The DC-3 has been known to do some impossible feats. Built to carry 21 passengers, one routinely carried 40 in the Philippines. On flights from Australia to New Guinea, Qantas rigged its DC-3s with slings and carried 50 people.
Another DC-3 carried 76 people out of war torn China, including 21 fully equipped Chinese soldiers, 15 women, 22 children, 15 Chinese civilians, the pilot, copilot, and Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who was returning from the raid over Japan. They removed the seats (allowing for an additional 550 pounds of weight), and the passengers sat on each other's lap, rode in the waist and forward mail compartments, and stood in the aisle. Doolittle remarked to the pilot that, if he had known he was crazy enough to take off with so many people he would have walked home. In later years Doolittle recalled, “I wasn't worried about the number of people on board, I worried about running out of gas.”
In 1949, a DC-3 carried 93 people out of an earthquake-ravaged Bolivian village. Many were small children, but it is still a feat that defied the designer's slide rule.
Twenty-five years later, the DC-3 broke its own record again. On March 23, 1975, a Continental Air Services DC-3 flew from Ku Lat, Vietnam to Saigon with 98 orphan children, five attendants, and three air crew, a total of 106 people.
A few of the airlines in the United States continued to use the DC-3 even after jets were on the scene. Some airlines began to notice they were flying high-timers.
Eastern Airlines' DC-3s accumulating 2,227,863 hours of flying time, logging 83,584,318 miles, the equivalent of 3,343 times around the world or the distance between the earth and moon, 350 times.
The first formal recognition the DC-3 had earned a permanent place in aviation history came with the installation of Eastern Airlines' NC18124, into the Smithsonian Institution in 1952. This airplane had logged 56,758 hours flying 8 1/2 million miles between July 1937 and January 1952. It spent the equivalent of six and one half years in the air. That airplane is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum.
Delta Air Lines' first DC-3, purchased in 1942, was also the last retired in 1960. It had accumulated 56,200 hours, and flew 8,430,000 miles, equal to roughly 19 round trips to the Moon, and had carried 400,000 passengers.
North Central's N21728, “Old 728,” logged 84,875 hours before its retirement in May 1975. Eastern Airlines took delivery of N21728 on April 11, 1939. It logged 51,398 hours over a 13 year period, then Eastern sold it to North Central Airlines for $35,000. It spent another 31,634 hours in scheduled service (through April 1965) and logged another 1843 hours (through 1975) as a VIP aircraft for North Central.
North Central estimates “728” spent more than 9 1/2 years in the air and covered over 12 million miles, the equivalent of 25 trips to the moon and back. At 185 miles per hour, each one-way trip would take roughly 54 days (compared with three days it took the Apollo astronauts).
During its career, “Old 728” had 136 engine changes, its landing gear was replaced 550 times, and it used over 25,000 spark plugs, to burn eight million gallons of gasoline. This DC-3 had taxied more than 100,000 miles and carried 260 million passengers in its 36-years of service.
Although many “old timers” had their share of bumps and bruises, “Old 728” never suffered even a minor mishap. Today, it is sitting quietly at the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan. Critics have said that everything but its shadow has been replaced. This is not true. “Old 728's” airframe was still 90 percent factory issue when it retired.
There is another point of view. Isn't the essence of life a continuing renewal? All living things are constantly shedding dead cells and tissue, and replacing them with new ones. For many, the DC-3 has taken on a life form. Those who have flown it, or had their lives depend on it, will agree, it is more than simply a machine.
North Central was characteristic of the regional airline's reliance on the DC-3. It began operations in 1948 with three, 10-passenger Lockheed 10A Electras. As North Central grew, they replaced the Lockheeds with DC-3s. By 1956, their 33-plane fleet of DC-3s was the backbone of their service, flying more than 8.2 million miles over a route system of scarcely 3,000 miles.
North Central relied on the DC-3 because of its proven reliability. Many of their routes had severe sub-zero weather conditions during the winter, and the DC-3 had proven during the war to be dependable under those conditions.
By 1967, North Central entered the jet age with the acquisition of its first DC-9 jet. Eight years later, the last DC-3 flew proudly into the sunset.
As long as a DC-3 is flying it will continue to break records. One example of a long standing record thought to be insurmountable was North Central Airline's 84,000 hour DC-3. The new record holder was not sitting in some museum but was a bonafide, operational DC-3, on a scheduled U.S. airline.
In February 1968, PBA purchased its first two DC-3s, N-32PB and P-33PB, both ex USAAF C-47s. For the next twelve years, PBA expanded their DC-3 fleet, and by 1986, had 12 DC-3s, the largest fleet of DC-3s flying commercial passenger service in the United States at the time.
On August 27, 1981, at 4:04 p.m., PBA broke North Central's record. PBA's N136PB flying as flight 1940, from Hyannis to Boston, with 18 passengers aboard, reached 84,876 hours of air time.
PBA went out of business in 1988, and the high-time DC-3 took a long awaited rest in a hangar in Hyannis, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1993, two men, Neil Rose and Bob Irvine, from Vancouver, Washington, bought the ship and flew it west. They are currently restoring it to its original 1937 Eastern Air Lines configuration and livery. In August 1993, it had 91,400.2 hours on the airframe.13 It has been in the air the equivalent of more than 10 and a half years, and has a record only another DC-3 will ever match. Each day it flies it breaks its own record adding a little more to this insurmountable achievement .
©Copyright Henry M. Holden