Was it the Greatest Airplane of its time - or all time?
Blog editor's note: This article was originally appeared in the August 11, 2022 edition of Flying magazine. It's reprinted here with their permission.
By Scott Mall
According to Boeing (NYSE: BA), which through acquisitions owns what began as the Douglas Aircraft Company, “The Douglas DC-3, which made air travel popular and airline profits possible, is universally recognized as the greatest airplane of its time. Some would argue that it is the greatest of all time.” While it might sound biased, many would agree.
The DC-3 was not only comfortable and reliable, it also made air transportation profitable. C.R. Smith—who is considered one of the giants of U.S. airline history—became the president of American Airlines following the reorganization of American Airways into the new company. Smith was significantly involved in the airplane’s evolution from the beginnings of the Douglas Commercial series. According to simpleflying.com, Smith said the DC-3 was the first airplane that could make money just by hauling passengers, without relying on government mail subsidies.
To understand the true impact of the DC-3, one must first understand the state of the U.S. aircraft and airline industries in the early 1930s.
Donald W. Douglas (1892-1981) became interested in aviation as a youth; he saw the Wright brothers demonstrate their 1908 Flyer for the U.S. Signal Corps at Ft. Myer, Virginia.
In 1912, Douglas left the U.S. Naval Academy and took a position in the civil engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as the university’s aeronautical engineering program was still under development. Under Jerome Hunsaker’s tutelage, he took on a graduate assistant role within the nascent department following his initial graduation in 1914, and helped with the construction of a new wind tunnel based at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England. After a series of short-term positions at other aircraft manufacturers—and with the Signal Corps, he formed the Davis-Douglas Company in California and designed the Cloudster in 1920—the first aerodynamically streamlined airplane. With the financial backing of several California businessmen, Douglas founded The Douglas Company in Santa Monica, California in 1921.
A pair of Douglas World Cruisers—out of an original flight of four aircraft, with one spare—completed the first circumnavigation of the globe by air in 1924, just a little more than 20 years after the Wright brothers first flight. This achievement confirmed the Douglas Company’s early success and presaged it well for the future.
Contracts from the U.S. Army Air Service and the U.S. Navy generated ongoing revenue, and the company grew significantly during the 1920s. However, Douglas realized that his company needed to adapt in order to continue to grow, which led to the company’s reorganization. On November 30, 1928, a new company, Douglas Aircraft Company Inc. (DAC), bought all the shares of The Douglas Company. It also moved to new facilities at Clover Field in Santa Monica (the current site of KSMO).
The Airline Industry in 1930
The Curtiss T-32 Condor biplane, the Fokker F VII, and Ford Tri-motor dominated the early airline industry. However, the airlines using these and similar models could not make money, given limited space for passengers—their primary sources of revenue were contracts to carry U.S. mail.
New designs of all-metal airliners entered the market, but the crash of a Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) Fokker F-10A on March 31, 1931, effectively ended the era of wooden spar-and-rib aircraft. Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and seven others were killed in the accident, which led to public calls for greater federal oversight of aviation safety. The Bureau of Air Commerce (a predecessor of the FAA) subsequently compelled all airline operators to perform periodic internal safety inspections of their aircraft—which had not been required previously.
Because of the cost and the length of time for those inspections, TWA needed to update its fleet. The airline sought to buy several new Boeing 247s; however, Boeing had already guaranteed delivery to United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) (of which Boeing was a part owner) of the first 60 airplanes. The 247 was a transformational airplane that catalyzed the commercial air transport revolution.
