Memories of a grand lady

There’s a lot of excitement at the local unit of the Commemorative Air Force. After almost two years of hard work, its C-53 Skytrooper is about ready to fly and start touring airshows. “”A C-53! What’s that?”” some of you may ask.

At the beginning of World War II, commercial DC-1s, DC-2s and DC-3s were leased to the military under a variety of “”C”” designations for cargo carriers – the DC-3s were designated C-48, C-49, C-50 or C-51, depending on the model and the powerplants used.

The two models built specifically for the military were the C-47s and C-53s. The better known C-47, or its Navy version the R4D, had reinforced floors, more powerful engines, and were generally beefed up to be used as cargo planes. The C-53s were essentially bare bones DC-3s with troop benches instead of seats, astrodomes, and rifle grommets in the windows. These planes were used for paratrooper operations and for carrying litters when flying wounded troops.

The “”Gooney Bird,”” as C-47s were affectionately called by some, was never in the limelight like the B-17 Flying Fortress or the P-51 Mustang. Instead, Douglas’ quiet, dependable and unobtrusive transport that had made airline travel acceptable to the traveling public and profitable for the fledgling airlines in the late 1930s became the cargo workhorse for the military during World War II. It carried men, materiel, and mules to remote parts of the world. After the war, surplus C-47s and C-53s gave many an airline and transport company its start. Later that decade, the military C-47 and its big brother, the C-54, also built by Douglas, were the workhorses of the Berlin Airlift that broke the back of the Cold War blockade.

Considering that the DC-3, as well as its military versions, was in many ways the greatest transport plane ever built, it’s no wonder artists find it an intriguing subject to paint. While several prints depicting this Douglas legend have been published, the image shown here is Robert Watts’ colorful “”Flagship Over Manhattan,”” which was published by Military Gallery.

According to Arthur Pearcy’s book, “”Douglas Propliners DC-1–DC-7,”” this plane, NC25664, is a DC-3-277B that was delivered to American Airlines on March 28, 1940, and entered service as “”Flagship Rochester.””

It is interesting to note that this plane, like other earlier models built for American Airlines, has a right-hand side passenger door. According to Pearcy, this plane was leased to the military between April 18, 1942, and Aug. 23, 1943.

The artist depicts the DC-3 outbound from La Guardia Airport. He has taken the golden glow of afternoon sunlight shining through the haze to make a stunning background for the knightly shining aluminum armor of this American Airlines DC-3. The orange-red trim on the airliner delicately compliments the color of the distinctive Manhattan skyline. The artist has done a superb job of using a different, but complimentary, color to backlight the plane and make it stand out as the focal point of the picture.

As this image so aptly shows, successful artists make something as important as lighting and color balance seem so simple, so natural, that the viewer is often unaware of the artistic talent and training required to accomplish it.

Lighting, like composition, authenticity and perspective, is just one of many aspects of a painting that we often are subconsciously aware of when properly executed.

That same artistic bent and craftsmanship was seen in the DC-3.

“”The DC-3 was, in my opinion, the stepping stone for pilots from the Ford and Stinson tri-motors, the Condors, the Boeings, to the modern airliner,”” said one airline captain in the book “”Grand Old Lady.”” “”It was the schooling and transition airplane from our early commercial aircraft to the mighty and complicated liners as we know them today. We who flew the 3 had perfect confidence in it as we never had for any other plane up to that time.””

Another book that has many interesting stories told by pilots who spent hours in the cockpit of Douglas’ Commercial Model 3 is Capt. Tex Searle’s “”The Golden Years of Flying as We Remember.”” In it he captures a lifetime legacy of flying the Rocky Mountain empire with Frontier Airlines.

Other than a couple of commercial flights decades ago, my own experience with the legendary DC-3 has been limited but memorable. The DC-3’s engines give off a distinctive sound as it rumbles slowly overhead. In my youth the sound of any airplane flying overhead was motivation enough for me to tear outside for a glimpse of it, and I would watch as it lumbered across the sky until it disappeared on the horizon.

There are several airworthy DC-3s here in Southern California now, so occasionally I’m fortunate enough to see one passing overhead. When I was a youngster, my mother didn’t understand the magnetism these planes had to draw me out to watch in wonder and longing. Now 50 years later, when I come charging like a bull elephant through the house and race outside to see one, my wife observes that it’s probably my enthusiasm that’s keeping me young.

Oh, about that C-53, who knows? Maybe I’ll get a ride in it some day.

Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be reached at 909-986-1103 or at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *