High Mileage

Just how many hours can you wring from an airplane? As the operators, mechanics, and parts suppliers who keep DC-3s in the air.

Air & Space Magazine

A 40,000-hour DC-3 sits in the grass at Hook Field in southern Ohio, ready to start the night shift for Miami Valley Aviation. Paint is peeling off the nose, and what remains on the rest of the airplane is faded and filthy. The windshields leak. Inside the cockpit, a lip on the instrument panel catches incoming precipitation. It inevitably overflows onto the upper left pant leg of the captain. "When you get out of the airplane, it looks like you've been scared real bad," says Miami Valley chief pilot Kevin Uppstrom, who has 10,000 hours in DC-3s. The engines leak too. Oil and exhaust have trailed black streaks across the top of the wings, and black pools often form below them.

It wasn't always so. Serial number 42-93518 rolled off Douglas Aircraft's Oklahoma City assembly line in May 1944 as a C-47A, a military variant of a DC-3, joined up with the Ninth Air Force the following month, and by October 1945 was declared surplus. Re-christened the Sam Houston, it flew passengers for Dallas-based Pioneer Airlines between 1946 and 1952, then rejoined the Air Force as a C-117C transport. For the next 20 years it remained in government service. Miami Valley acquired it in 1989, and now tail number N36AP, along with five other DC-3s operated by the company, hauls freight. Tonight's critical cargo is packed in crates lashed to the floor: automobile bumpers.

On any given night (or day), from Middleton, Ohio, Charlotte, North Carolina, Miami, Salt Lake City, Oakland, or Fairbanks, DC-3s fly low and slow, stuffed with auto parts, drums of diesel fuel, blue jeans, machine tools, medical supplies, your mail, and virtually any other commodity controlled by the canons of just-in-time inventory and cash flow management. Sixty-five years after it first flew, the DC-3 is still one of the cheapest ways to move loads of up to three tons, especially over distances of less than 500 miles.

For an operator like Miami Valley Aviation, the basic math is inescapable. Good DC-3s with mid-time engines can be had for around $150,000, the same price as a new Cessna Skyhawk four-seat, single-engine trainer. The "-3s" have direct operating costs a little less than those incurred by a B200 King Air twin turboprop: about $600 to $700 an hour. Hanging rebuilt engines on a DC-3 costs, at $35,000 to $45,000 a side, about the same as re-engining a twin-piston, six-seat Beech Baron. And each of these airplanes has only a fraction of the carrying capacity of the DC-3.

That's one reason it's still in harness. According to aviation historian Henry Holden, author of The Legacy of the DC-3, about a hundred DC-3s are still in service with U.S. revenue-producing operations. Another 200 are still flying on this continent simply because the airplane is a celebrity. The DC-3 did for commercial aviation what the Model T did for the automobile industry, according to Ron Davies, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, who worked at Douglas (and later McDonnell Douglas) between 1968 and 1981. "By 1940, 87 percent of the commercial airplanes flying in the United States were DC-3s and the remainder were largely its progenitors, the DC-2s," says Davies. And, he adds, pilots loved the airplane. "Its performance on the ground and in-flight is excellent and has never been equalled," he says. For pilots, few airplanes were as straightforward. "If you could taxi it, you could fly it." But the aircraft wouldn't fly today for love or money were it not for an abundant, if disparate, supply of parts and support.

"I can buy good, low-time DC-3 airframes all day for $90,000," says Pat Keesler, materials manager and resident parts impresario for Basler Turbo Conversions in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For every DC-3 in the air, Keesler estimates that there are another four sitting derelict somewhere, just waiting to be cannibalized. Douglas built almost 11,000 DC-3s and C-47s between 1935 and 1945 and licensed manufacturers in Russia and Japan, which together produced at least another 4,000. Over the years, Basler has acquired DC-3 airframes from Arizona boneyards and from Canada and has also found them as far away as Africa, France, New Caledonia, and Thailand.

Since 1990, Basler has been "remanufacturing" DC-3s under its own Supplemental Type Certificate, an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration's specification for a particular aircraft type. In the course of six months, a DC-3 undergoes 32 major changes on its way to becoming a BT-67 (see "Turbine-Charged," previous page). Besides the extensive modifications, Basler replaces corroded parts with new ones, and Keesler's job is to keep the parts available while maintaining a minimal inventory. Not a problem, as far as he's concerned. "There are a lot of guys out there with barns and warehouses full of this stuff waiting for their ships to come in," Keesler says. "Well, they're going to have to wait another 50 or 60 years. There are more parts out there than there is a market for." Keesler gets most of the parts he uses from a supplier he refers to as "the Bobs."

Bob Westbrook and his employee Bob Autry run Standard Aircraft Parts out of a 25,000-square-foot warehouse and Quonset hut complex in Ontario, California. Westbrook started Standard in 1962 after working on C-47s for Southern California Aircraft Company during the Berlin Airlift. Today, Standard supplies airframe parts for DC-3s, -4s, -6s, and -7s, but sells more DC-3 parts than anything else.

Westbrook is proud of his low-overhead location and the fact that in 37 years he has never bought a single trade advertisement. People who operate DC-3s know where to find him. His company owns a single computer; Westbrook's wife uses it for billing. Standard's inventory of 150,000 parts is tracked on Kardex, a file card system akin to a library's card catalog and somehow appropriate for a 1930s-era parts inventory. "It works fine for us," he says.

After Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997, it sent out a letter announcing termination of product support for the DC-3 and pointing operators to Standard. Eight years ago Standard bought Douglas' remaining DC-3 airframe parts inventory and tooling. "Thirty-three truckloads on a 20-foot bobtail truck," Westbrook says. He took everything: ailerons, elevators, wingtips, gas tanks, rudders, bearings, bolts, brackets, and washers. Over the years he has also acquired parts inventories from the air forces of Australia, Argentina, Canada, Denmark, France, and South Africa and has sold them back to South Africa and Australia (and repurchased some of those).

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