The Marvelous Gooney Bird
It could be argued that modern air transportation began in 1931with
the tragic death of Knute Rockne, the much-loved Notre Dame football
coach. A national figure of legendary status, his death in a Fokker
Tri-motor airliner touched off a national furor to upgrade airline transportation.
The airlines responded immediately with frantic demands to the aircraft
industry for faster, safer airplanes. In a good news, bad news scenario,
Boeing’s new design, the sleek twin-engine 247, appeared as if
it would satisfy all demands—this was the good news. The bad news
was that the 247 was effectively shut out of the market when United
Airlines bought all of the available production. This forced the other
airlines to look elsewhere and that “elsewhere” was Douglas
aircraft. In the long run, this turned out to be really good news for
the world, in general.
Douglas was already well along with its own design, the DC-1, which
mutated into the 16 passenger DC-2 before the series went into production.
Then C. R. Smith of American Airlines stepped in and applied the coup
de grace necessary to guarantee the airplane’s dominance of air
travel for decades to come: he wanted sleeper berths and more seats,
which lead to a slightly larger airplane initially known as the Douglas
Sleeper Transport. Then they put 21 seats in it and named it the DC-3.
Need we say more?
The DC-3 completely rewrote the rules of commercial air transportation.
Suddenly the industry had an airplane that could carry enough people
fast enough that the operator could actually make money. This was a
novel concept at the time because no one had yet figured out how to
make a profit carrying passengers. By 1940, a reported 80-90%% of all
airline passengers in the US were riding in the smooth luxury of DC-3’s.
Single-handedly, the DC-3 made airline travel not only popular, but
also profitable, a winning combination.
Then World War II kicked the DC-3 into high gear. An estimated 455 had
been built for the airlines when it became apparent that the airplane
would be a terrific troop and freight transport. This turned out to
be a gross understatement because matter what or where it was asked
to perform the Gooney Bird did so in spades and over 10,000 were built
in America alone, with additional thousands built under license in Russia.
Today, the youngest DC-3/C-47 in existence is closing in on sixty years
of age, with many of them entering their seventh decade. Still, when
today’s high-tech computers analyze what aircraft delivers the
lowest cost per freight mile and is capable of withstanding grueling
conditions, more often than not the old Gooney is at the top of the
list. We don’t see them disgorging passengers at LaGuardia or
O’Hare any more, but from the frozen tundra of the north to steaming
jungles down south, the old gal is still earning her keep.
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