Memories of the Gooney Bird (DC-3)

By Robert Mark on February 4th, 2018

The DC-3, a C-47 “Gooney Bird” when it’s dressed up for the military, conjures intense memories for me, like when my parents bought me an airline ticket to fly back from school in Champaign IL to Chicago one Thanksgiving. That Ozark DC-3 ride was my first, as well as my indoctrination to holding patterns and the wait to land at ORD in the middle of a winter snowstorm. Years later I found myself in the left seat of a DC-3 at Opa Locka airport in South Florida trying to get through my first type rating. The training money ran out before I took the checkride, so DC-3s became a bird I watched from afar, except at AirVenture of course.

Standing in a Gooney Bird on the ground demands balance and practice

This week our Maine Man Micah sent this report about his own memories of the DC-3. Almost coincidentally, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) this week re-launched a restored C-47, “That’s All Brother.” That airplane originally led part of the Allies D-Day assault on Normandy in June 1944. My colleagues at Flying covered it here (@flyingmagazine).

But for now, turn your attention to Micah’s story. For a guy who isn’t a pilot, I found it fascinating.

Rob Mark

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Memories of the Gooney Bird (DC-3) by Micah Engber

The New Year brings about many thoughts. These particular thoughts though were inspired by regular listener Sjoert Baker in The Netherlands. Since meeting him in Farnborough in July, 2016, Sjoert and I have continued to be touch through Twitter and the Airline Pilot Guy podcast chat room. He works with the Dutch Dakota Association also known as DDA Classic Airlines or just DDA. If things go as planned, sometime soon DDA will be bringing a DC-3 back to life to become a sightseeing passenger airliner.

Like the Wright Flyer, the Douglas DC-3 also first flew on December 17’th but thirty-two year later in 1935. It’s amazing what happened in those three decades. The DC-3 had a cruise speed of 207 mph, a range of 1,500 miles, a service ceiling of 23,200 feet and a climb rate of 1,130 feet per minute. With those kind of numbers many say the DC-3 was the first real airliner and it certainly revolutionized air transport.

Now of course, I have no doubt that you all remember that I have many favorite aircraft, yea, I’m fickle that way. My love of airplanes is catholic, that’s with a lower case letter “C”. When used that way, the word means universal. But even with my catholic tastes and fickle nature, I must say that the DC-3, without a doubt, has been one of my true loves for over 50 years.

I remember the first time I saw a DC-3, it was in the 1945 John Ford film, They Were Expendable, starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed, although I’ve got to say, my favorite actor in that film is Ward Bond; he’s always been outstanding in just about everything he’s done, Fort Apache, The Maltese Falcon, The Grapes of Wrath, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the first time I saw They Were Expendable, I must have been about 7 or 8 years old and watched it, as I did so many old films, with my father, Lew. At the end of the film I saw a plane fly in to take Robert Montgomery and John Wayne to safety. The aircraft was sleek, twin engined, looking like, as Max Flight once said, “Just what an airplane should look like.” It was love at first site. I asked my Dad, “What kind of plane is that?” He said, “It’s a C‑47.”

My Dad told me the C-47 was a cargo and troop carrying airplane, and that while he was in theatre, in Europe, he flew on them many times. A few weeks later, my Dad took me to the movies. Yes, we went out to the big screen together to see The Longest Day. A top notch flick I highly recommend. The Longest Day was filled with C‑47’s. From then on, I was looking for C-47’s in every film I ever watched.

Three or four years later, I was visiting my cousin Mitchel on Long Island in New York. He was in the Civil Air Patrol and he took me to Islip/MacArthur Airport to show me around. My Aunt Martha, Mitchel’s mom, dropped us off at the airport and said she would be back to pick us up in a couple of hours. Back then airports were pretty open spaces and even kids like us could pretty much just walk out on the tarmac at any time. I remember approaching the flight line, and I saw, parked right in front of me, a C-47, the first one I ever saw in person.

I said to Cousin Mitchel, look, that’s a C-47 but he corrected me. “No”, he said, “that’s a DC-3.” Mitchel took the time to explain the difference between a DC-3 and C-47 but it didn’t matter to me, I was in love.

