Flagship Detroit—The Oldest Flying DC-3

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Three, Gooney Bird, Doug, Dakota, Diesel-3, Douglas Racer—no matter what it’s called, one can legitimately argue that the most influential airplane on commercial aviation was the Douglas DC-3. The oldest one flying has been restored as it was when it was an American Airlines Flagship.

Be sure to catch our video of the Flagship Detroit at Sun 'n Fun 2014.

Three, Gooney Bird, Doug, Dakota, Diesel-3, Douglas Racer—no matter what it’s called, one can legitimately argue that the most influential airplane on commercial aviation was the Douglas DC-3. It was the first airliner with operating costs low enough to allow a profit in all-passenger service (previously, a contract to carry the mail was essential to make money on any route). Flown by virtually every airline in the world, its combination of power, payload, speed and ability to operate from almost any surface (they were put on skis and floats) meant that for nearly two decades the DC-3 was the ubiquitous airliner; after that it became the ubiquitous freighter. Even now, with the lower operating costs of turbines taking over the freight business, there are still DC-3s working for a living throughout the world. It was one of the few airplanes where the design proved to be precisely right.

American Airlines was the largest user, buying some 114 DC-3s and DSTs (a briefly built sleeper version, which had berths that converted to beds—DSTs had a set of narrow windows for the upper berths, above the main cabin windows). That it was the largest airline user of the DC-3 may also have been because American’s president C.R. Smith was the driving force in convincing a reluctant Donald Douglas, chief of Douglas Aircraft, to build the DC-3 when Douglas was coining money producing the DC-2. The first DC-3 flew on December 17, 1935, the 32nd anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The oldest one still flying, the Flagship Detroit, became a flagship when was delivered to American Airlines 15 months later, beginning a decade of service with the airline.

A Flagship

All American Airliners were flagships. They heralded their presence on an airport by the copilot opening his cockpit window and inserting a flagstaff bearing an American Airlines flag into a socket just outside the window immediately after landing. The arrival or departure of an American Airliner was never to be a humdrum event—it took place with flag flying. And woe to the copilot who forgot to insert the flag after landing; or worse yet, remove it before takeoff.

As is the case with most DC-3s, the Flagship Detroit’s subsequent history was a journey through many of the aeronautical uses to which a former airliner may be put and descent into the more financially perilous end of the commercial aviation spectrum—where maintenance is a sometime thing and the true risk the airplane faces is either being cut up for beer cans or flown into a mountainside by a crew so hungry it made the flight against its better weather judgment.

By 2004, the airplane that had once provided luxury service to American Airlines customers had tanks for insecticide in its cabin, spray booms behind its wings and was being used as an aerial applicator in a local war against mosquitoes.

Flagship Detroit Foundation

It was located and purchased by the Flagship Detroit Foundation, formed by former and current American Airline employees determined to find and restore the oldest former American Airlines DC-3 it could. After years of work, the Flagship Detroit again wears American Airlines’ livery, down to the socket for the flagstaff adjacent to the copilot’s window.

Its polished aluminum exterior utterly gleaming, the Flagship Detroit now travels around the country to airshows, giving visitors an opportunity to see how air travel was 75 years ago, when a New York (Newark, really) – Los Angeles round-trip ticket sold for $4,500 in today’s dollars. Flown mostly by retired American Airlines pilots (most of whom never flew an airplane with a propeller on it during their airline careers but flew DC-3s and its military version, the C-47, as freighters before getting an airline job), the Flagship Detroit is lovingly maintained by volunteers.

The interior reflects the “two and one” seating of DC-3s of the era, two seats on one side of the aisle, one seat on the other. Designers selected the colors for all parts of the interior with concern for comfort of the passenger at the top of the list. They knew that a huge portion of the passengers were frightened at the idea of making a flight, so the colors were to be as reassuring as possible—as well as selected to avoid creating nausea. There are no greens in the cabin.

Right Side Door

The entry door is on the right side of the airplane, specified by American Airlines’ president C.R. Smith for reasons said to range from keeping the airplane consistent with terminal facilities that had been set up for the Fokker and Ford Trimotors and Curtiss Condors—in some cases the airplanes taxied into large hangars for unloading and loading—to Smith not wanting his wealthy passengers to see baggage smashers loading and unloading their expensive luggage through the relatively small baggage door on the left side of the fuselage. Nevertheless, seeing a DC-3 that does not have a large double cargo door (standard on the C-47 and a frequent conversion on DC-3s) is rare enough—seeing one with a passenger door on the right means the odds are good it was one of American Airlines’ earliest DC-3s.

In a concession to reality, the panel has current instruments rather than the primitive blind-flying panel installed at the factory. While thousands of pilots flew IFR behind those panels, not all of the attempts were successful—and this airplane is intended to fly for many years to come.

The crew seats put the pilots’ noses almost against the windshield, a feature that surprises modern pilots, but also makes for startlingly good visibility from behind a relatively small amount of glass—and allows practicing IFR ops by the astonishingly simple expedient of putting a strip of cardboard about four inches against the bottom portion of the pilot’s windshield.

Much of the cockpit is restored to how it would have looked when the airplane rolled out of Douglas’ Santa Monica factory—not plush, a place where professionals worked. It was definitely a two-pilot airplane—some of the controls, such as the cowl flaps, are placed where only the copilot can reach them. The landing gear levers (there are two of them—and you have to operate them in a complicated sequence, correctly, or risk jamming the gear partially extended) are on the floor next to the left side of the copilot’s seat.

The baggage compartment between the cockpit and cabin is there, big as life, as is its access door—the hamburger door. That name came from hard experience; the door opens only inches from the left prop.

Wright Engines

Although most DC-3s eventually wound up with Pratt and Whitney engines, the Flagship Detroit has Wright Cyclones—as it did when it was built, only now they put out more power. In 1937 the Cyclone developed 1,000 HP; over the years that went up. The current engines can develop 1,350 HP, but the Foundation has decided to limit them to 1,200 HP in operation. At $45,000 a side, that makes sense. Unlike modern opposed aircraft engines which are designed to be run at full power for extended periods of time and can be damaged by partial-power takeoffs, the life of a radial can be increased by decreasing the maximum power called for on takeoff.

Flagship Detroit will be traveling to various airshows this year—look at the Foundation’s website for the calendar. Membership in the Foundation is $150 and helps keep the classic flying. It also entitles you to a ride in the airplane.

Currently, the Foundation is without a hangar—for years it had space donated in a large hangar, but the hangar is no more and the Foundation is looking for new lodging for the oldest flying DC-3.

Rick Durden is the Features/News Editor of AVweb, is type-rated in the DC-3 and is the author of the book, The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual Or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vol. I.