Today, we ride the first modern passenger airplane.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Lost Horizon was one
of my first movies. Have you seen it? Ronald Colman
stumbling out of an airplane crash-landed in the
Himalayas and being led off to the mythical city of
Shangri-La. I'll not forget it. The year was 1937.
The plane was one of the revolutionary new
Douglas series. Those airplanes transformed
passenger service in the early 1930s, and you can
still find them flying now and then in
remote corners of the world.
The story of the Douglas DC-3 began in 1931, when
the great football player Knute Rockne died in the
crash of a Fokker Trimotor. Rockne's death caused a
public outcry over the quality of passenger air
service. The leading airliners were then the
Fokker Trimotor and its more advanced
American version, the Ford Trimotor. Both
were great machines in their day. But even the
Trimotor was still covered with corrugated metal,
had externally exposed control wires, and
non-retracting landing gear.
TWA, then called Western Airlines, responded by
contracting with the Douglas company to build a
plane that could take off fully loaded using just
one of its two engines and beat a Ford Trimotor
from Santa Monica to Albuquerque. Douglas did just
that in 1933 with the experimental DC-1. Then they
went into production with the 14-passenger DC-2 and
started service with TWA in 1934.
The DC-2 was a fine success, but airplanes would
clearly have to carry more than fourteen people.
TWA went back to Douglas. Their chief engineer,
Bill Littlewood, wrote specifications for a third
model of this remarkable new plane. The result was
the 21-passenger DC-3. It entered service in
1936. By 1941, 80 percent of commercial airplanes
in the United States were DC-3s. They were
still our most widely used airliner as late
The DC-3 combined all-metal stressed-skin
construction, variable-pitch propellers, and
retractable landing gear in a two-engine, low-wing
monoplane that was safe, reliable, and easy to
maintain. It brought us from airplanes of the
twenties to airplanes of the forties in one step.
None of those advances were unique to the DC-3. In
1934, a whole array of flying boats also came into
being with most of the DC-3's features. They were
bigger than the DC-3, and they flew further. It
isn't clear whether or not they were following
Douglas's lead or acting independently. But as soon
as long-range airliners came into being, the day of
the flying boat ended. Still, you couldn't beat the
DC-3 when you wanted flights of only a few hundred
Nineteen thirty-four has been called the
miraculous year of American flight. A spate
of good ideas emerged all at once. The DC-3 was the
near-perfect fusion of those ideas, and it defined
modern airliners until jet planes could replace
them. The DC-3 really was the airplane to take us
all the way to Shangri-La.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Allen, F., The Letter that Changed the Way We Fly.
American Heritage of Invention &
Technology, Fall 1988, pp. 6-13.
This is a revised version of Episode 34.
The Redoubtable DC-3
Listener Edward Morrison wrote to emend my
too-simple statement that the Ford Trimotor was a
clone of the Fokker Trimotor. I quote in full Mr.
Morrison's useful account of each airplanes' lineage:
"Fokker's commercial airplanes, which were produced
in various developments through 1933 and beyond,
were derived from the design of Reinhold Platz
characterized by the 1917 Fokker D.VII. They
involved Fokker's specialty, the built-up
multicellular plywood cantilever wing, married to
his other specialty, the welded steel tube fuselage
and tail surfaces. This construction continued
(according to David Donald: Complete
Encyclopedia of World Aircraft New York: Barnes
& Noble, 1997) through 1933.
"Ford's relatively short-lived trimotor was
designed by William B. Stout from his company's
2-AT Pullman after his company was acquired by Ford
in 1925. It was chartacterized by a corrugated
all-metal construction, reminiscent of Hugo
Junkers' designs dating from World War I.
"Although the Ford 5-AT Trimotor resembled the
Fokker Model F.XII superficially, the Ford was
eight feet longer, with a two feet shorter wing
span, weighed almost 2,000 pounds less empty, and
was about twenty MPH slower than the Fokker,
although similarly powered. They were from a
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.