We walked right up to it, got right under its nose and looked up. Remember, I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old, I was a kid, and the plane looked immense to me. I remember Cousin Mitchel’s words as he looked up with me, he said “Look at all that surface area!”

We stood in front of that DC-3 for maybe 30 minutes, and spent the rest of our time there walking around it, inspecting it from nose to tail, wingtip to wingtip. The two hours we had at the airport felt like 10 minutes and then it was time to go.

I didn’t get close to another DC-3 again for over a decade. This time it was in Athens, Ohio at the Ohio University Airport. The Avionics Department at Ohio University had been gifted two DC-3’s by the Federal Government. One was permanently grounded but the other was flown as a test bed for electronics. I never got to see them while an undergraduate, I didn’t have any way to get out to the airport, but when I returned to Athens, Ohio as a graduate student I would visit them regularly.

If you go to a map and look at the area in and around Athens, Ohio you can see that it’s pretty much of a dead spot for aircraft. It would drive me nuts not being able to look up and see an airplane in the sky. It was major event when one was visible.

As a graduate student, about every two weeks I would drive out to what was an almost deserted airport to visit the DC-3’s. Most times they were locked up in their hangar and I had to peek at them through a window, occasionally one would be outside and I could walk right up to it. But once I was invited inside and got a chance to climb up into the cockpit. It was only for a minute but what a thrill!!

A few years later I took a job in Pueblo, Colorado. Part of my job responsibility was running a summer Youth Hostel and Conference Center. The location of this facility overlooked the Pueblo Memorial Airport and it was wonderful for plane spotting. (If you want to can hear more about my experiences in Pueblo check out my story, Pueblo, A Geeks Dream which appeared on Airplane Geeks Episode 313.)

Back then the Pueblo Memorial Airport also played host to the Great Colorado Air-Show at the end of every summer. I attended it one year with my father when he flew out from New Jersey to visit me. After that I just watched the acts from my perch high on the hill that looked perpendicular to runways 8/26, and parallel to runways 17/35.

One year the Conference Center hosted a group of skydivers that were going to perform at the air-show. They were a large group and being the airplane geek I’ve always been, I befriended them, asked about their act, how long they were doing it and what they would be jumping from. They told me they hired a DC-3 and it would be coming in the next day. They invited me down to the airport to watch them “dirt-dive” and do their practice jumps. I’d never seen anything like that before and was thrilled to take part, but what I really wanted was a ride in that DC-3.

The pilot checked in the next morning; I was at the desk and made sure he got the best room we had. I told him what a fan I was of the DC-3 and that I would be coming down to the airport later in the day to watch dirt-dives and practice jumps. I asked him if there was any chance I might be able to get a ride on the DC-3 during one of the jumps. His response, “Well come on down and we’ll see what we can work out.” I was ecstatic.

Later that day I went down to the airport and was welcomed by the group. I had no familiarity with sky diving. I was taught about dirt-diving and watched everyone countdown and roll around the tarmac on their bellies on wheeled carts. They would count down, start, count up, go into formation, count down again, and break off. Then the group would critique the dirt-dive and try it again. It went on for a couple of hours until they were ready to make a practice jump.

Now I wish I remembered the pilot’s name. I do recall he had an incredible number of hours in many different types and had a US Air Force background. The way he looked, as well as the way he walked and talked, a modest yet swaggering style, he sort of reminded me of Sam Shepard.

During the dirt dives I checked in with him, asked what the chances were of flying in the DC3. He said they looked pretty good but he needed to check with the FAA inspector.

I didn’t know why a conversation with an FAA inspector was necessary, still don’t for that matter. But when the inspector came along to check in and look at the aircraft I do remember him asking the pilot if he had his own parachute. His exact words “You got a rig?” The pilot picked up a black rig and walked with it to the aircraft as they went on the inspection tour.

The inspector left and the pilot said to me, “Not this time but hang around, we should be able to get you on for the next jump.” A few minutes later the sky diving team climbed on board and they took off for their first live practice of the day.

It was just terrific to watch those engines start up from so close by, hear the roar of those Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasps, and feel the breeze they kicked up. I watched them taxi out, take off and climb. I lost sight of it for a while but then the next time I saw it, it wasn’t just it, it was them; that DC3 looked like it was giving birth to 30 or so little ants as the sky divers jumped and started their free-fall. I was so enthralled with the sky diving that I lost track of the aircraft until it landed.

