Following on the heels of the DC-1 and DC-2, the DC-3 prototype made its maiden flight on 17 December 1935, 32 years to the day after the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Incidentally, this wasn’t a DC-3 proper but a DST, or Douglas Sleeper Transport, with 14 sleeping berths for night-time flying. It is distinguishable from the “day-time” DC-3 by a row of four oblong windows above the normal passenger windows.
The first civilian DC-3s had a single, side-hinging door, which later was changed to a drop-down version that opened vertically. These are not that common to come across. The more common ones are the C-47s, with wide, side-hinging double cargo-doors.
With the advent of the Second World War, the DC-3 was the only available aircraft that could be quickly converted as a cargo plane. It was given the designation C-47 Skytrain by the USAAF and R4D by the US Navy. Civilian DC-3s impressed in military service were given a variety of designations, but C-47 and R4D were the main ones.
It is important to bear in mind that the name “Dakota” (Douglas Aircraft Kompany Transport Aircraft) was actually given to the aircraft by the British, but it is by this name that the aircraft has since become universally known, or simply DC-3, irrespective of its wartime designation.
After the war, surplus C-47s/R4Ds were sold off, forming the backbone of numerous fledging airlines around the world. 70 years since the type’s first flight, it is still flying, admittedly in steadily decreasing numbers, despite various attempts at building DC-3 “replacements” like the F.27, HS.748 and HP Herald to mention just three.
It is indeed ironic to point out that at one point, the FAA was considering withdrawing the DC-3s type certificate as no longer able to satisfy the then latest ICAO single engine performance requirement. This never happened, but Douglas tried building a more powerful and improved DC-3S or Super DC-3 in 1950. Only Capitol purchased three, which weren’t used for very long. After evaluation, the US Navy ordered the conversion of 100 R4Ds as C-117Ds. No further orders were forthcoming, and with newer aircraft like the Convair 240 entering service, not to mention the availability of large numbers of the original Dakota still available, the DC-3S was doomed to failure.
Today, the DC-3 has been mostly relegated to cargo work, the majority to be found in the Americas and Canada.
Europe also has a number of airworthy Dakotas. But in Europe, a number of these are not used for freight work, but are purchased by people with an affection for the aircraft. Clubs are formed, and members can then travel in the aircraft to airshows or go for pleasure flights.