Wednesday, December 4, 2013


I have long recognized that given the time, place and history of my birth and earliest years, I am at my literate heart, an offspring of the World War II years.  A glance at my bulging bookshelves and memento centers will further disclose a lifelong passion for all things having to do with aviation – and a melding of those two areas of interest becomes predictable. Our New Jersey home overlooked the Naval anchorage in New York harbor and the Hudson river, and the air space overhead was filled with both military and civilian aircraft, with Teterboro, LaGuardia, Floyd Bennett Navy, Mitchel Army Field and the Grumman test facility to say nothing of the blimp and dirigible traffic from Lakehurst for variety.

            Charles Lindbergh was a nearby New Jersey neighbor and a regular commuter through our small town, adding to the feeling that I was living in the laptop of aviation history. It was an easy Saturday drive for our family to travel over to Woodridge, where the Curtis-Wright Company built aircraft engines and tested all kinds of aircraft. We would park nearby and watch by the hour.  Once the war started, they quickly became the 2nd biggest company and the largest manufacturer of aircraft in North America, employing 180,000 workers.

            With this background, it will come as no surprise that I grew up listening to the sounds of aircraft engines, the most ubiquitous of which was the Wright R-1820 Cyclone and later the Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp, which powered the Douglas DC-3 (Military C-47) transport which was destined to revolutionize air travel worldwide. It is to pay homage to this venerable and much-loved piece of aviation history, known affectionately among military types as “The Gooney Bird”, that I write today.

            It all began with a telephone appeal from American Airlines president C. R. Smith to Donald Douglas leading to the first flight of the prototype “sleeper transport” on December 17, 1935, which just happened to be the 32nd anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, and a flight I would argue which would be no less historic in the annals of air transport. In its various seating arrangements, the DC-3 could carry up to 21 passengers from coast to coast with only two refueling stops, and although the general public might not yet have been aware of the revolutionary change this would introduce, the demise of rail passenger transport was on America’s doorstep.

            Since its introduction in 1936 and the last production run in 1950, 16,079 “Gooney Birds” have taken to the air, and an amazing number are still flying in nearly every corner of the world. It became the military workhorse of WW II with 10,048 delivered for wartime service alone. On June 6, 1944, 13,100 men of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would be dropped into Nazi-occupied France from the thundering fleet of more than 1,200 C-47s which ferried them and their fighting gear across the English Channel and into Normandy’s bitter history, giving the plane another nickname – “Skytrain”.

Bearing its distinctive “D-Day” striped markings, a C-47 of the 439th Troop                                       Carrier Group of the USAAF is remembered for having carried the men of the                                      596th Parachute Infantry Regiment’s “Band of Brothers” to Normandy in 1944.
 USAAF Archives

            The virtues which made the “Gooney Bird” one of aviation’s most venerable icons are legion. It was relatively inexpensive to build and operate, forgiving to handle in the air, with an airframe which seemed indestructible and the capability of operating into and out of short fields. So varied were its applications that there arose among its operators and pilots a saying that “the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3”.

             The oldest DC-3 still flying is the original American Airlines “Flagship Detroit”, number 43 to come off the Santa Monica production line, while the oldest “surviving” Gooney Bird is N133D, the 6th Douglas “Sleeper” version, built in 1936 and in the process of being restored.

            Since I am a dedicated “list keeper”, there is a page in my personal journal on which I have attempted to keep a record of all the airplanes (there are more than 50) I have flown on in a lifetime. First on the list is the DC-3, and I could not have kept track of how many hours and in how many different venues I have taken joy in the sanctity of flight from a seat in the immortal “Gooney Bird”.

Every Allied Air Force of WW II numbered C-47s in their inventory, as                                                        exemplified by this restored “war bird” of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
 Courtesy QFSE Media

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