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C-47 Skytrain

The 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. Design work began in 1934 at the insistence of C.R. Smith, president of American Airlines. Smith wanted two new planes - a longer DC-2 that would carry more day passengers and another with railroad-type sleeping berths, to carry overnight passengers.

The DC-3 did not go unnoticed by one of Douglas's oldest customers - the U.S. Army. In addition to the 455 DC-3 commercial transports built for the airlines, 10,174 were produced as military transports during World War II. For both airline and military use, the DC-3 proved to be tough, flexible, and easy to operate and maintain. Its exploits during the war became the stuff of legend. Today, more than six decades after the last one was delivered, hundreds of DC-3s are still flying and still earning their keep by carrying passengers or cargo.

The military career of the Douglas DC series began in 1936 when the Army Air Corps ordered a pair of DC-2s under the designation C-32. A contract followed for 18 DC-2s in the C-33 freighter configuration and two more as C-34 staff transports. Then, in 1937, the Army ordered a plane built to its own specifications. It was a hybrid design that combined the fuselage of the DC-2 with a DC-3 tail. This was the sole C-38 prototype and it led to 35 production versions called the C-39. The C-39 represented the first serious effort by the Army to establish an airlift capability.

By 1941 the old Air Corps had been transformed into the Army Air Force and it selected a modified version of the DC-3 - the C-47 Skytrain - to become its standard transport aircraft. A reinforced fuselage floor and the addition of a large cargo door were the only major modifications. Other changes included the fitting of cargo hooks beneath the center wing section and the removal of the tail cone to mount a hook for towing gliders.

With Pratt & Whitney engines of 1,200 hp each, the C-47 had a top speed of 220 mph with a maximum range of fifteen hundred miles. Its crew typically consisted of pilot and copilot and usually included a crew chief to oversee cargo handling. The wartime C-47 transports discarded the roomy, twenty-one-seat interiors of the airline version and installed bench seats along the fuselage walls to seat thirty-two passengers or twenty-seven troops in combat gear. Hospital transport conversions carried up to twenty-four stretcher cases, but medical evacuations in wartime carried several dozen wounded in harried evacua-tion flights. The big cargo door on the port side facilitated handling of military shipments of six thousand pounds in regular operations, although the C-47s lifted thousands more in military emergencies on shorter hops.

As a supply plane, the C-47 could carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo. It could also hold a fully assembled jeep or a 37-mm cannon. As a troop transport, it carried 28 soldiers in full combat gear. As a medical airlift plane, it could accommodate 14 stretcher patients and three nurses. Seven basic versions were built, and the aircraft was given at least 22 designations.

Every branch of the U.S military and all the major allied powers flew it. The U.S. Navy version was the R4D. The British and the Australians designated it the Dakota (a clever acronym comprised of the letters DACoTA for Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft). The aircraft operated from every continent in the world and participated in every major battle. By the end of World War II, more than 10,000 had been built. For all of its official and unofficial names, it came to be known universally as the Gooney Bird. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, termed it one of the most vital pieces of military equipment used in winning the war.

The ubiquity of the Skytrain-Dakota-Gooney Bird transport, and its ability to operate from very rough forward airstrips, made it familiar to millions of Allied forces stationed around the world. The C-47 and its rel-atives not only pioneered in-theater wartime routes but also served as VIP transports, general personnel transports, troop carriers, glider tugs, paratroop assault transports, cargo transports, airborne ambulances, air-sea rescue craft, and special operations aircraft. Supporters of the airplane liked to quote a remark attributed to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Four things won the Second World War-the bazooka, the Jeep, the atom bomb, and the C-47 Gooney Bird."

By war's end, some thirteen thousand C-47 variants had been delivered, plus two thousand more built under license by foreign manufacturers. The C-47 played a major role in postwar service, remaining in operational units through the 1960s C-47s remained in active military service long after the end of World War II. They played a critical role in the 1948 Berlin Airlift and saw action in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

From the beginning of the Little Lift in Berlin through the arrival of the first C-54s three months later, C-47s were air transport in Europe. While a much beloved airplane in air force lore, they were unpopular in the airlift role. USAFE's Skytrains were all more than five years old and had more than 2,000 flying hours, most under wartime conditions. Some still wore the black and white vestiges of D-Day 1944 invasion stripes. Their limited cargo capacity frustrated those concerned with the build up of supplies, and their age and worn condition frustrated the maintenance and supply personnel who had to keep them in the air. In one example, intergranular corrosion and cracks in the landing gear bracing strut attachment fittings grounded many C-47s at a cost of some 850 hours in inspection and maintenance. A shortage of parts threatened routine maintenance and technical order compliance despite every attempt to requisition them. About the only ones who really liked the Skytrain were the cargo-handling personnel. C-47 doors were low, causing less fatigue for the loading crews and less damage during loading and unloading. Following the April crisis in Berlin, LeMay had requested more modern aircraft, but these would not be available until 1949.

Three World War II-era transport planes served in Korea: the C-46 Commando, the C-47 Skytrain, and the C-54 Skymaster. The three were designed to carry troops or equipment, and the C-47 and C-54 also had provisions to carry cargo under the fuselage. The Skytrain and the Skymaster could both carry paratroops, but the Commando proved inadequate for this mission because its tail often fouled the parachutes. All three aircraft filled an airlift role in Korea, supplying everything from aircraft engines, ammunition, medical supplies, rations, and fresh fruit. Some C-47s were modified to drop flares in advance of B-26s and F-82s on night raids. They also served as communication links between Tactical Air Control Centers and the ground target-spotting T-6 "Mosquito" aircraft. Other Air Force C-47s air dropped intelligence agents behind enemy lines, supported escape and evasion efforts by downed aircrew, and supplied friendly forces with arms and communications equipment.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:28:40 ZULU