How The DC-3 Changed Air Travel Forever

The Douglas DC-3 is widely regarded as one of the most important developments in commercial passenger aviation. Entering service way back in 1936, the Douglas DC-3 immediately showed its capabilities as a passenger aircraft. Alongside its military counterpart, the C-47 Skytrain/C-53 Skytrooper, the Douglas DC-3 remained in operation in many different capacities for decades. Below we’ll explain why the Douglas DC-3 was so important.

A Douglas DC-3
The Douglas DC-3 became the first commercially viable passenger-only airliner. Photo: Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr

The Douglas DC-3 was developed at the request of American Airlines CEO, C.R. Smith. Smith wanted a long-distance sleeper aircraft which would allow American Airlines to transport passengers across the US.

The Douglas DC-3 was developed on the existing platform of its predecessors, the Douglas DC-1 and DC-2. It was larger than these previous models, coming in both 21-seater ‘daytime’ airliner and 14-16 berth sleeper versions.

Immediately upon release with American Airlines on 26 June 1936, the Douglas DC-3 proved itself to be a step above any other commercial passenger aircraft released to date.

Other airlines in America, Europe and even further afield soon recognized the DC-3’s capabilities.

By the time the second world war broke out, the DC-3 was in use around the world.

What made the DC-3 such a success?

Before the DC-3 came along, airlines were still struggling to make long-distance passenger aircraft a commercial success.

The Douglas DC-3’s predecessor, the DC-2, had made good progress towards airlines’ goal of an aircraft which could transport more than 10 passengers over considerable distances. But it still wasn’t ideal.

One problem with the DC-2 was the size of its cabin, which was too narrow to fit side-by-side berths.

A Douglas DC-2
The Douglas DC-2 laid the groundwork for the DC-3. Photo: SDASM Archives via Flickr

The Douglas DC-3 was built with an extra 60 cm of cabin width, which allowed airlines to fit in more seats and sleeper berths for long-distance journeys.

It was also fitted with much more powerful Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines, which each produced 1,200 hp. By comparison, the DC-2 was fitted with two engines ranging from 710 to 875 hp.

The upgraded engines allowed the Douglas DC-3 to cruise at 207 mph which, although sluggish in today’s terms, was very impressive for an airliner of its size back in the 1930s.

The Douglas DC-3 could also operate on short runways and had a range of 1,500 miles. This made it perfect for transcontinental flights across the US and Europe.

The Douglas DC-3’s military career

Because of its reliability, simplicity and adaptability, the Douglas DC-3 was soon called into action when World War Two broke out.

The DC-3 was modified for military use, primarily as the C-47 Skytrain. A specialized troop transport version, called the C-53 Skytrooper, was also built.

A C-47 Skytrain
The Douglas DC-3 became a war hero in the form of the C-47 Skytrain. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons

The C-47 Skytrain served extensively for the Allies during World War Two, transporting cargo, troops and various other supplies.

But the C-47 Skytrain’s military career did not end with victory in World War Two. It went on to serve in the Vietnam War, where some examples were modified to operate as minigun-equipped gunships.

Remarkably, the C-47 Skytrain remained in service with the US military until 2008, when the 6th Special Operations Squadron retired its last C-47, a British-made C-47 Dakota.

While the C-47 Skytrain has left military service, there are many Douglas DC-3s still in operation in a civilian capacity around the world.