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Delta Queen

The world's most extensive restoration of a DC-3.

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James Ray is futilely trying to eat his breakfast biscuit before it cools to room temperature. Ray is manager of museum restoration programs at Delta Air Lines and today is the big day. In a few hours, after four years of work, what may be the world's most extensive restoration of a DC-3 will be presented to Delta's employees. Here at Atlanta's Hartsfield International, in Delta's first hangar, sits its second DC-3, number 3278, returned to its original (and flyable) magnificence of highly polished aluminum, wool upholstery, and dozens of toggle switches. Washed in the glow of stage lights and framed by multi-colored buntings hung from the rafters, the airplane is making its debut in its public relations and marketing mission, which includes eventual flights to Delta hubs around the country.

Amid the cacophony of last-minute preparations, Ray slides a photograph across his desk. It appears to be of an airplane. A tail number is visible: N23PR. The faded blue and gray paint is highlighted with what looks like tar around the window seals. Prodigious puddles have formed under the wings. It looks every bit its 78,000 hours. Amazingly, this is the same airplane now sitting resplendent in the hangar.

Number 3278 joined Delta on December 23, 1940, and left the airline in 1958. After that it was downhill: Two private owners, then seven years with North Central Airlines, then new owners every year or every other year until 1980. Since then, it had been an island-hopping freight dog for Sixto Diaz Saldana of Puerto Rico, parked outside in a salt water environment. Ray states the obvious: "It was in very rough shape."

Shortly after 3278's arrival in Atlanta in 1993, so was Delta. The airline had run up $1.8 billion in losses in three years. Dropping an undisclosed amount of money to give flight to nostalgia seemed imprudent, and the project was shelved. But Delta rebounded, and by 1996 the decision was made to make the aircraft airworthy.

Corrosion was everywhere, even in the overhead panels. "The deeper we got, the worse it got," says Ray. The vertical tail had to be rebuilt. All of the sheet metal and skins were replaced. The windshield and door frames were rebuilt. New aluminum window frames were painstakingly made from scratch. Parts for the main cabin door handle had to be machined. It took three years to find and overhaul some of the seat parts for the original 21-seat cabin configuration, in which two seats were on one side of the aisle and one was on the other. The restoration crew had access to drawings in the Douglas archives, but some parts of the aircraft--the galley and lavatory--had to be reconstructed from photographs.

At first the work was done mostly by volunteers, who brought in old maintenance and operations manuals to use as references. John Mitas, who worked on DC-3s for Delta from 1948 to 1962, was among them. What started as one day a week for Mitas quickly became five. He scavenged parts, polished, and worked on the avionics, electrical wiring, and tubing. Mitas walks around to the cabin door, which seals with the precision of a bank vault, thanks to the year-long effort of another volunteer, Bill Stapely. Delta staff member Scott Gerken, who "wired every square inch of that airplane," according to another staffer, says that the retirees were the heart of the project.

When it was time to show off their work, the museum staff, dressed in 1940s-style maintenance and crew uniforms, stood by the aircraft and fielded comments from hundreds of Delta employees, current and retired, as big band music filled the hangar.

The DC-3 will be on view for the rest of us this July at the Experimental Aircraft Association's Oshkosh fly-in.

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