The Douglas Commercial 3 (DC-3) was one of the most mass-produced, well-engineered aircraft in history. Built to last, to land anywhere and never to break, Douglas churned out more than 11,000 of the type before and during World War II. But how many of these 80-year-old aircraft are still flying today?
The 80-year old aircraft that will never die
For an aircraft that was built before the Second World War, you’d be forgiven for assuming most would have been retired by now. So, imagine our surprise when we discovered one had suffered a runway excursion in Colombia in August 2020. Out of interest, we thought we’d take a look at how many DC-3 are still accounted for right now.
According to information kindly shared by Michael Prophet and compiled by Coert Munk for the DC-3 Appreciation Society, there are an estimated 164 DC-3 in all variants flying on a regular basis. This includes military variants (the C-47 and Dakota) as well as those in commercial operation.
Michael notes that none are in regular passenger operation, although some are used for charter/enthusiast flights from time to time. Judging by the fact the Aliansa aircraft had 13 passengers on board, it seems some are perhaps used for special charters in this developing country too.
The bulk of the operational DC-3 fleet is in North America. 89 registrations are thought to be active in the US, with a further 19 in Canada. Australia is home to six of the type, while South Africa has around 16 registered as active. The UK has just three.
Some of the bigger fleets are found in developing countries, however. Colombia, home to Aliansa, has 17 registered models (16 active). Thailand is a hot spot too, with seven confirmed in existence. Elsewhere, Bolivia, China, France, India, Mauritania and New Zealand have between one and three aircraft a piece.
Some DC-3s are still flying today, either with enthusiasts or as cargo aircraft in remote locations. Photo: Getty Images
The ruggedness and bulletproof reliability of the DC-3 has made it strangely relevant to today’s missions, despite its 80-plus years of age. It can land on grass and dirt runways with ease, and requires a surprisingly conservative runway length, making it popular in developing countries.
Some have even been converted to turboprops, using the Rolls-Royce Dart engine or the Pratt & Whitney PT6A powerplant. Munk’s research suggests that around 33% of the DC-3s had turboprop engines. Others are kept flying through salvaged spare parts and new old stock. The over-engineered nature of the DC-3 means many of the spare parts manufactured for it in the ’30s were never used, so there’s a surprising stock still around.
Munk also notes that a number of DC-3s have been refurbished in recent times. In 2020, around seven were believed to be undergoing preparations to fly again.
The most popular pre-war plane
In its heyday, the Douglas Commercial 3 (DC-3) was flown by a range of interesting airlines. Air France, Swissair, and Aer Lingus were some major European customers, but the real home of the DC-3 was in the United States.
The aircraft was operated by all manner of US airlines, some of whom are still with us today, others who succumbed to consolidation following deregulation of the industry. Notable operators included Delta Air Lines, Braniff Airways, Hawaiian Air Lines, Eastern Air Lines, Pan Am, and of course, United.
When aviation was young, ICAN helped connect Europe and North America. Photo: Getty Images
American Airlines was instrumental in the development of the DC-3, and along with TWA, Delta and United, it ordered an entire fleet of the type. The aircraft married reliability with comfort and performance, and quickly became the go-to model for long-distance flying.
Aircraft fleets expanded significantly in the 1930s and 1940s. Photo: Getty Images
It truly proved its worth during World War II, when it was the most widely used military transport, flying as the C-47 for the US Army Air Corps. It also found a place with the US Navy as the R4D, as well as the Marine Corps and Royal Air Force as the Dakota. So prevalent was the DC-3, President Dwight Ike Eisenhower named it one of the four most important things that won the war.
In 2019, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a mass take-off of 35 DC-3s was orchestrated from Duxford Aerodrome in the UK to Normandy. It was the largest assembly of the Douglas aircraft since WWII and something that must have been breathtaking to see.
Have you ever seen a DC-3 in action? Ever had the pleasure to fly in one? Let us know in the comments.