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The Beloved “Gooney Bird” Turns 75

Anniversary of an aircraft that made a major mark in the world

The Dec. 17, 1935 maiden flight of the DC-3 at Clover Field in Santa Monica, Calif., did not produce huge expectations. Donald Douglas was not certain his company should build this aircraft and could not anticipate that its 75th anniversary – Dec. 17, 2010 – would be a landmark for pilots, historians and aviation buffs.

Douglas had succumbed to the advances of American Airlines, which wanted a transport that would provide sleeper berths for 14 passengers. His Douglas Aircraft Company believed the DC-3 would be a modest success. A typical example was pulled through the air by two 1,200-horsepower Wright R-1830-90C engines and was unremarkable in appearance.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the Douglas aircraft one of four “Tools of Victory” that won World War II for the Allies (together with the atom bomb, the Jeep and the bazooka).

Before World War II, a dozen airlines purchased versions. In military guise, it was the Dakota to the British, the C-47 to the U.S. Army, and the R4D to American sailors and Marines. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the Douglas aircraft one of four “Tools of Victory” that won World War II for the Allies (together with the atom bomb, the Jeep and the bazooka).

 

World War II

The U.S. Army began buying military versions in 1939. One later flew with Edo pontoons. To the Royal Air Force, the Dakota, or “Dak” was a mainstay. American pilots used their C-47 Skytrains and C-53 Skytroopers mostly to haul airborne soldiers. One pilot was retired Air Force Lt. Col. James J. Krajicek, 87, of Longwood, Fla., who flew risky supply missions over the infamous “Hump.” Krajicek devised a new way to climb into the cockpit of a C-47.

C-47 Skytrain


A C-47 Skytrain, used by the Air Transport Command to transport personnel and equipment to all parts of the Middle East, over the Pyramids in Egypt, ca. 1943. George C. Marshall Foundation photo

“We would walk up the spine of the fuselage, open the hatch above the flight deck, and climb down into the pilots’ seats,” Krajicek said in an interview. “That way, we didn’t have to be near the horses.”

“We would walk up the spine of the fuselage, open the hatch above the flight deck, and climb down into the pilots’ seats,” Krajicek said in an interview. “That way, we didn’t have to be near the horses.”

Yes, Krajicek was carrying horses. With four of the equine beasts jammed together, there was no route to enable the pilots and radio operator to walk through the fuselage to the flight deck.

C-47 Skytrain

A C-47 Skytrain pulling a glider during tow training at Oujda,French Morocco, June 17, 1943, less than a month before the invasion of Sicily. U.S. Army photo

The Hump operation was the first sustained, long range, 24-hour, all weather, military aerial supply line. It was a predecessor of today’s strategic airlift missions, but at the time there was no precedent for it.

 The Hump operation was the first sustained, long range, 24-hour, all weather, military aerial supply line. It was a predecessor of today’s strategic airlift missions, but at the time there was no precedent for it.

Sicily and Normandy

The Gooney Bird was the victim one of the worst “friendly fire” incidents in U.S. history. “It was horrible,” said former C-47 pilot Capt. Charles E. Pitzer.

C-47 Skytrain

Long, twin lines of C-47 Skytrains are loaded with men equipment at an airfield in England before they took off for Operation Market Garden, Sept. 17, 1944. These C-47’s carried paratroopers of the First Allied Airborne Army. U.S. Army photo

On July 10, 1943, the Allies landed 170,000 troops at Sicily. In the second airdrop of the invasion on the night of July 11, one hundred forty four C-47s and C-53s carried 2,000 paratroopers from Tunisia to Sicily.

Historian Rick Atkinson wrote in The Day of Battle of “panicked gunners” ashore and on ships at sea who sent volleys of fire lofting into the night sky. Time magazine later cited the “inefficiency of naval gunners.”

“Fountains of fire erupted from the beaches and the anchorage,” Atkinson wrote. Aboard the paratroop planes, “Men fingered their rosary beads or vomited into their helmets. Bullets ripped through wings and fuselages.”

The Gooney Bird was the victim one of the worst “friendly fire” incidents in U.S. history.

Three hundred eighteen American soldiers were killed or wounded. Twenty-three C-47s and C-53s failed to return. Brig. Gen. Charles L. Keerans, Jr., the assistant 82nd Airborne Division commander, was on an aircraft that was lost at sea.

