA took delivery of its first DC-2.

The DC-1 first flew on July 1, 1933. It could operate at 180 miles per hour while carrying twelve passengers. On the other hand, United’s Boeing B-247, the pride of its fleet, could carry only ten passengers while cruising at 165 miles per hour. At TWA’s insistence, Douglas immediately started making refinements to the DC-1, and orders began coming in for this improved model, the DC-2. Within two years, the DC-2 had evolved into the larger and more powerful DC-3, capable of carrying twenty-one passengers at 195 miles per hour. The DC-3 would continue as the workhorse of the world’s airlines through World War II and into the early postwar years.

One of the earliest DC-2’s was delivered to KLM, the Royal Dutch Airline, and it was almost immediately entered in the MacRobertson Trophy Race, which started in London and ended in Melbourne, Australia. The DC-2’s second-place finish to a British twin-engine fighter aircraft—it placed well ahead of a Boeing B-247, even while carrying a few passengers—helped firmly establish the DC-2 in the traveling public’s mind as the fastest and most reliable passenger aircraft yet made.

As the number of carriers ordering the DC-2 continued to grow, Douglas’s engineers began working with specifications developed by American Airlines for an aircraft with sleeping berths that could provide American’s passengers with overnight transcontinental sleeper service. Stretching and enlarging of the DC-2 created a new aircraft, the DC-3. Because of its combination of operating performance, passenger comfort, and operating costs, the DC-3 quickly became the most widely used passenger airplane in the world. C. R. Smith, president of American Airlines, commenting on his company’s high regard for the DC-3, said that it was “the first airplane in the world that could make money just by hauling passengers.”

In February, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt abruptly canceled all existing airmail Airmail contracts and transferred airmail operations to the Army Air Corps. The service, hampered by continuing and worsening budgetary reductions, was anxious to demonstrate its capabilities to Congress and the American public. Tragically, during the Army’s four months of airmail operation, sixty-six crashes took place, with twelve fatalities, three of which occurred as Army pilots were en route to their assigned origination points. As the Army was preparing to fly the mail, the DC-1 was used to demonstrate the capabilities of airlines and their new aircraft. In a highly publicized demonstration flight only hours before the Army was to take over airmail carriage, TWA’s Jack Frye and Eastern’s Eddie Rickenbacker flew the DC-1 from Burbank Air Terminal near Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in slightly more than thirteen elapsed hours, with two refueling stops, at Kansas City, Missouri, and Columbus, Ohio. The flight’s success did much to convince the American public of the efficiency and capability of the nation’s airlines.

Although airmail contracts were again awarded to private carriers after June 1, 1934, the Roosevelt administration’s change of heart resulted not from the February DC-1 demonstration flight of Frye and Rickenbacker but instead from growing public displeasure with the Army’s obvious inability to sustain the airmail operation: Its inexperienced pilots flew virtually obsolete aircraft. Contractually, the airlines had been receiving from 42 to 54 cents per mile for airmail carriage, but the cost to the taxpayer of the Army’s operation was put at $2.21 per mile, an unacceptable difference.

In June, with the contract situation resolved and airlines again carrying the mail, TWA began operating DC-2’s on its overnight service from Newark to Los Angeles, with intermediate stops at Chicago, Kansas City, and Albuquerque. At the same time, American Airlines, American Airlines on its overnight transcontinental service, was operating a sleeper version of the Curtiss Condor, a twelve- to fifteen-passenger, twin-engine airplane that was the last bi-wing air transport in commercial service in the United States. After TWA quickly gained a competitive edge with its DC-2’s, American began looking for a replacement aircraft for the Condor, one capable of carrying a greater payload at a faster speed and at lower operating costs. American’s search began and ended at Douglas Aircraft.

With American’s order for an upgraded version of the DC-2 that could accommodate sleeper berths, Douglas realized that this new model, the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST), would essentially be a new airplane. The fuselage, enlarged to accommodate sleeper berths, could be fitted with twenty-one seats, and this new, larger version’s operating performance still handily exceeded that of the two-year-old DC-2’s. Although Douglas’s development costs for its DC-3 series reached $400,000, prospects for sales of this series were strong enough to assuage most concerns. American Airlines was so pleased by the combination of passenger comfort, performance, and operating costs that over the next few years, at a cost of $110,000 per plane, its aircraft fleet gradually was converted exclusively to DC-3’s. This revolutionary airplane’s payload capacity, gross weight, and operating performance exceeded those of any other aircraft then in commercial operation.

The DC-3 became an instant success with the airlines and their passengers. Although the DC-2 had proven successful, Douglas decided to terminate further production when it became evident that the DC-3 would outperform its predecessor rather significantly, and at lower operating costs. Up to that point, Douglas had built a total of 191 DC-2’s and had recouped all of its development costs with production of the seventy-fifth aircraft. The success of the DC series caused Boeing to terminate its B-247 line after the production of its seventy-fifth aircraft. William Boeing’s revolutionary new transport had been in production for less than three years.

