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The Little Airplane That Could : Lots of Love Lavished on the Low-Tech DC-3 : Douglas Plane Celebrating 50 Years in the Air

February 24, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

There's a new, quieter, unassuming breed of professional pilot. He flies in smooth obedience of every book and all the numbers. He went to college for two years, dates one woman at a time, doesn't smoke, plays racquetball and at journey's end it's a Coors Light before dinner: a cheeseburger at Carl's Jr.

"Sometimes I think I'm too careful," concedes one. "But then I want to be around a long time."

Dwindling now, retiring by daily dozens, is the older, lustier guard. Some still wear leather jackets (Type A-2 . . . U.S. Army Air Forces) and fly with hangovers that would drop a horse.

Bending the Rules

Others bounce between continents where strange loads call for airplane drivers with high experience, no questions, and horseshoes in their hip pockets. It's a life of navigator jokes, multiple divorces and a bowl of Camels for breakfast.

"We used to break our necks to take off and get the job done, even if it did mean bending the rules," remembers a 20,000-hour airline veteran. "The kids today, sharp as they are, are different cats who ask: 'Are we legal to go yet?' "

Generations apart. Few wisdoms could reduce such worlds of aviation difference. Except a certain airplane. Except one still flown by both young hawks and gray eagles. . . .

California-Born

Except, a ubiquitous, waddling, indefatigable, stubborn, tail-dragging, valorous, abused, forgiving, splendid, drafty, adored, California-born, immortal tugboat of an airplane called the Douglas DC-3 that this year celebrates a half century of flight and another coup among countless achievements:

The DC-3 is the only airplane to have outlived its early pilots and outflown their sons and will doubtless outlast the grandsons who are just learning to fly it.

And to focus this year's birthday, say the disciples, consider that this twin-engined transport is being celebrated not as a relic of transportation past, not as some carefully garaged Bugatti or a stored steam locomotive rolled out for a commemorative Sunday afternoon, but as a 50-year-old workhorse airplane that just won't stop carrying passengers, hauling freight, fighting wars or piling up accomplishments.

"You can't kill it with an ax," said Patricia Madera, a Texas airfreight operator. . . .

"Bless her heart, the finest piece of machinery ever put in the sky," enthused Jim Ardy, a 59-year-old airline captain from Phoenix. . . .

"Safer than a crutch," said Dave Elliott, a retired air force colonel from Manhattan Beach. . . .

"I've flown it on one engine, no engines, and out of situations where in any other airplane I'd have been a headline," added Bob Stevens of Fallbrook, aviation cartoonist and ex-military pilot. . . .

"I've probably had more fun with this airplane than with my wife," grinned another flier. He requested anonymity to avoid a divorce. Then he got serious. "Now, if they'd built a DC-3 that could kiss back. . . ."

-- -- --

The wonderful stories began with day one, Dec. 17, 1935, at Santa Monica . . . when nobody showed up to witness the first takeoff of the DC-3, let along photograph it.

Subsequent yarns are a constant brag about the airplane's indestructibility. It has hit Arizona mountains and flown home with 12 feet missing from one wing; crash-landed on the Pacific Ocean only to countermand its pilot by bouncing 50 feet into the air and continue flying; flown out of a jungle strip wearing a replacement wing from a different airplane; landed itself, undamaged, after the crew bailed out; and stayed aloft following a collision with a Japanese fighter. The fighter, incidentally, crashed.

Indestructible? Shortly after World War II, the fuselage of a wrecked DC-3 was converted into an Australian diner. It was recognized several years later, purchased and returned to the air as a replacement fuselage for another DC-3.

Omnipresent? The airplane has carried at least eight numerical designations including R4D (U.S. Navy) and Li2 (Russian Air Force) and 10 nicknames, including Gooney Bird, Dakota, Dizzy Three, Skytrain and The Beast, an odd title from the usually romantic French navy.

35,000 Spark Plugs

Durable? In "Dakota," a recent entry in the huge library of DC-3 volumes (with four more in preparation for the golden anniversary), author Jacques Berge tells of a DC-3 that left the Douglas factory in 1942. Logbooks of the airplane (still in service with the French navy) show that it has used up 700 tires, 35,000 spark plugs and 160 engines.

A DC-3 evacuated then Col. Jimmy Doolittle from China after his famed raid on Tokyo, was the first airplane to land at the North Pole and the South Pole, and when Eastern Airlines purchased '3s in 1936, director Eddie Rickenbacker signed the receipts.

John Wayne owned one. So did Cary Grant. Until a year ago, according to Federal Aviation Administration listings, a TravolAir of Beverly Hills was the registered owner of DC-3 N500A. That corporate name covers the identity of actor-pilot John Travolta.

Even failures of the DC-3 have added something to its aura.

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