The Magic Number

Those of us who own or rent airplanes are aware of the registration numbers, or N numbers, that each must carry. Few, however, realize that those numbers are not cast in concrete, but are transferable. An owner can cancel a number that came with his plane and replace it with one of his choice — provided, of course, that someone else isn’t using it.

An outstanding example of a particular number that has been used on several airplanes is NC (later plain N) 30000. What is really remarkable is that the number was used on four airplanes of the same basic model, owned and operated by the same organization, over a period of about 20 years.

The first NC30000 was used on a stock Douglas DC-3A built in 1941. The normal progression of registrations had gotten to 30000 by that time. The block of several dozen starting at that figure was assigned to civil products of the Douglas Aircraft Co. Since it was tied closely to the principal product, the DC-3, Douglas got the nice round number assigned out of sequence to a company demonstrator and executive transport. The more desirable number, NC3, was tied up with other low numbers in the federal government’s fleet of civil aircraft, and apparently NC300 and NC3000 were either in use or not of interest.

So the company-owned DC-3A, with factory Serial No. 4809, became NC30000. After Pearl Harbor, with the subsequent rigid controls on non-military flying on the West Coast, the DC-3A continued to fly on company business, but with great difficulty. As a non-airline civil plane, its utility was greatly reduced by time-consuming paperwork. By the time all the necessary applications, clearances, flight plans, etc., could be obtained for a short executive flight, the executives could have gotten to their destination by surface transportation.

Douglas finally gave up and let the Army take over the airplane. It was then given Army designation C-53, even though it was not built on a military contract, and Army Serial No. 4336600 in a block reserved for special acquisitions. The Army promptly turned it back to Douglas on a bailment contract, and the company continued to use it in its former capacity with greatly reduced clearance problems.

Douglas, however, did not give up NC30000 as a registration when Serial No. 4809 went military. When the plane was sold as military surplus after the war, it didn’t get its old number back. It went to Hawaiian Airlines as NC33649. After serving there through the 1960s, it was passed on to new owners and may still be flying.

Right after the war, thousands of surplus Army C-47s and Navy R4Ds, military cargo adaptations of the DC-3, hit the surplus market. Many were bought up and put to work as cargo planes, but those destined for passenger work needed a little refurbishment. Douglas went after some of that business and started by buying a surplus C-47A that carried Serial No. 13825 and Army Serial No. 43-30674. The plane was given the old NC30000 registration and became the first DC-3C. The C indicated that it was a refurbished C-47 operating as a DC-3. Douglas also gave it a new serial number, 43073. The DC-3Ds were the civil conversion of the unfinished C-117s, themselves later military transport versions of the DC-3.

Since Douglas now had more important work on hand than refurbishing DC-3s, it got out of that line of work after completing 17 DC-3Cs and 28 DC-3Ds. Other specialty firms have since been turning out DC-3Cs that retain the original Douglas serial numbers. Only Douglas issued new ones to the old airframes. When Douglas sold the second NC30000 in 1949, it again kept the number, and the plane became N27W under the new ownership.

The third N30000 (the C was dropped in 1948) was another ex-military C-47. This had been bought from surplus by Western Air Lines late in 1945 and registered as NC56592. Douglas bought it from Western and converted it to the first DC-3S, or Super DC-3. It too got registration N30000. The Super first flew on June 23, 1949, but the civil sales campaign was not successful.

The ship was finally sold to the Air Force as a YC-47F (it originally was to have been a YC-129) and got a new Air Force serial number, 51-3817. The Air Force preferred a later design, and sold 51-3817 to the Navy, which assigned the designation R4D-8X and gave it Navy Bureau No. 138659. That number was changed to 138820 after the plane was modified to the standard of the 100 R4D-8 conversion that the Navy ordered. No single airplane has had as many U.S. military serial numbers— one Army, one Air Force and two Navy, plus two from the factory.

What about N30000? Again, Douglas kept it and assigned it to the second DC-3S prototype after the first was sold. This one was a prewar DC-3 (Serial No. 4122) that had been ordered by American Airlines and was registered as NC15579 when the Army drafted it right off the factory floor in 1941 and designated it a C-50 with Army Serial No. 41-7700. The airline got it back at the end of the war and flew it for a while with the original registration.

Douglas bought it from American. It got a new serial number, 43159, but was flown under the old N15579 until the first DC-3S went to the Air Force. It kept N30000 for at least 10 years until it was sold and reregistered as N222H.

Maybe Douglas is still sitting on that nice round 30000, because it hasn’t appeared on another airplane since its fourth application. The old DC-3 isn’t dead, so maybe a fifth N30000 will be seen sometime.

THE FIRST NC30000: A 1941 Douglas DC-3A was used by the company as a demonstrator and executive transport. Here it carries post-Pearl Harbor civil markings — a big U.S. on each side of the fuselage and the military star-in-circle insignia on the wing opposite the registration number.

AFTER DOUGLAS SOLD the first DC-3S to the Air Force in 1951, its N30000 registration was transferred to the second DC-3S, which had been converted from prewar DC-3 NC15579 and was still using the same number. The first DC-3S used 1,475-hp Wright Cyclone engines. The second used 1,300-hp Pratt and Whitney’s. This photo was taken in August 1958 at Douglas.

NO. 2: The second NC30000 was a former U.S. Army C-47A, the military cargo version of the DC-3A. Douglas bought it from government surplus right after the war and converted it to the first DC-3C, a moderately refurbished C-47. This plane was used on company business until 1949, and was then passed on to a new owner. The photo was taken in September 1946.

THREE’S THE CHARM: The third user of N30000 was another surplus C-47. An airline had used it briefly, then Douglas bought it and modified it extensively as the first DC-3S, or Super DC-3. Neither the airlines nor the Air Force ordered production articles, but the Navy had 100 of its R4Ds rebuilt as R4D-8s. They were re-designated C- 117Ds in 1962.

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