By Luzanne Keyter

For nearly 80 years the Douglas C-47 and its numerous derivatives has remained the most versatile working aircraft aviation has ever known. Designed and manufactured for American Airlines to out-compete operators using the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-2, in the mid-1930's Donald Douglas produced a larger and more luxurious version, the

On 17 September at 3pm, the 32nd anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight, the DC-3 prototype, known as the DST, made its first flight with pilot Carl A. Cover from Clover Field USA, commonly known as Santa Monica. The prototype entered service as American Airlines' flagship on 11 July 1936.

Soon orders for the new workhorse came streaming in and licences to build were negotiated with Nakajima in Japan with the first aircraft completed on 30 September 1938. The Soviet Union also purchased 18 DC-3s before the start of World War 2 and produced huge numbers which served with Aeroflot and the military, first as the PS-84 and later as the Lisunov Li-2.

As war broke out over Europe, most DC-3s of subjugated nations were found serving with Deutsche Lufthansa while the rest were seized by Italy. In the USA however, the Air Transport Command placed an order in September 1940 for 545 DC-3s, designated the C-47 Skytrain.

By the end of 1941, 70 C-47s and nearly 100 C-53s - the US Army's passenger version, saw service in the US military. The military version of the C-47 had a stronger cabin floor and rear fuselage, large loading doors and 1,200-hp (895-kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 engines. Airline seats were replaced with utility bucket seats, window grommets were inserted to permit the use of small-arms in combat, and the all-up weight increased from 25,000 lb (11 340 kg) to 29,300 lb (13 920 kg).

At a plant in Long Island Beach, California, 953 C-47s were built before production switched to the C-47A, a newer version with a 24-volt electrical system in place of the previous 12-volt system. Between Long Island Beach and a plant at Tulsa, Oklahoma, 4 931 C-47As were completed.

The C-74 went wherever allied troops served, being among the first aircraft to cross to the UK after the USA's entry to the war and served as paratrooper transporters and glider tugs. In the first major Allied airborne assault, the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, C-47s with a handful of other aircraft dropped 4 381 paratroops. In the massive assault on Normandy in June 1944, C-47s carried more than 50 000 airborne troops in the first 50 hours.

In the RAF the C-47 and its derivatives were named Dakota and some 1 895 aircraft served with 25 RAF squadrons until 1950 when the C-47 was replaced by the Vickers Valetta. When the war finally came to an end, most of the surviving aircraft were sold to civil operators around the world.

Specifications: Douglas C-47 Skytrain

Cargo, supply or 21/28-seat troop transport, 14-litter ambulance, or glider tug.

Two 1,200-hp (895-kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 radial piston engine

Maximum speed - 227 mph (365 km/h) at 7,500 ft (2285 m)
Initial climb rate - 940 ft (287 m) per minute
Service ceiling - 24,000 ft (7315 m)
Range - 1,600 miles (2575 km)

Empty -18,200 lb (8256 kg)
Maximum take-off -26,000 lb (11794 kg)

Wingspan - 95 ft 6 in (29.11 m)
Length - 63 ft 9 in (19.43 m)
Height - 17 ft 0 in (5.18 m)
Wing area - 987 sq ft (91.69 sq m)

According to the website the DC-3 has many nicknames such as the "Old Fatso", the "The Flying Elephants" or the "Biscuit Bomber" after dropping 5 000 cases of rations to troops in France. But the name most commonly used is the "Gooney Bird". There are many versions to how the nickname came about. Some say the aircraft was a mimic of the South Pacific Wandering Albatross, a bird known for its power of flight but also its struggle to take off and its unflattering landings.

The C47TP is a turbo prop conversion of the DC3/C47

The website also claims that over 50 000 rivets are used in the manufacture of one DC-3 and that 3 900 feet of tubing, 8 000 feet of wire and approximately 13 300 square feet of sheet metal were used in the construction of each DC-3.

A C47TP of the SAAF dropping parachutist.

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