Just Another DC-3

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Copyright 2014 – Mark H Goodrich

It was the 1960s and I was working as the fixed-base operator and airport manager at three small airports in Iowa. One was “on” the Mississippi River, which is to say, on the border between Iowa and Illinois. Buying and selling airplanes was an important part of the business, and I quickly learned that the money was made buying the right airplane for the right price. When purchased for the right price, selling an airplane for a profit was easy. But, regardless of how nice the airplane was, when the price paid was too high, selling for any profit was all but impossible.

The fixed-base business in the middle west was very seasonal. When the weather was bad, training, fuel sales, airplane sales and maintenance were all somewhere between slow and motionless. A few local customers scheduled annual maintenance for the winter season, but most procrastinated until the very last minute before they needed the airplane for imminent travel in the spring. There was enough charter and flight instruction to keep a core group of pilots working, but keeping mechanics busy was always problematic. The best long-term solution was to purchase airplanes in the fall that needed extensive maintenance, repair or overhaul, thereby keeping the maintenance staff busy through the winter season. But in the short term, more stress was placed on cash flow by that process, which inherently required that cash be advanced for the airplane, parts, and labor. Like the farmers that comprised a large part of our customer base, we were treading water on credit until our crop could be sold. In those days before local governments began wasting money to hire full-time managers for even small airports, it was the modest cash income received every month for airport management and maintenance – liaison with state and national aviation authorities, cutting grass, moving snow and keeping the lights in working order – that provided a subsistence level existence for FBO employees through the winter months.

It made sense to work cooperatively with other operators. In charter work, we supported and were supported by others in our area. And in airplane sales, working together had the effect of broadening both sales inventories and territories. It was in this particular aspect that Louie McCollum – known throughout the aviation industry as “Watcha” McCollum of Danville, Illinois – and I interacted. Louie was a character – many would say “rounder” – who was generally unrestrained by laws, regulations or truth. But, he talked with people all over the world, as evidenced by a telephone bill that ran into the thousands every month, and he bought and sold a lot of airplanes.

Louie had a seven-page airline transport pilot’s certificate listing type ratings for most large airplanes built from the 1930s through the 1960s. Like most of us in those days, his letter of authorization (LOA) from the regulator additionally allowed the operation of just about everything that was not turbine-powered, reading, “for non-commercial purposes, all single and multi-engine reciprocating-powered airplanes with individual engine displacement up to and including 4360 cubic inches.” Turbine-powered airplanes required an individual LOA, but those were easily obtainable by experienced pilots. Louie specialized in the sale of ex-airline and ex-military types. His ramp was routinely populated with a menagerie of such airplanes, ranging from fighters (P-51, P-38, F-86), trainers (T-6, T-28, T-33), bombers (B-17, B-18, A-26, B-26, B-24, B-25), cargo types (C-45, C-46, C-47, C-119, C-123), airline types (Martin 404, Convair 240/340/440, DC-3, DC-4, DC-6), utility types (PBY, SA-16) and executive aircraft (Hansa 320 Jet, Lear Jet, Lodestar, NA-265). In those days, maintenance requirements for large and turbine-powered airplanes were stringent only for use in commercial service, and it was under our LOAs that we ferried, tested and demonstrated.

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Louie was a “natural” pilot. He could fly anything, so long as the airplane and systems worked in relatively normal fashion. Unfortunately, his absence of respect for regulations extended into also ignoring placards, limitations, manuals, checklists, procedures and everything else that one would generally describe as “good operating practices and judgment”. He was instead one of those “show me an airplane and I’ll fly the crate it came in around the patch” type guys. As a result, he was too often required to rely upon his natural handling skills to escape close calls that were caused in the first instance by his inattention to detail and inherent propensity for risk-taking. One dark night some twenty years later, his last flight would abruptly end as a result of that very propensity.

And so it was that one afternoon my telephone rang, and Louie asked me to retrieve a DC-3 that he had just purchased in Texas. My penchant for organization and detail kicked in, and I inquired about the airplane model, engine type, maintenance condition and license status. “Hey”, said Louie, “It’s just another DC-3.” He told me that a local mechanic had been hired to oversee the preparation for ferry. “You don’t need a co-pilot,” he said. “Fly down tomorrow morning, and I’ll buy you dinner tomorrow night in Danville.” Whether a two or three-man flight deck, Louie always thought weight in the co-pilot seat was at best ballast.

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I had flown a number of different DC-3s, including many of the myriad model numbers and designators – some 42 models operated by air forces, 11 models operated by navies, and 7 models operated by airlines – used by military services and operators worldwide. It often seemed as though no two of them had ever been built in the same configuration, but the differences had mostly seemed inconsequential to me from the standpoints of system design and operation. I thus readily accepted the “just another DC-3” characterization from Louie as reasonable. I had flown DC-3s with Wright Cyclone and Pratt Wasp powerplants – different models of each variant reflected by dash-numbers after the basic R-1820 and R-1830 designators – and in horsepowers from 875 to 1,200. I had seen several different combinations of standard and auxiliary fuel tanks. Some DC-3s had started with a military service. Others had been “drafted” from and then later returned to airline service after cessation of hostilities. Some had started and ended their carriers in military service. I had even flown one of the “Tabby” models produced in Japan under license before World War II, which sported a fuel dump system and flight deck placards in Japanese. I was aware that the DC-3 had started life as the Douglas Sleeper Transport or DST for American Airlines, and was an improved follow-on to the DC-2, which was originally designated on Douglas documents as the DACoTA, for the Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft. After Transcontinental & Western Airlines (TWA) placed its DC-2s into overnight transcontinental service, Donald Douglas himself was quoted as saying the DC-2 was the airplane that “got us into the Pullman Berth business.” What I did not know then were the differences between the early DST and DC-3 models, and those as subsequently modified to DST-A or DC-3A configurations. I was about to get a crash course in those details.

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The following day my co-pilot and I boarded a series of Braniff, Central and Trans-Texas flights to reach our west Texas destination. The airlines seemed easier when planning the trip, although I was to soon wish that I had instead flown one of our airplanes down with mechanics, tools and parts on board. As our Trans-Texas DC-3 taxied to the terminal, I could see the object of our travel parked on the south side of the airport. Seeing that the cowlings were closed up and there was no apparent activity around the airplane, I foolishly began to think about how quickly we might be able to fuel the airplane and get underway.

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A quick taxi ride around the airport perimeter brought us to the DC-3. No one was around the hangar office, so we went directly to the airplane. As I walked up to it, some differences from what I expected were apparent and others not immediately so. There was no dorsal fillet, the air scoops were substantially smaller than I was used to seeing, and something was different at the wing-to-fuselage juncture. Had I been more knowledgeable about the early history of the DC-3, I would have known those details, the left side entry door and the absence of small berth windows common to the early DST models dated the airplane manufacture to 1936, and probably an early airplane taken by United Air Lines.

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Entering the cabin revealed that all seats had been removed in favor of a cargo floor. A quick look at the Data Plate confirmed the 1936 date of manufacture, and by way of no adjoining Conversion Data Plate, also that the airplane had never been modified to DC-3A configuration. That also explained the absence of an adjoining Military Data Plate, for the military converted to DC-3A configuration and installed an additional data plate when civilian models were mustered into uniform.

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As charitably as I can describe it, the flight deck was “vintage”. The communications radios offered four transmitting options – 121.5 for emergencies, 122.1 for universal flight service station reception, 122.5 for universal control tower reception, and 122.8 for universal unicom reception. Receivers were “coffee grinder” types. A single artificial horizon was in the center of the panel, while airspeed, altimeter and other instruments were scattered in hodge-podge fashion. Microphones and headsets appeared to be original equipment. The absence of a battery switch on the appropriate panel was initially puzzling, until I saw an unusual handle immediately adjacent to the pilot’s seat. Seeing that it featured two large metal clips clearly intended for insertion into holes below in the plywood floor, I pulled the floor board up, revealing a single 12 volt battery. The battery bus was energized by lowering the handle until the two clips engaged the poles on the battery itself. I began thinking about how much cranking power would be available with a 12 volt system. The absence of an electrically-powered hydraulic pump to back up the engine-driven and emergency hand pumps further confirmed the absence of military history, as airplanes “drafted” had been so reconfigured. There were no anti-ice or de-ice systems installed beyond the heated pitot tubes and a valve that could open the static air pressure system to internal cabin air as a source. There would be no icing concerns for the impending flight, but I recalled other DC-3 flights during which my windshield de-ice system consisted of opening the left window and using a hand-scraper. Required equipment for those flights had been several hand-scrapers, as a cold hand often lost the scraper into the prevailing relative wind.

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About that time the mechanic arrived. It took only a minute to learn that he was a general aviation guy with no experience on DC-3 airplanes, and no maintenance data. Indeed, there were no airplane flight manual, maintenance manuals or logbooks on the airplane. He explained that the airplane had been “tied up in litigation” for several years, and he did not know when the engines had last been run. I knew the answer to the next question before I asked, but did so anyway and verified that no special flight permit for a ferry flight had been issued – indeed, no permit had been requested.

It was time to do an “engineering preflight”. Lowering the battery switch handle confirmed that the battery was without power. Opening the caps to the cells further reflected that they were completely dry. Hydraulic quantity was at some level too low to discern from the flight deck sight-gauge, which is of critical importance on the DC-3, as everything from landing gear and flaps to brakes, cowl flaps and windshield wipers are hydraulically-powered. Shop rags were wrapped around the hydraulic actuators for the windshield wipers – the standard prophylactic for trying to save pants and prevent hydraulic fluid burns to the thighs – and red stains from decades of MIL5606-fluid leaks from the actuators and power brake valves were visible all over the floor. I opened the “star valve” and used the hand pump to see if the pressure accumulator could be pressurized. It could not, which meant that the fluid level was below the standpipe, or the accumulator diaphragm had dried out and ruptured.

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The exterior inspection revealed nothing but more bad news. I was now surprised only by the fact that the airplane was not barking and chasing cars. I was also thankful we were in Texas, which has a history of ignoring chemical spills, as the airplane was leaking some type of fluid from every possible source. Both propellers were impossible to move by hand, confirming that the bottom cylinders were hydraulically-locked from engine oil having migrated to the lowest point possible. Compensating struts were not even installed on the gear, which still had huge bungee cords to aid in gear retraction and snub gear extension.

I set my watch back thirty years and called Louie to give him the news. I was going to have to involve the regulator, and obtain the necessary maintenance assistance to bring the airplane up to the condition required for a ferry permit, and to meet my minimum standards for flight. Our previous experience together was enough to prevent Louie from wasting more than a few minutes trying to talk me into doing something illegal, stupid or both.

It was time to find a hotel and buy some clothes, after which I began to track down the airplane paperwork. The airplane had indeed been “tied up in litigation”. Louie had paid the bank that now owned the airplane. Unfortunately, bank personnel neither knew how to release liens filed with the federal aircraft registry, nor understood that the logbooks and manuals in their filing cabinets were critical parts of the airplane. Two hours with the bank president resolved those issues and left me ready to visit with operations and airworthiness inspectors at the local general aviation district office. I anticipated some trouble from the regulators, but when they understood that I wanted to move the airplane legally, and that what they had come to consider a ramp ornament would be leaving Texas, I quickly became a “favorite nephew”. They coordinated with Trans-Texas Airlines – which was operating a fleet of DC-3s – and the following day three mechanics from its central maintenance facility arrived on the morning flight with parts, to join their local line mechanic. Two days later we were running engines, and three days later ready for a “day-visual rules” flight to Danville.

At this point I thought the adventure was mostly over. Although we had an inoperative starter, the experienced DC-3 mechanics rigged up a bungee cord with a leather boot to prop the engine. One generator was also inoperative, but a spare battery behind my seat and some jumper cables from the local hardware store provided a back up in case the other generator quit enroute. The weather was good.

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Takeoff seemed normal, although the lower horsepower and less efficient propellers on the earlier model engines were noticeable, even with an empty airplane. I quickly came to appreciate the value of the wing-to-fuselage fillet modification that was phased into the production airplanes in late 1936, as the difference in aerodynamic performance was significant. But the most striking difference in the way the airplane flew had to do with the control forces on its rudder, and to its lateral and directional stability. Absent the famous dorsal fillet that came to symbolize the DC-3 profile, the short fuselage wallowed its way through the low-altitude turbulence across the prairie. Rudder forces were incredibly light, and I soon realized that early models did not use the anti-servo rudder trim tab linkage added for “rudder feel” to later models and to those that had been modified to the -A configuration. On final approach at Danville, the rudder suddenly swung full left with a “clunk”, and all the force that I could muster was insufficient to move the right rudder pedal off its aft stop. I did not like the thought of landing or trying to go around with the serious slip that was underway, and decided to try and break the hard-over with engine power. As left engine power came up, the rudder instantly centered, and I was far more judicious in my application of rudder force after that. Touchdown and taxi were uneventful, and Louie was there to meet us. “I just had a rudder hard-over on short final,” I said in place of any other greeting. “Of course,” said Louie. “All of the old ones do that.”

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While civilian DC-3s were generally known by letter-number designators, military services worldwide assigned names. In the United States, all models were officially known as the Skytrain or Skytrooper. Unofficially, it was the Gooney Bird, after the Albatross seabirds that ramble and struggle to takeoff, but are incredibly efficient once airborne. The British named both DC-2 and DC-3 models the Dakota for reasons that are somewhere between disputed and lost to history, although the most popular rationale seems to be that American types were given names reflecting some element of geography in the colonies, and the state name Dakota was similar to DACoTA, as the DC-2 was called by Douglas. In Canada it was also officially the Dakota, but unofficially the Dak, except for the 436 Transport Squadron, where it was known as “The Flying Elephant” in recognition of the squadron’s emblem. NATO later assigned CAB to the PS-84/Li-2 models built in Russia, and the Japanese models built just prior to World War II were called Tabby by the allied forces.

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I flew and taught in the DC-3 series airplanes for decades. Like the P-51, AD, B-747 and others that surpassed all original predictions about their performance, maintainability and longevity, the DC-3 was as much an accident of its design process as it was a result. And, like others, its fundamental simplicity was at the core of its success – a lesson that modern designers no longer heed. To me, every one was far more than “just another DC-3”.

Mark H. Goodrich – Copyright © 2014

“Just Another DC-3” was first published in the February 2015 Issue (Vol 12 No 1) of Position Report magazine.