Penn Central Airlines Boeing 247, Betts Collection, CR Smith Museum
The 247 gave United a major market advantage; TWA had to look elsewhere for replacement aircraft. TWA contacted Consolidated, Curtiss, General Aviation, Martin, and DAC and asked for an aircraft with a design similar to the 247. TWA’s requirements for a new airplane—outlined in a famous letter from then-TWA vice president of operations Jack Frye—were very specific and also would be difficult to meet:
- All-metal, tri-motor monoplane powered by 500 to 550 hp supercharged engines
- Ability to carry a crew of two pilots and at least 12 passengers
- Range of 1,080 sm
- Cruising speed of 150 mph
- Top speed of 185 mph
- Landing speed not to exceed 65 mph
- Rate of climb of at least 1,200 feet per minute
- Service ceiling of at least 21,000 feet
- Maximum gross weight of at least 14,200 pounds
In addition, TWA had a last (and perhaps the most difficult) requirement to meet. The new airplane had to be able to maintain control during takeoff on a single engine, and at any airport in TWA’s network. The single-engine takeoff requirement, considered so critical to multiengine aircraft design today, didn’t exist until this time. At the time, one of TWA’s stations was located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has an elevation of 4,954 feet, while temperatures there often exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit—and this added an extra layer of difficulty to the new requirement.
Despite the first years of the Great Depression, Douglas Aircraft Company was doing well enough that Donald Douglas had planned to expand beyond military aircraft into the passenger transport market. The opportunity presented by the TWA letter was too good to pass up.
The DC Series of Aircraft
Accepting TWA’s challenge, Douglas and his senior designers—including chief engineer Arthur Raymond—developed preliminary plans for the Douglas Commercial Model No. 1. They convinced TWA that instead of a tri-motor airplane, two 710 hp Wright Cyclone engines were capable of meeting TWA’s requirements (though, famously, DAC held a side-by-side competition within its walls between teams from Wright and Pratt & Whitney to develop potential engines in parallel, and the resulting models would use powerplants from both entities).
In addition, the Douglas design included NACA cowlings—aerodynamic fairings from the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics that streamlined the airplane’s radial engines, reducing aerodynamic drag reduction and improving fuel efficiency—plus retractable landing gear and, according to aviation-history.com, a “multi-spar wing, inspired by Jack Northrop that would give the airplane exceptional strength with a long fatigue-free life.”
The Douglas Commercial Model No. 1 (better known as the DC-1) was a more refined aircraft than the Boeing 247. It was also larger, faster, and could carry 12 passengers (while the 247 could only hold 10 passengers). In addition, the DC-1’s mid-wing section was integral to the fuselage; this eliminated the spar running through the cabin as it did on the 247, creating an easier experience for passengers and crew alike.
TWA agreed to pay $125,000 to help defray the developmental costs of the DC-1, and Douglas paid the balance for design and engineering. The total cost for development was at least $200,000 more than TWA’s initial investment, bringing it close to $300,000, or about $6 million today.
The DC-1’s inaugural flight was on July 1, 1933. However, it was nearly the DC-1’s last flight, as the airplane’s left engine stumbled during the initial climbout. The test pilot and copilot were able to maintain control of the airplane by pitching forward and leveling off, but each time they resumed climbing, the engines sputtered. A design flaw had placed the fuel lines at the rear of the carburetor; the carburetor floats were also hinged at the rear. Because the fuel was gravity-fed and the fuel system was not pressurized, the fuel lines emptied and starved the engines during climb. The problem was corrected by reversing the carburetor floats and fuel lines.
After the fuel system was modified, Douglas put the DC-1 through extensive testing. On one test flight, it was loaded to 18,000 pounds by using sandbags and lead weights to simulate the conditions of full fuel, passengers, crew, and mail. The airplane climbed above 22,000 feet, comfortably above the TWA requirement. Moreover, with a full load, the DC-1 was able to take off in less than 1,000 feet. With full flaps, it was also capable of landing at less than 65 mph. In addition, it achieved a maximum speed of 227 mph during one test run.
