Contemporary Non-fiction: Douglas Propliners, by Arthur Pearcy

This is a concise, dry but meticulously researched story of Douglas’s “Magnificent Seven,” which are among the most important and elegant propeller planes ever built.

For those of you who are staying for my second sentence: great machines are great art. The DC-3, in its own way, is as well worth looking at as a Rembrandt, and has the added bonus of having invented modern commercial aviation. When it arrived in 1936, as a redesigned and expanded DC-2, it was the first plane in history that could actually make a profit carrying passengers. (Previously airlines supported themselves almost exclusively on US Mail and usually lost money anyway.) It could carry 21 passengers, which was a lot in those days, and could make it from New York to Chicago non-stop – a tremendous achievement. It cost an airline about 72 cents per mile flown to operate. And it was fantastically elegant – indeed, beautiful. One of the most beautiful machines of a century replete and overflowing with beautiful machinery.

An American Airlines DC-3 (DST)

Two years after its introduction, commercial passenger traffic in the US had more than doubled and the DC-3 was carrying 95 percent of it. Every major airline, scads of minor ones, and thirty foreign airlines were flying this plane.

The twin-engined DC-3 and it’s four-engined big brother, the DC-4, served in the Second World War by the thousands as troop transports and cargo planes (designated principally as the C-47 and C-54). A DC-4 was Roosevelt’s version of Air Force One. Churchill’s private plane was also a DC-4. The DC-3 and the DC-4 made possible the Berlin Airlift, flying 92 million miles and delivering almost 2 million tons of food and supplies to save the city from a Soviet-imposed starvation. These are important, pivotal machines.

The greatness of the DC-3 and DC-4 in commercial aviation, and their role in winning the war and securing the peace, were such that Douglas Aircraft never fully recovered. It was a literally staggering success. Douglas was so busy building its planes (especially during the war, when the government forbade them to devote any significant time to non-essential research and development) that other companies beat them to the future and Douglas never caught up. In 1943, Lockheed came out with the Constellation – also a superbly elegant plane – which could fly nonstop coast-to-coast. In 1958, Boeing launched the 707 and the jet age.

In 1967, Douglas merged with McDonnell. And in 1997, with the further collapse of a great American industry, McDonnell Douglas merged with its former rival, Boeing.

But the DC-3 remained the darling of small airlines and is still flown by a few outfits today, having outlived both the company that made it and nearly every plane that made it obsolete (there are more DC-3s flying today than Boeing 707s).

Even great designs rarely survive more than a few years; only something truly revolutionary, like the cross-strung grand piano or Browning’s semi-automatic pistol, make it for decades. The DC-3 just turned 79.

Manliness: 10/10

Plane-iness: 10/10

Narrativity: 3/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): Doesn’t really matter. You’re not likely to read it anyway, unless you want to be a 1930s airline pilot when you grow up. Which I do.

Douglas Propliners, by Arthur Pearcy. Airlife Publishing, Ltd, 1995. 160 pages.

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