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.

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Standard counts a hundred active DC-3 clients (those who have purchased parts within the last six months) and a thousand inactive. They call from as far away as New Guinea. Business, Westbrook says, has never been better. He knows he picked a winner. "This is the best airplane ever made," he says. "If you give some of these smaller operators jets, they wouldn't know what to do with them. This airplane was designed so you could get to parts and replace them whole. It's like working on an old car."

From the beginning, Westbrook has stocked small, easily transportable parts--"Those are the things that wear out the fastest: bearings, bolts, and brackets," he says--and he figures his inventory will last for at least 10 more years. "We don't keep a lot of the large stuff, like stabilizers," says Westbrook. For those, the road leads to San Antonio.

Tradewinds Aircraft Supply got into the DC-3 business in the mid-1960s, when Trans Texas Airways dumped their DC-3s for Convairs. Tradewinds bought up Trans Texas' inventory of 22 aircraft and spares, then augmented that by purchasing a large DC-3 parts inventory from a Dallas broker. Today, Tradewinds sells DC-3 airframe parts "from nose to tail" worldwide, according to manager Richard Ormond. He stocks 20,000 line items and, like Standard, keeps track of it all on Kardex.

There are endless variants of and modifications to DC-3s--The military alone made more than 50 modifications to the C-47--and Ormond thought he had seen them all until a customer called looking for a left-hand aileron trim tab for a DC-3 then owned by Dow-Corning. Ormond patiently explained that DC-3s weren't made with left-hand trim tabs; in response, the customer sent him a photo. "They had the only DC-3 made with a left-hand trim tab," he admits. More common modifications are main landing gear doors and oversize engine cowls and oil coolers, which Ormond stocks, and shortened, squared-off wingtips, which he doesn't.

Although Standard Aircraft Parts, Tradewinds, and other established parts houses have the largest supply of DC-3 parts, for some parts, operators can also find cheaper sources. Basler's Keesler shows me a crate of new landing gear oleos--landing gear legs with shock absorbers. They came from a source who faxed Keesler out of the blue, announced he had oleos, and suggested that Keesler "Make offer." Keesler says he gets lots of faxes offering grosses of DC-3 airframe parts, some with deals so good that he buys the inventories sight unseen. He does business with a half-dozen hoarders regularly, none of whose names he will reveal. "There are a lot of people out there who want to know who these guys are. I ain't about to educate 'em," he says.

James Ray, manager of museum restoration programs at Delta Air Lines, is similarly taciturn when asked about parts suppliers for Delta's newly restored DC-3, number 3278 (see "Delta Queen," next page). Ray built his own database of approximately 50 parts suppliers during the DC-3 restoration and previous Delta projects, including the restoration of one of two remaining Travel Air S-6000-Bs, the airline's first aircraft. It's obvious that there's competition for the smaller parts suppliers, and finding them can involve time-consuming detective work. "A lot of the principals who have parts rat-holed aren't on the Internet," says Ray, though the Internet can be a useful source, he says. He found 20 percent of the parts he used in the DC-3 restoration there, including an authentic, fabric-covered cord for the galley telephone. "The Internet is also a great place to find aging aircraft Airworthiness Directives and virtually everything we need to know about the airplane," says Ray. For everything operators need to know about the airplane's engines, there's another resource.

Precision Engines in Everett, Washington, is one of the world's most respected overhaulers of radial piston engines. It holds FAA Parts Manufacturing Authority for over 1,200 Wright and Pratt & Whitney radial engine parts, including those for the R-1830 Twin Wasp, the engine used on most DC-3s. (Wright engines powered some early DC-3s; however, the R-1830 showed up in 1936, and all C-47s used it.)

Every other year Precision sponsors the World Radial Engine Symposium in an effort to answer customer questions and urge proper maintenance and operating procedures. The last symposium attracted 120 participants from around the globe. While some were hobbyists and warbird buffs, the vast majority were revenue haulers. One of them was Don Elliott, the director of maintenance for Miami Valley Aviation and its fleet of six DC-3s.

"They take a lot of oil," says Elliott, who was reminded at the symposium of one of the things he experiences almost daily in the field: With oil starvation the chief engine killer, the engines must be pre-oiled before each flight. An electric motor is used to pump oil into the engine before it's started. Even with this precaution, only 50 percent of the engines will run without help for 1,400 hours, the FAA's "Recommended Time Between Overhauls" for the R-1830.

"Our new pilots don't believe me when I tell them, on average, they will shut down an engine in flight every 500 hours," says Miami Valley's Kevin Uppstrom, who has more than a little experience with single-engine DC-3 flying. Then, of course, there's the natural temptation to push the remaining engine too hard, which often results in its failure on the next flight out, according to Uppstrom.

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