Only one test remained—the airplane had to prove it could take off and land on one engine with a full load. A test flight from Winslow, Arizona, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, took place on September 1, 1933. During the first takeoff with TWA’s Tommy Tomlinson and DAC’s Frank Collbohm on board, Tomlinson shut down one of the engines with no warning to Collbohm that they would do so at that point in the test program. Fortunately for all involved, the DC-1 climbed successfully (if slowly) from 4,941 feet msl to its cruising altitude of 8,000 feet. It then flew 280 sm to Albuquerque, meeting all of TWA’s requirements. A few tweaks were made at TWA’s request to the first DC-1, and it was accepted on September 15, 1933.
Based on the results of the tests, TWA placed an order for 25 Douglas airliners; however, the airline sought several refinements, so only one DC-1 was ever produced. The list of refinements led to the DC-2.
Douglas Aircraft developed the DC-2 through several substantial changes. The airplane’s overall volume was increased—its fuselage was widened and lengthened by 2 feet to allow for an extra row of seats (increasing total passenger seating to 14). Other improvements were also incorporated into the new airplane: its payload, service ceiling, and speed were all increased. By the time it made its first commercial flight, the DC-2 was the most luxurious airliner in the world.
Incredibly, only four months after the Boeing 247 entered service, Douglas delivered its first DC-2 to TWA, and the airplane flew in record time between Los Angeles and New York. TWA began advertising coast-to-coast service in a 200-mph luxury airliner it dubbed “the Sky Chief.” TWA’s transcontinental flights made four hops—from New York (Newark) to Chicago, Kansas City, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles. Sky Chief flights left Newark at 4 p.m. and arrived in Los Angeles at 7 a.m. the next day, setting a new precedent in transcontinental air travel.
Douglas DC-2 interior, Betts Collection - CR Smith Museum
United Airlines’ Boeing 247 was eclipsed by the DC-2 before it ever fully established itself in the airline industry. Part 2 of this two-part series will continue the story on the DC-3.
Author’s note: Among the sources of information for this article were Boeing, the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Flight, Encyclopedia Britannica, aviation.history.com, and Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story, by Julie Boatman Filucci.
The problem: TWA’s advertising agency wanted something new and different for Inflight Services. What might that be?
Their solution: the paper dress!
Noted designer Elsa Daggs came up with four paper dress concepts for TWA. She hoped to match hostess uniforms to our major overseas routes. Wearing one of four paper dress outfits, hostesses would offer meal services matched to the uniform theme.
“Italian Accent” flight attendants wore white and gold togas. Food service included Italian veal dishes. On “British Accent” flights, they wore grey flannel “serving wench” uniforms while serving steak and kidney pie. “French Accent” flights featured a gold lame cocktail “mini-skirt,” while Manhattan Penthouse flights featured crews wearing black-sashed lounging pajamas.
While the uniforms were supposedly constructed of heavy fireproof paper, the ink used to decorate them apparently wasn't. There were complaints of flight attendants suffering mild burns, perhaps from careless cigarette smokers.
Other evolving issues: uniform inventory carried at domicile frequently did not match the “foreign accent” flight scheduled. French Accent flight attendants found themselves wearing Manhattan Penthouse dresses. The manufacturer ran out of the heavy paper stock initially used. A lighter, flimsier substitute was found. And, while flight attendants typically came in different sizes, oftentimes the uniforms did not. “One size fits all” became the order of the day.
Scissors, a stapler, and masking tape became must carry items. Built-in velcro strips often did not match the wearer, making the uniform extremely uncomfortable. Additionally, flight attendants scheduled for foreign accent turnarounds sometimes found themselves reassigned by crew schedule to six-day trips.
While the uniforms looked great on paper (pardon the pun), the execution left much to be desired. One flight attendant recalled wearing the black lounging pajamas on a particularly hot day. Mid-cabin, she noticed streams of black ink running down both arms. Occasional galley mishaps sometimes ripped off the front of the dress. Also, cutting the dress too short often resulted in undignified positions when bending over in the aisle. Uniforms expected to last for several wearings lasted one to two legs. Increasing numbers of flight attendants simply refused to wear them at all.
The program lasted a mere seven months, ending in the fall of 1968. Few flight attendants lamented its end.