The sky divers touch down, grabbed up their chutes and came back to the practice area where they re-packed and discussed the dive. Then they started dirt diving again making corrections based on what happened in the air. They told me they would only be doing 2 or 3 dirt dives this time, and then go do another practice jump, their last for the day.

Trying not to be a pest, but also not wanting to be forgotten I asked the pilot what the odds were that I would be able to come along this time. He said he hadn’t forgotten about me, but needed to run it by the FAA inspector when he returned.

The conversation between the pilot and the FAA inspector was interesting to say the least. The pilot pointed at me and said “Can I bring him along in the right seat?” The inspector replied “He got a rig?” and the pilot said, On the plane.” and the inspector replied “OK”.

Well that was great news, I was going to fly in a DC3, in the right seat no less, but I had no idea why I needed a parachute, in fact I still don’t. But I did know there was no parachute on the plane for me. I also knew that even if there was one I had no idea how to put it on, let alone use it! No matter, I was going to fly in a DC3.

The pilot walked me over to the plane and got in with me close behind him. I walked up the incline to the cockpit and had to climb over a great big green oxygen bottle, about four feet long and mounted lengthwise in the fuselage with the valve right in the opening of the cockpit door. Attached to that valve were a bunch of hospital style clear soft plastic oxygen masks connected with long clear tubing. It looked rather jury rigged to me; maybe that’s what the FAA inspector had wanted to see.

The interior of the DC3 was hot; I mean it had to be at least 95° Fahrenheit, that’s 35° Celsius. Remember it was the middle of the afternoon in August in the high desert of Colorado. The pilot had his window open and I slid mine back too, trying to catch what little breeze there might be. I was sweating like in a sauna and was soaked with perspiration.

The skydivers climbed onboard and the pilot began start-up procedures. He had me call clear out of my opened window and started the right R-1830, then he started left one. We taxied out and took off.

The skydivers were packed in behind me like cattle. One of them, directly behind me was fiddling with the oxygen and within a few minutes he handed me a mask. It seemed a bit strange to be starting the oxygen so early in the climb but then I remembered we had a 5,000 foot head start. Pueblo is at 5,000 feet Mean Sea Level. The other thing I realized, I was cold, the stiff breeze and the altitude had pretty much dried out my sweat soaked shirt and I reached to close the window.

We climbed to about 20,000 feet. It was a long climb, remember the DC3 has the service ceiling of only 23,200 and a climb rate is 1,130 feet per minute so it took about 15 minutes to get to drop altitude.

I was breathing through the mask, happy to finally be flying in a DC3 for my first time. We reached the drop point and the pilot shouted “Go!” The skydivers all started shouting “Go go go”, and then they were gone. By the time I turned around to see them exit, the plane was empty. Before I knew it we were in a steep banking dive to the right.

I’d never been in a dive so steep before or since, and while I can’t tell you how many degree bank it was, it felt like a really high angle. Between the excitement of being in a DC3 for the first time, and the first time taking off with a group of passengers I wasn’t landing with, combined with the steep dive and high bank angle it all felt a bit dreamy to me.

The pilot had put down his oxygen mask and I wondered why as I was still holding mine over my nose and mouth and was breathing through it. Like I said, it all felt like a dream. The next thing I knew we were lining up to land, touched down, and came to what felt like a very quick stop on the runway. I commented on it to the pilot and he said “that’s one of the beauties of the DC3”.

What I didn’t realize though, until I got off the plane, was that just before the skydivers jumped, they turned off the oxygen. That’s why we made such a steep dive to lose altitude quickly, and I mean quickly. That’s also why it felt so dreamy to me. I must have been hypoxic

So my first and only flight in a DC3 is just a memory, and a rather faded one at that. Some of that fade is due to time, but a good deal of it is due to lack of oxygen.

Some thirty odd years later, I’m still in love with the DC3, I guess I always will be. Maybe one day, I’ll get a chance to fly in one, with enough oxygen in my system to sustain the memory of it. Until then, the dream and the reality of that wonderful flight, that one time back in Pueblo, Colorado, will just have to do.

Here in Portland, Maine, this is your Main(e) man,

Micah

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