It made passenger air travel popular and airline profits possible. Recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, airplanes of all time, the Douglas DC-3 first took to the skies in the mid-1930s. American Airlines inaugurated passenger service on June 26, 1936, with flights from Newark, New Jersey and Chicago, Illinois on the same day, paving the way for the modern American air travel industry.
The DC-3 was an innovative game-changer for many reasons. It offered performance and comfort that far surpassed any airplane that had ever come before. The aircraft’s cross-section was a near-circle, expanding its width and height while providing greater aerodynamic qualities and interior space. Its wings used a new multi-cellular, stressed-skin construction where the traditional main support beams and cross-members were replaced with metal boxes riveted together like a honeycomb for reliable and redundant strength. Its smooth, streamlined shape and powerful engines enabled the aircraft to cruise through the sky gracefully and efficiently at nearly 200 miles per hour. And, the DC-3 could climb higher, away from turbulence and easily ascend into cooler air in the summertime.
The DC-3 was equally innovative inside. With padded walls, carpeted floors, upholstered seats, rubber vibration-dampers and shock-mounts the DC-3 introduced soundproofing throughout the cabin, greatly reducing in-flight noise. And the DC-3 also introduced fresh-air ventilation, which was blown smoothly through the cabin. Something we all take for granted today.
The propeller driven DC-3 was able to cross the continental US from New York to Los Angeles in 18 hours and with only 3 stops. It was fast, had a good range, was reliable, and carried passengers in greater comfort. Originally known as the Douglas Sleeper Transport, the DC-3 featured fourteen plush seats in four main compartments could be folded in pairs to form seven berths, while seven more folded down from the cabin ceiling. But by replacing the sleeping berths with seats, the DC-3 revolutionized the profitability of airliners by increasing passenger capacity by 50%.
With the ability to transport nearly two dozen people, on the DC-3 the cost-per-passenger was much lower, making flying more affordable and the aircraft the first successful airliner to truly be profitable at hauling only passengers. The DC-3 flew during a time when air travel was still glamorous. Passengers on board were served cocktails and steaks and ate with Barton silverware. Once the plane was cruising at altitude, pilots were known to stroll along the cabin to greet travelers.
The onset of World War II saw the last civilian DC-3 aircraft built in early 1943. The DC-3 remained on military duty until 2008, a testament to its ruggedness and reliability.
For both airline and military use, the DC-3 proved to be tough, flexible, and easy to operate and maintain. More than six decades after the last one was delivered, today hundreds of DC-3s are still flying and carrying passengers as well as cargo.
A true commercial aviation icon, the DC-3 set a new standard in aircraft design and transformed commercial aviation within a few years of operation to become the first modern airliner.
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