TWA Flight 800 Remembered
Today, July 17, marks the 26th anniversary of the loss of TWA Flight 800. All 230 passengers and crew onboard perished. Included were 18 active working crew, 20 other TWA employees (including deadheading cockpit and cabin crew), and passengers from 14 countries. We take a moment today to remember them all.
We do not intend to re-litigate the cause of the accident. Despite countless news articles, documentaries, magazine stories, and books, many believe there is no definitive cause. The National Transportation Safety Board took four years and one month to issue their official report. That report remains controversial. In 2013, the NTSB admitted they had received a petition to reopen the investigation. In 2014, they declined.
Over 96% of the aircraft was recovered, then carefully pieced back together in Ashburn, VA. Only victim’s families were permitted to view the wreckage. In July of 2021, the reconstruction was decommissioned. By agreement with victim’s families, no wreckage could be used further. Instead, it was melted down or shredded.
What does remain is the TWA Flight 800 Memorial. There, on a landscaped two-acre plot adjacent to Smith Point County Park, Fire Island, New York, sits a curved black granite memorial with 230 engraved names. The site flies the flags of all 14 countries of the victims.
April 11, 1973
A hundred of us had just completed six weeks of flight attendant training at Breach Academy in Kansas City (minus two unfortunates who failed the final weight check by a pound or two). We'd clambered into and out of the life rafts in the swimming pool, jumped the 747 escape slide from the second floor to the ground, and completed mock first class meal services in the cabin trainers. The women attended mandatory hair appointments and the few men with mustaches (myself included) had them carefully measured with a ruler. Not a single hair could touch the upper lip.
We were given 72 hours to travel to New York. While we'd all bid for preferred domiciles, everyone was assigned JFK International. TWA booked rooms for us (at our expense, but with a discount) at the San Carlos Hotel on E. 50th St. in Manhattan. Accommodations were three to a room: two double beds and a roll-a-way. On Tuesday, we were officially released to crew schedule at Hangar 12.
Twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., schedulers updated a taped message with numbers and names. The lower your number, the more likely you'd be assigned a flight. Mandated report time? No more than two hours (later we learned to our chagrin that scheduling kept track of who lived closest to the airport. The closer you lived to the airport, the less notice for a flight you got).
The tape sometimes droned through over 150 names, usually far fewer. Dialing out from the hotel was expensive, so we'd call scheduling from the pay phone on the corner. With a high number one night, I didn't expect to go anywhere soon (we'd heard it was VERY unusual to get called anytime but late morning through afternoon, as all international flights but one – flight 702 – JFK-LHR – departed at night).
The phone rang just past 3 a.m. The scheduler said, “Report 6:30 a.m. Hangar 12, limo to McGuire Air Force Base, disposition later.” That last phrase meant “everything's subject to change, we're not sure where you're going, or when you'll be back.”
Fortunately the first CAREY bus from Grand Central to JFK left around 4 a.m. With crew kit packed and new uniform freshly pressed, I grabbed a cab to Grand Central.
Hangar 12 was completely deserted. Here I met my crew. Our cabin team consisted of five brand-new-first-trip flight attendants, and a new purser (also making her first trip as purser). Our aircraft was to be one of several TWA 707s assigned soley to military charters. It differed from the standard high density/all coach charter configuration in that the forward aux bar (a supplemental galley area just inside the forward left door) had been removed. In its place was an additional row of coach seats for a total of 188 seats. Nothing but a galley curtain (open for takeoff and landing) kept us from rubbing knees with front row passengers.
Our captain seemed annoyed as he talked further with operations. Apparently our “limo to McGuire” (16 miles west of Trenton, NJ) was not to support the 10 a.m. departure he'd been told, but rather 10 p.m. that same night. Apparently we were all dressed up in new uniforms with nowhere to go.
