Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Gooney Bird

I have an affinity for old airplanes. I even have a favorite airplane...yes, I know, that probably means my geek quotient just went up.  My favorite happens to be the DC-3, also known as the Dakota, or more commonly as the "Gooney Bird".  I'm not sure where the name Gooney Bird comes from...perhaps a resemblance to the namesake bird (also known as the Albatross) that looked like it shouldn't fly but somehow did.   

Why does this plane hold such a special allure for me?  My first airplane ride was in a DC-3, in 1954 when I was 2 years old.  It was a flight from Maracaibo to Curacao. In any case, I like this old tail-dragger.

The DC-3 was the culmination of a deal made by Douglas Aircraft Company for Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA) to develop a competitor aircraft for the Boeing 247, which was the first transcontinental "sleeper transport".  The DC-3 first flew in 1935 for American Airlines and seated 21 passengers.  This plane revolutionized and popularized air travel by allowing cross-country travel with only three stops and completed it in 17 hours.  More than 16,000 were built until around 1950. 

Of course, the cockpit (above) bears little resemblance to modern airliners, and the cockpit windows offer a good view of the wings and engines.  According to pilots the plane was legendary in it's dependability and practically flew itself.  One story has it the crew bailed out of a USAF DC-3 that had run out of fuel (in 1957, over Missouri).  The crew all landed safely, and the aircraft continued to glide to a safe (and unassisted) landing in a corn field several miles away.

 In 1942, commercial production of the DC-3 was halted to make the military version known as the C-47 "Skytrain".  In 1945 production resumed but the surplus of C-47's allowed many airlines to add to their fleets, often for as little as $500 each.  By the way, the black leading edge of the wing contained a balloon of sorts that was inflated to expand the metal and break off any ice buildup.  
Some of the surplus aircraft were picked up by private companies and converted to private executive aircraft.  This one was operated by Pan Am until it was acquired and flown by Johnson & Johnson in 1949.  In addition to the comfortable seats, there were two sleeping berths towards the front. 


Pan Am (or Pan American Airways, as it was first known) was perhaps the premier airline before World War 2, though competitors such as TWA, American and United followed close behind.  Seeing some of the Pan Am paraphenalia pictured above reminded me of the bags we had when I was a kid, though the ones I recalled were from KLM and Canadian Pacific Airlines (which later became Air Canada). 

I think part of the romance I associate with this plane is that it reminds me of an era when air travel was more glamorous and travelers made a celebration of the journey.  Photos of my parents boarding a plane showed my father wearing a suit and my mother with a dress and hat.  It seems a far cry to air travel today, when we have to pay for each drink, bag of nuts, pillow or blanket. In that regard I remember a flight from London to Los Angeles in which my knees met the back of the seat in front of me.  Nevertheless, the DC-3 ushered in an era when air transport became more available...and made our world much smaller.

This plane was viewed during a vintage aircraft show at Paine Field, in Everett, WA this past weekend.  Ironically, just across the runway one could see the latest aircraft to come out of Boeing's assembly plant...the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. 

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