Of Work and Wings
Running salmon down the Alaska
coast, a vintage Douglas DC–3 still hauls the line
- by Lane Wallace
The rain is pounding on the fuselage above my head and whipping across the windscreen in front of me, almost drowning out the deep, steady thrum of the 1,000-horsepower radial engine on the sturdy aluminum wing stretching out to my left. The hydraulic windshield wiper makes a feeble attempt to move the water off the narrow, rectangular pane of glass that sits just a foot in front of my eyes, but it seems a losing battle. Randy, the plane's copilot, finally just fixes the wipers at an upward angle to deflect the water away from a small piece of the front window.
"Seems to work better that way," he says with his matter-of-fact Arkansas twang.
Arkansas, however, is a long way from the cockpit of our 1948 Douglas DC–3 as we plow through the low clouds and drenching rain of Alaska's rugged southeast coastline. At 400 feet above the water, we're still only couple of hundred feet or so below the ragged cloud deck, and whenever we fly through the intense rainshowers that erupt along our course, the visibility worsens. We navigate by coastline, keeping the breakers 100 yards or so to our left as we fly south. As long as we're over the water, we won't hit anything, and as long as we keep the shoreline in sight, we won't get lost.
I reach up and stuff a new paper towel in the crack between two of the three panes of glass that make up my half of the windscreen. The one I put in there half an hour ago is soaked, and water is dripping steadily on my right leg. I begin to understand why Douglas issued a part number for rain capes to protect DC–3 pilots from the elements that routinely leaked through the cockpit windows. I take another towel and make a vain attempt to dry off the radios, which are suffering the same fate as my leg.
"From where I sit, crammed right up against the
windscreen, I can
see only the first two feet of the plane's stubby nose..."
This isn't a trip anyone would take for fun, but we're not here for a joyride. I've been invited to fly along with this DC–3's crew for a week to experience the life of a working cargo pilot in Alaska, and so far, my assessment is that it's pretty hard work. Stacked in the cavernous cabin behind us are tubs carrying 7,500 pounds of fresh salmon that we're hauling from the small fishing town of Yakutat to the fish packing plant in Sitka. Most sixty-year-old airplanes have long since been relegated to weekend leisure flights or museums. But the venerable DC–3 is still valued as an active member of the working aircraft community, for the same reasons it was so popular when it first flew in 1935: it carries a good load a good distance, can operate out of short or rough fields, and is economical enough that its operators can make a profit.
The DC–3 is not a glamorous or superb-handling airplane. It doesn't fly as much as lumber along our course—big, heavy, ponderous, and impervious to the little bumps and gusts that would unsettle a smaller plane in the unstable air currents beneath and in the clouds. From where I sit, crammed right up against the windscreen, I can see only the first two feet of the plane's stubby nose, making it difficult to judge whether the plane is level, climbing, or descending without frequent checks on the instruments. The plane doesn't respond quickly to any input—turns require two hands on the circular yoke-topped control column and an aggressive amount of rudder pressure—but it feels stable as a barge and strong as a bridge. Which is pretty much what the DC–3 is: a strong, aerial barge.
The DC–3 evolved out of a request by Transcontinental and Western Air (which later became Trans World Airlines, or TWA) in 1932 for an all-metal monoplane capable of carrying 12 passengers at least 1,080 miles at a speed of at least 145 mph. TWA had suffered a huge publicity setback in March of 1931, when Notre Dame's famous football coach Knute Rockne was killed in the crash of one of TWA's wood-wing Fokker trimotor planes. So TWA also required that this new design be able to take off and fly from any point along its transcontinental route on only one engine.
TWA originally had planned to simply buy a number of The Boeing Company's new Model 247 airliners. But Boeing owned United Airlines, a competitor to Transcontinental. So Boeing refused to sell TWA any of its planes. As a result, TWA approached the Douglas Aircraft Company, and the rest is history. The first model Douglas built in response to Transcontinental's request was the DC–1 (for "Douglas Commercial, First Model"). But it quickly evolved into the DC–2, and then the bigger, 21-passenger DC–3, which flew for the first time on December 17, 1935—the 32nd anniversary of the Wright brothers' first successful powered flight. The DC–3 represented a significant step forward in aircraft design, with a monocoque-fuselage construction, engines smoothly cowled and faired into the wing, controllable-pitch propellers, and hydraulically powered flaps and retractable landing gear. It could also cruise at almost 190 mph.
The DC–3 came along at a crucial time for the struggling, infant airlines. Up until 1934, the numerous airlines that had popped up around the country had made a profit only with the help of government airmail subsidies that supplemented the income provided by fare-paying passengers. But in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt cancelled all the commercial airmail contracts, assigning the task of flying the mail to the Army Air Corps. The airmail contracts were eventually returned to the commercial sector, but relying on airmail subsidies was clearly a risky business. The DC–3 very quickly became the hero and choice of every airline because it was the first airplane ever built to offer the right balance of efficiency, range, speed and payload to make money just by carrying passengers.
When the DC–3 first came out, it was a luxury airliner, with modern amenities such as cabin heat, insulated walls, and running water in the on-board lavatory. It was built in three versions: a 21-seat dayliner; a 14-passenger "Skysleeper," which incorporated bunks for passengers to sleep in during the all-night coast-to-coast trip; and an even tonier, 14-passenger "Skylounge" for day passengers willing to pay extra for ultraluxurious, executive comfort. Today, First Class passengers sit in the forward section of an airliner. Back then, they sat in an entirely different plane.
"There's a steady rhythm to the sound of the engines
and a sturdy
feel to every knob...It has the feel of a machine you could trust to bring you home..."
The DC–3 was the classic of all early airliners; the Grand Dame of not just an industry, but an era. It was in DC–2s and DC–3s that pilot and author Ernest Gann accumulated most of the adventures he chronicled in his famous tale, Fate is the Hunter. The DC–3 was also one of the planes that opened up the Alaskan wilderness to airline travel. In fact, one of the first Alaskan airline routes ran along this very coastline I'm now traveling between Anchorage, Alaska and Seattle, Washington. And as we work our way through the low clouds, rain, and wild, unspoiled terrain en route to Sitka and Seattle, I feel a close kinship with Gann, his colleagues, and all those Alaskan DC–3 pilots, for flying in Alaska has changed little in 60 years. Since the mountainous terrain makes low-altitude radar coverage impossible, pilots still rely on verbal position reports to help stay separated from each other. Even radio communication and navigation are limited, except for global positioning system (GPS) signals received from satellites. We are virtually alone in our ship over the sea, relying on her enduring strength and stability to get us through the storms that lie in our path.
The strong, steady feel of the plane reverberates through the control cables that link the movements of my hands and feet to the ailerons, elevator and rudder controls at the other extremes of the plane's span and length. Sitting at the very tippy-tippy front end of this 27,000-pound airplane, it feels odd to kick the rudder pedals and suddenly become aware of how much mass is moving behind me. I'm accustomed to sitting much closer to the center of gravity in a plane, and flying the DC–3 almost makes me feel as if I'm sitting on a child's play car with my knees scrunched up around the steering wheel. But there's a steady rhythm to the sound of the engines and a sturdy feel to every knob, control lever, and piece of metal in both the cockpit and the airplane. It has the feel of a machine you could trust to bring you home, even with a load of ice on the wings, an engine out, or other problems or damage that might down a less robust transport.
That reliable strength, as well as its inherent power and payload, made the DC–3 a legend, and accounts for its many lives and enduring roles. For although the DC–3 started life as an airliner, it was as a multipurpose cargo plane that it achieved its greatest and longest-lasting fame. Within three years after the DC–3 entered service with American Airlines, war was looming in Asia and Europe, and by 1941 all commercial aircraft production in the United States ceased for the duration of World War II. Airliners were pressed into duty as troop carriers and transports, and the C–47, as the military version of the DC–3 was called, became one of the most widely used and recognized planes of the war. Almost 10,000 C–47s were built during the war, and there is scarcely a 78-year-old American male alive today who wouldn't recognize the distinctive shape of the C–47 "Gooney Bird." He would have seen it pass by overhead bringing supplies to the front lines, flown in one as he traveled to or from the war, or possibly even jumped out of one.
The DC–3 quickly became the hero of many early airlines.
The C–47 was also used extensively to fly supplies over the infamous "Hump" between China and the sea ports in Burma during WWII after the Japanese closed the Indochina road. The airlift over the mountainous region separating China from the Bay of Bengal was a crucial lifeline, but it involved extremely hazardous flying, especially for the lower-flying C–47s. The bigger, pressurized Curtiss C–46s could fly over most of the mountains and weather, but C–47 pilots often had to fly through the mountain passes, in the clouds, carefully timing each leg to judge when to make the next prescribed heading change to avoid hitting the mountainsides. Needless to say, the casualty rate for pilots flying the Hump was high.
But like the B–52 bomber, which is still flying with third-generation B–52 pilots at the controls, the C–47 proved so well suited to its particular role that it continued to be used for military purposes even after WWII ended. It saw service in the Berlin Airlift and both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In various places around the world, it has been used as a gunship, a troop carrier, a reconnaissance and rescue vehicle, and a supply ship of legendary ability, even carrying oversized cargo strapped to the underside of its fuselage when the need dictated.