We all piled into the van and headed for New Jersey. The captain, apparently recovered from his annoyance with crew schedule and operations, jovially asked “anybody hungry?!” We all were. Within minutes (and with 14 hours to spare), we pulled into a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Apparently not a common sight, this fully decked-out airline crew created quite a buzz at Howard Johnson's. Parents took pictures while their kids asked for autographs.
We arrived at McGuire mid-morning and were assigned rooms at the Wrightstown Inn. Definitely NOT a glamorous European hotel – think instead more Motel 6.
Enroute to the motel, the captain noticed the base bowling alley. While checking in at the hotel, he asked “Anyone up for bowling?” Why not? Our first layover activity: bowling a few games. Naps followed.
The base commander apparently felt badly about the departure delay, or he was just a really nice guy. In any case, he invited us to join him for dinner in the officer's club. Our uniforms couldn't compete with the dress military uniforms everywhere in the club, but we enjoyed an enormous prime rib dinner courtesy of the USAF. A heavy meal – perfect to start working an all nighter.
More bad news: our aircraft, inbound from Europe, was even more hours late. Instead of a 10 p.m. departure, it now appeared we'd leave about 1 a.m. From that initial 3 a.m. Crew call, we finally climbed aboard after 2 a.m.
A Few Words About Our Itinerary and USAF Charters In General
We were scheduled to depart McGuire AFB and ferry empty to Quonset Point, RI. From the naval station there, we'd pick up a Polaris submarine crew destined for 90 days underwater after arrival in Prestwick, Scotland.
Another ferry flight: this time from Prestwick to the USAF base in Frankfurt. After a (now much shortened layover) in the town of Mainz, we would again ferry to Torremolinos outside of Madrid. There, we'd pick up military dependents (wives and kids). We'd fly them back to McGuire, then limo to Hangar 12. End of trip.
Air Force charters went by the book. Inspectors threatened fines for infractions. Rules included a limited beverage choice of coffee, tea, water, or milk. Absolutely no liquor, definitely no soft drinks (sometime later, the USAF relented and allowed soft drinks).
All food was USAF issue, nothing was from TWA caterers. The remaining aux bar at the left aft door, normally loaded with mix kits of soft drinks, was instead provisioned with individual cartons of milk, apples, and bananas. A serving of fruit and a carton of milk was mandatory on every tray. No TWA-issue china entre plates either. Food was boarded in USAF-supplied individual foil plates with matching tops (their lobster thermador was pretty tasty). Under no circumstances could trash bags be used. Veterans of 707 charters remember that trash management was problematic. Typically, we'd fill trash bags floor to ceiling in one of the aft lavs for landing. Not so with the USAF. Air force personnel often raced straight to the lavs after arrival to ensure they were trash bag-free.
Still another problem...upon landing at McGuire, the #2 engine reverser stuck in reverse and refused to re-stow. As a newbie, I was curious how highly-trained maintenance personnel dealt with a stuck reverser. I was disappointed to find a lone mechanic beating on the reverser with a rubber mallet. It worked!
The empty ferry flight was uneventful, landing just before 3 a.m. As we taxied in, our entire passenger compliment lined up at attention to greet us. In mid-April, it's still quite cold in New England and those poor guys were plainly uncomfortable. We boarded them as quickly as possible and departed for Scotland.
Considering it was a first flight for all of us, it went pretty well. The biggest issues? Predictably, all that fruit and trash management. NOBODY touched the fruit or the milk. Picking up meal trays in turbulence with apples rolling everywhere, milk spilling everywhere, was an experience. We'd carefully unpack the apples, bananas, and milk for dinner, now we repacked it just as we'd found it. There was no other place to put it.
Our aircraft had four galley cans (red plastic trash tubs) in the front galley and six more in the back. They quickly filled up, with plenty more trash to follow. Absent trash bags, we removed meal carriers from the galley to access the galley cans. Then, the preferred method was to roll up your pant legs and stomp on the trash. Yes, we were human trash compactors. We were careful to pull the galley curtains so no one would see us.
