Just how many hours can you wring from an airplane? As the operators, mechanics, and parts suppliers who keep DC-3s in the air.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, May 2000
(Page 4 of 5)
At least part of the reason for its long life could be a sentimental attachment to an airplane that made history. Elliott says that every time he goes to an airport to work on one of the DC-3s that lost an engine, people of all ages stop to watch, and oldtimers tell him stories of the first time they flew--always, it was in a DC-3. So, are the revenue operators hanging on for sentimental reasons?
"Nah," says Elliott. "It's the fact that they can still make money with them. We still get over a thousand hours a year out of them."
Elliott thinks the engines will soldier on, but he's not sure the airplane will survive federal regulations. "I heard at the Precision engine symposium that the EPA was [considering a ban] to say absolutely no more lead. My biggest concern is that they'll outlaw 100-octane standard aviation fuel."
Mike Hudon, product support manager for Precision Engines, sees a different threat to the DC-3's survival. "There are plenty of parts and pieces out there," he says, but the number of people with experience in DC-3 maintenance and operations is declining. In other words, the aircraft's institutional memory is fading.
To spread the knowledge of DC-3 operations to those unable to attend Precision's engine symposium, the company distributes a maintenance and operating video, including a fascinating post-mortem that graphically demonstrates the damage caused to metal (and wallet) by a host of stupid pilot tricks, including chop drops--pulling the throttles back and letting the propellers drive or "reverse load" the engines during aggressive descents--closing cowl flaps to expedite engine warm-up, and setting improper manifold pressure. As the offenses are recited, the abused engine components flash onto the screen: scored blower seals, wrecked pinion teeth, scuffed bearings, carbonized valves.
Sharing this knowledge becomes more urgent as DC-3s are increasingly flown by a generation of young, time-building pilots whose only previous exposure to radial engines may have been in a museum and who fly for companies whose customer mantra is "How fast can you get it to me?" But that generation is also key to the airplane's survival.
At 24, Miami Valley Aviation pilot Chris Price flies an airplane more than twice his age. He wanted to fly DC-3s so bad that he made three trips to Ohio from his native California on his own dime and basically badgered Kevin Uppstrom into hiring him. In the cockpit of tail number N36AP, Price notices a grass-skirted hula doll atop the instrument panel, a fellow pilot's lucky talisman. He carefully removes it before throwing the sequence of switches on the overhead panel to start the engine. "It's a lot like playing a guitar," he says of cranking the giant, 1,200-horsepower radials. "Starter, count nine blades of rotation, mixture forward, boost pumps, magnetos. Works nine times out of ten.
"My friends are all going to work for the commuters" on their way to careers with the major airlines, says Price. "Before I did that, I had to be here. This sets you apart from the rest of the crowd."