A DC-3 in flight in 1959.

(Library of Congress)

In the meantime, a provision of the 1934 Air Mail Act Air Mail Act (1934) prohibited any interlocking of airlines with aircraft-manufacturing companies, a practice common up to that time. As a result, United Air Lines was freed of dependence on Boeing as its principal aircraft supplier, and United’s new president, W. E. Patterson, immediately contacted Douglas. United’s primary transport, the Boeing B-247, could not match the DC-3’s carrying capacity, performance, or cost. Patterson realized that he needed to upgrade United’s fleet quickly, and as a result, over the next few years United became almost exclusively a DC-3 airline. Eastern Air Lines quickly followed suit. It was becoming obvious to the entire industry that this new Douglas transport was revolutionizing air travel throughout the world.

American Airlines, the first operator of the new DC-3 series, began taking delivery of both versions in mid-1936. It put its first DC-3, a sleeper version, into regular line service on June 25, 1936. Most aviation chroniclers consider that day to have marked the beginning of a new era in air transportation, one that marked an end to airline operations that had been delivering, at best, only marginal profits on an irregular basis. The DC-3 and its predecessor the DC-2 proved so popular with the traveling public that within the first calendar year following the DC-3’s introduction and first flight, one million passengers had flown on scheduled airlines in the United States. This total would grow significantly each year; after doubling within two years, it exceeded two million in 1939. Douglas originally had estimated a total sales volume of fifty DC-3’s, but because of the airline’s popularity with travelers and operators alike, a total of 803 eventually were built. In addition, almost 10,400 military versions of the DC-3—known as the C-47—saw service during World War II.


In the years following the Army’s around-the-world flight in 1924 with Douglas-built airplanes, the company continued designing and building mostly military aircraft, but TWA’s 1931 accident in Kansas had the ironic result of revolutionizing air travel by presenting Douglas with an opportunity to enter the commercial aircraft market. TWA needed a new type of aircraft that could exceed the performance capabilities of the Boeing B-247, which was about to be introduced by its chief competitor, United Air Lines. The B-247 gave United a definite competitive advantage over TWA, with its older and slower trimotors, but that advantage lasted only for little more than one year. On August 22, 1932, Jack Frye, seeking a new and competitive airplane for TWA, solicited proposals by sending letters containing the airline’s detailed specifications to six aircraft manufacturing companies. Donald Douglas later would refer to Frye’s letter as the “birth certificate of the modern airliner.”

The DC-3 revolutionized commercial air travel throughout the world. Its well-deserved reputation for reliability and safety attracted more and more people to air travel. Within two years of the first DC-3 commercial flight, a significant industry milestone was reached when, for the first time, passenger revenues exceeded airmail revenues. From an airline standpoint, the DC-3 offered a virtually unbeatable combination of revenue potential and low operating costs. It is little wonder that by 1939, 90 percent of the world’s airlines were using the Douglas DC-3, a plane that unquestionably changed airline travel forever. Airplanes;DC-3[DC 3] Airline industry Aviation;airplanes Transportation;air Douglas Aircraft Company

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blistein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. An excellent first stop for those looking for information about the history of aviation in the United States. Comprehensive and very readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glines, Carroll V., and Wendell F. Moseley. The DC-3: The Story of a Fabulous Airplane. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1966. An excellent account of the DC-3’s evolution, although much more emphasis is placed on its military service in World War II than on its role in the commercial airline industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holden, Henry M. The Boeing 247: The First Modern Commercial Airplane. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: TAB Books, 1991. Interesting account of the development of the DC-3’s primary competitor, Boeing’s B-247, and the DC-3’s effect on Boeing and its pride and joy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Robert E. Airway One. Chicago: United Air Lines, 1974. Written by a longtime member of United Air Lines’ top management, this is one of the better corporate narratives. Includes an interesting look at United’s developmental years and its changeover from a Boeing B-247 airline to a DC-3 airline.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kane, Robert M. Air Transportation. 11th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1993. Primarily a college-level aviation textbook. Includes some interesting information on the early airline period and the evolution of the DC-3.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrison, Wilbur H. Donald W. Douglas: A Heart with Wings. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991. An excellent account of the DC-3’s development, seen as one of the landmark accomplishments of this aviation pioneer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pattillo, Donald M. Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. An excellent resource for those looking for a survey history of the American aerospace industry. Makes clear the relationships between the aircraft industry and the military and economic power structures and is careful to avoid overly technical language.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pisano, Dominick A. “The Crash That Killed Knute Rockne.” Air & Space Smithsonian 6 (December, 1991): 88. A fascinating narrative of the accident that would lead TWA to request proposals for a new airplane that ultimately would become the revolutionary DC-3.

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Categories: History