- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

DC-3: A LEGEND IN HER TIME
By Bruce McAllister
Roundup Press, $49.95, 250 pages, illustrated

This lavishly illustrated volume pays homage to an undeniably remarkable aircraft that gave yeoman service in peace and in war and which, astonishingly, is still in service 75 years after the first one appeared. Since then, according to this book, more than 10,500 have been built in the United States and thousands more in Russia and even Japan.

Bruce McAllister, an experienced pilot as well as a writer and photographer, writes that only a handful of years after it entered service, “in the late 1930s, 95 percent of all U.S. passengers were flying in DC-3s. By the time the world became engulfed in conflict, the workhorse was carrying nine out of every 10 international airline passengers. Today, after 75 years, around the world people can still take sightseeing rides in the DC-3. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, one can still buy tickets to fly [on one] between Hay River and Yellowknife.”

During World War II, the DC-3 was such a workhorse that none other than Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower hailed it as one of the four keys to U.S. victory, along with the jeep, the bulldozer and the 2-ton truck.

The book contains countless evocative photographs of this aircraft’s distinctive exteriors in many incarnations and liveries. Unfortunately, there are too few of its interior. What we do have is tantalizing and makes one wish for more coverage of this surprisingly comfortable cabin. One would like to see more variations of this space and those sleeping berths, familiar from so many Hollywood movies of the period.

It is hardly surprising in a celebratory volume like this to encounter hyperbole, as when the author baldly hails this aircraft as “the world’s most practical and successful airplane of all-time, the Douglas DC-3.” It is not merely the contrarian in me that makes me snarl, “Says who?” on encountering a statement as sweeping as that one. One is tempted to refer Mr. McAllister to the name Boeing, whose highly successful 707 and 747 models have given the DC-3 a run for its money over many decades of superior service.

Though obviously neither can yet claim a similar three-quarters of a century of longevity, it has been more than half a century since the 707 began to fly and 40 years for the 747 - pretty impressive stuff, too.

Even sticking closer to the DC-3’s own era, it always has seemed to me that a byproduct of its receiving a great deal of what is admittedly its due has been to overshadow its immediate successor on the Douglas production line, the DC-4, or Skymaster, as it was sometimes known.

Although many regard the DC-3 as the first modern airliner, it is, I would argue, rather the last gasp of the first generation of passenger aircraft. This is partly because of its lack of pressurization and even more because of its old-fashioned feature of a small tail-dragging wheel under its back that gave the nose a sharp upward tilt when the plane was on the ground. Only in flight did it level out. The Skymaster stood level, as have subsequent airliners, and eliminating that upward climb, which I remember so well from my first flight, has always seemed to me to have been part of setting a key direction forward in the evolution of passenger aircraft.

And if the DC-3, in its military incarnation as the C-47, did indeed play a key role in World War II and subsequently, including the Berlin airlift, so did the DC-4. Indeed, so many of its military version, known as the C-54, had been produced that when, suitably converted, they came onto the postwar civil-aviation market, they so flooded it that the company had a hard time producing many of the civilian incarnation for which it originally had been developed.

Although it is undeniably a remarkable feat that the DC-3 is still flying 75 years after it first appeared, even this admiring book contains a starkly realistic description by a pilot:

“The C-47 groaned, it protested, it rattled, it leaked oil, it ran hot, it ran cold, it ran rough, it staggered along on hot days and scared you half to death, its wings flexed and twisted in a horrifying manner, it sank to earth with a great sigh of relief - but it flew and it flew and it flew.”

The DC-3 has always seemed to me to be akin to another transportation evergreen that rolled off the production line at about the same time: the original Volkswagen Beetle. You see it, too, still rattling about sometimes, and like the vibrating DC-3, in the end it inevitably reminds one more about how far we have come since its birth than what a marvelous achievement it was.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.