When WWII came to an end, however, the DC–3's days as an airliner were numbered. The more capable, tricycle-gear DC–4 and the faster, pressurized Boeing Stratoliner and Lockheed Constellation had been designed before the United States entered WWII, so Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed all brought better, faster airliners to market very soon after the government lifted the wartime ban on commercial aircraft building. There were some small airlines that kept operating DC–3s throughout the 1950s, '60s, '70s and even 1980s, for the simple reason that the planes could still make money, especially for small companies operating on short routes. By the time Provincetown-Boston Airlines (PBA) finally retired one of its DC–3s in the mid-1980s, the plane had accumulated over 90,000 flight hours. There were a number of C–47s and DC–3s converted to executive use, as well.
But although other planes could provide executive comfort and meet the needs of small airlines, nothing else could perform the DC–3's role as a cargo ship quite as well as the original. There were bigger planes, and planes that could land as well in short or rough strips, but no other plane could carry the same combination of weight and volume as economically as the DC–3. The DC–3 could carry between 7,500 and 12,900 pounds, depending on the model, and yet could still operate out of rough strips only a couple of thousand feet long.
"The fishermen still stand in a cluster along the
waving to us as we dip our wing and head off to the west."
"DC–3s have kept Alaska rolling," an Alaskan fisherman tells me. Indeed, there are few roads in Alaska, which means that even along the coast, all supplies must be brought in by barge or plane. And for more than half a century, the DC–3 has been a key player in keeping those supply lines open. So to residents of remote Alaskan towns, the sound of a DC–3's round engines approaching through the fog and clouds represents far more than a whiff of nostalgia. It represents a critical and still-intact link with the outside world. But that only partially accounts for the loyalty the locals seem to feel toward this old cargo plane.
"I think we all love the DC–3s because they reflect the same qualities we like to think we have," a woman in Yakutat explains, with warm affection in her voice. "They're tough, dependable, versatile, and strong."
The DC–3 is not a particularly sexy or spectacular-handling airplane. It's heavy on the controls, slow to respond, and it can be a handful in a crosswind. And although the DC–3 I flew in Alaska might have started out as an airliner, it's hard to discern any trace of its upper-crust past in the barren, utilitarian trappings it now wears as a working cargo hauler.
As we land to pick up our last load of fish along the Alsek River, I climb out of the cockpit and walk down the sloping wood-plank floor of the cabin toward the big double-cargo door at the rear of the plane. My footsteps echo and I have to be careful not to trip on the metal tie-down strips bolted down along the sides of the floorboards. This is, without a doubt, a working-class airplane. But while she may have lost her fancy clothing, there is still an elegance and stature about her that commands respect. She has done an honest day's work through the chill of winter and blazing heat of summer for more than 60 years, and she still can be relied on to deliver her cargo on time and bring her crews safely home again.
We load and tie down our 7,000-pound cargo of Coho salmon—the final load for the season—stow the metal steps, close the cargo door, and get ready to fire up the engines. The fishermen stand in a cluster off to one side. They watch silently, almost reverently, as the propeller blades turn over, nine blades on each side, before Randy edges the mixture forward and, with a rumbling, staccato explosion and a distinctive puff of smoke, each engine comes to life in turn. The fishermen's lingering, respectful presence is itself a tribute; homage paid to a tribal elder whose experience and accomplishments have earned her a place of honor among those she serves.
The DC–3 revolutionized air transportation and airline service during the 1930s.
We taxi out to the gravel runway, a slow process of S-turns and sharp jolts on the brakes as we swerve abruptly back and forth to avoid hitting the trees on each side of the narrow grass and gravel road. We taxi to the end of the strip and push the throttles forward, listening to the stuttering crescendo of the two Pratt & Whitney radial engines climbing to full power before we release the brakes and start lumbering awkwardly down the runway. We bounce twice and then, finally, as we approach the trees at the far end of the strip, lift slowly and heavily into the air. The fishermen still stand in a cluster along the runway, waving to us as we dip our wing and head off to the west.
The day may come, of course, when the last working DC–3 is finally retired. Even in Alaska, times are changing, and turbine-powered Caravans and SkyVans are starting to take over roles once dominated by the DC–3. But there's also a company in Wisconsin that's doing a booming business mating old DC–3 airframes with new turboprop engines, so who knows? The ubiquitous DC–3 may have quite a few years, roles, and adventures left in her yet. As I watch the Alsek Glacier retreat into the distance behind a weathered, sturdy wing turned bronze by the light of the northern setting sun, I can't help but hope that she does.