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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"I've pulled 'em off everywhere I can think of," says Elliott. "We've got it down to a science."

Premature engine death can boost DC-3 hourly operating costs into the range incurred by a light corporate jet and is the main reason virtually all operators using the airplane for passenger service or sightseeing rides have abandoned it. (Freight operators can generally charge more and therefore survive the economic bite inflicted by unpredictable engine life.) An R-1830 engine that is lovingly coaxed to its overhaul time usually costs around $30,000 to rebuild. Salvaging one that scatters from abuse starts at $45,000.

"The engine situation is what's killing the airplane," says historian Henry Holden. "There comes a point [after multiple overhauls of the same engine] that you just can't get pressure out of the cylinders anymore."

Somehow, the DC-3 labors on. "Ten years ago, I would have said they're going to be gone in ten years," says Miami Valley's Don Elliott, whose company flies freight in a $2 million Falcon 20 jet and four Beech 18s; it also owns two Learjets, a King Air 200, and three Piper Aztecs. "The DC-3s have bought us everything we have here," says Kevin Uppstrom, and Elliott agrees.

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.

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