C-47 and C-53 transports led the way in the Allied invasion of southern France. On the night of June 5, 1944, when airborne divisions dropped into Normandy in advance of the D-Day invasion, 500 C-47s and C-53s carried paratroopers in mass, nocturnal formations. Dropping the airborne troopers was “a different kind of flying,” said Pitzer. “In the front of the plane we were very busy. Our main communication with the jumpmaster out back consisted of switching the red light to green to tell them it was time to jump.” The “Gooney Bird” and Pitzer later took part in the last major airborne assault of the war, Operation Market Garden.

 

Postwar Era

The Gooney Bird gave good service in the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift and in brushfire wars in Algeria, Indochina and elsewhere.

Berlin Airlift

C-47s unloading at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, West Germany. The C-47 formed the nucleus of the Berlin Airlift until September, 1948, when the larger and faster four-engine C-54s capable of hauling 10 tons had been put into service. U.S. Air Force photo

In 1949, Douglas proposed to sell airlines a new flagship: The Super DC-3 made its initial flight on June 23, 1949 at Clover Field with test pilot John F. Martin at the controls. With an increased wingspan (now 95 feet), more powerful engines, and squared-off wing and tail surfaces, it performed well and would have made a good airliner – but the airlines didn’t want it.

The Super DC-3 made its initial flight on June 23, 1949 at Clover Field with test pilot John F. Martin at the controls. With an increased wingspan (now 95 feet), more powerful engines, and squared-off wing and tail surfaces, it performed well and would have made a good airliner – but the airlines didn’t want it.

Except for a trio of Super DC-3s that went to Capital Airlines, Douglas was unable to sell the new plane to commercial carriers. The U.S. Air Force bought one and called it the C-129. The Navy purchased 98 for the Marine Corps as R4D-8s. Some became nocturnal flare ships for night bombing during the Korean War. The Marine Corps operated this version, later called the C-117D, until July 1976.

C-47 Skytrain

The ever-present C-47 Skytrain proved to be the only multi-engine transport able to fly from the smaller forward airfields in Korea. U.S. Air Force photo

 

War

In the 1950-53 Korean conflict, Air Force C-47s hauled cargo, dropped leaflets and flew loudspeaker missions.

On March 23,1961, when few Americans had any interest in Southeast Asia, an SC-47 Skytrain was shot down over the Plain of Jars in Laos by anti-aircraft fire from pro-communist Pathet Lao Rebels. All but one aboard were killed.

On March 23,1961, when few Americans had any interest in Southeast Asia, an SC-47 Skytrain was shot down over the Plain of Jars in Laos by anti-aircraft fire from pro-communist Pathet Lao Rebels. All but one aboard were killed.

AC-47 Spooky

Time lapse photograph of an AC-47 Spooky helping defend Tan Son Nhut Air Base during the enemy Tet Offensive in 1968. U.S. Air Force photo

In Vietnam, the AC-47 gunship, called Spooky or Puff the Magic Dragon, could be devastating on a night combat mission. Spooky carried three 7.62-mm MXU-47A mini-guns. More than once this new type of attack aircraft prevented the Viet Cong from overrunning friendly outposts.

On Feb. 24, 1969, after his AC-47 was hit by antiaircraft fire, Airman First Class John L. Levitow fell upon a burning flare that had rolled loose. Levitow tossed the flare out instants before it would have exploded. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

On Feb. 24, 1969, after his AC-47 was hit by antiaircraft fire, Airman First Class John L. Levitow fell upon a burning flare that had rolled loose. Levitow tossed the flare out instants before it would have exploded. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

EC-47N, EC-47P and EC-47Q versions of the Gooney served as flying intelligence platforms in Vietnam.

Called “Methuselah with Wings,” the Gooney Bird refuses to go away. Of  10,636 DC-3s manufactured in the USA, 400 are flying today, some as turboprop versions. Because of changes in political jurisdictions and borders, DC-3s have served in more nations than exist in the world today.

Douglas AC-47D

A Douglas AC-47D of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, 14th Special Operations Wing, at Bien Hoa Air Base, ca. Aug. 1968. Note the left main landing gear is about 50 percent retracted. U.S. Air Force photo

Many aviation organizations have held events to mark the 75th anniversary of the DC-3. At the Experimental Aircraft Association‘s AirVenture fathering at Oshkosh, Wisconsin last August, a formation of 23 Gooney Birds was described as the largest formation of these aircraft since World War II. Donald Douglas’s son Jim attended the event.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...