So much for my first sight of Europe. We landed in a dense fog at Prestwick, unloaded our passengers, and took off for Frankfurt. Our planned mid-morning arrival there was now late afternoon. A shower, a change of clothes, a quick dinner, and off to bed.
A reprieve: Instead of our early crew call and scheduled late morning ferry to Spain, late inbound equipment changed the plan to a mid-afternoon arrival. In Spain, we quickly boarded our load of dependents – 188 wives and an almost equal number of screaming infants – and left the gate. Unfortunately, it was just in time for evening thunderstorms.
Most airlines offered an infant bassinet which attached to the bulkheads in coach and first class. While some of our mainline aircraft offered the same option, our military configuration 707 had no bulkheads. Thus, the TWA 'sky cradle,' a cardboard box with a pillow and blanket. Baby, sky cradle and all, was placed on the floor underneath the seat. Each cradle was provisioned flat and had to be carefully assembled, with multiple cardboard flaps, folds, and tucks. During our ground delay, I assembled 27 of them. My flying partners did the same.
It was now late, the infants finally fell asleep, and again, nobody touched the fruit. We trash can stomped our way across the North Atlantic.
I can't remember anything about the trip from McGuire back to Hangar 12. All of us instantly fell asleep. End of trip.
After a guaranteed number of hours of crew rest, it was back to the pay phone on the corner to start the whole process again. Welcome to the line!
My next trip? Domestic crew schedule (a completely different operation in those days), 'borrowed' me for a 5-day, multi-leg tour of the Ohio Valley on a DC-9 – a story for another time.
Welcome to the first video essay in our Short-Hauls section, TWA's Final Departure From Lisbon
On January 14, 2001, TWA operated its last flight from Portugal as flight 901 departed Lisbon, bound for New York's Kennedy International Airport. This brought an end to TWA's presence in Portugal which had begun almost 55 years earlier. The video was taken by a TWA employee and has been edited for this article. You'll see TWA's Lisbon staff bidding the flight farewell at the gate, followed by pushback, taxi, and takeoff. After takeoff, you'll see something we think is pretty special.
TWA and Portugal
Lisbon, Portugal was among the earliest of TWA's international destinations, first served in May 1946. TWA also served the Azores, a region of Portugal consisting of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 900 miles west of Lisbon. In the pre-jet era, the Azores proved the ideal location for a needed fuel stop between the U.S. and Lisbon. Once TWA's jets made non-stop flights possible, Azores service was significantly reduced. TWA did continue to periodically schedule Boeing 707 jet flights with a stop in the Azores; however, that came to an end in 1979.
Throughout the 1990s, TWA's service to cities in Europe decreased substantially. By 2000, Lisbon remained as one of only a few European cities still served. Unfortunately that was not to last much longer as TWA ended service to Lisbon, effective January 14, 2001.
About the video
The video was taken by TWA Lisbon employee José João Inácio who was among many employees there to witness TWA's final departure. We received the video from Carlos Carreiro, a former TWA flight attendant, purser and flight service manager. In addition to providing the video, he was a great source of information about TWA's history in Portugal. A native of the Azores, Carlos emigrated to the U.S. in 1976 and flew for TWA from 1978 until 2001, continuing his career with American Airlines until 2003. He is also the author of three books about Portuguese cultural and aviation history. Carlos currently resides on the island of São Miguel, in the Azores.
As you watch the video, keep in mind it was taken with a hand-held video camcorder, so you'll notice some shaking, especially on close-up shots. Also note this was the era of videotape, so images are not as sharp as we see with today's digital video technology. With that said, we think the subject and meaning of the video are what you'll notice most.
Thanks to the TWA employees you'll see in the video as well as their predecessors who worked for TWA in Portugal. While it was a sad day for TWA's Lisbon employees, they made sure TWA's last departure from Lisbon was given an honorable and heartfelt farewell.
Article written by: Wayne Hammer
Edited by: Larry Dingman
Copy editor: Pam Tucker
Videographer: José João Inácio
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