Sunday, October 16, 2011

Our Lady of the Douglases

A crowd has gathered around TWA's new airliner, the
Douglas DC-1. Note the "X" replacing the normal "NC" on
the tail number, and the Douglas Dolphin in the background.
Stuck in the back of a cabinet in an antique store was a small stack of photos that caught my eye. On the top was what looked like a TWA DC-3. As I thumbed through them, I knew that this stack was something special. In it there were various different Douglas aircraft from the early 1930s, including four of the TWA plane, so I'm guessing these were left over from an estate of a former Douglas employee (the images of the other Douglas aircraft in the lot will be shared in upcoming posts).

But the more I looked at the TWA photographs, the more I realized that this wasn't a DC-3...the tail was all wrong...and then there was the registration number, which started with an "X" rather than an "NC". So I dug into the research, and found that indeed this wasn't a wasn't even the earlier DC-2. This was the one and only DC-1, the plane that started it all. And since Santa Monica's Clover Field was wide open to the public, a lot of local folks appear in the photos, there to watch this new, shiny bird take flight.

If you look closely, you can see small winglets spanning
the gap between the engine nacelles and the fuselage.
These were reportedly removed soon after the first flight,
and don't appear in the last photo, below, when the plane
was operational.
Like so many of the other stories that I'm finding behind these little photographs, this one is truly remarkable. Two weeks ago, this blog featured a Fokker Trimotor photo, and it was the crash of a TWA Fokker F.10 in 1931 that led directly to these DC-1 images even being possible. It certainly wasn't the first Trimotor to crash with loss of life, but the presence of famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne on the passenger and casualty list guaranteed a lot of media attention to this accident, and the investigation that followed, and ultimately, it was that high profile attention that led to major changes in the commercial aviation industry, and the governmental bodies that oversaw it.

Gone were the wooden airliners, the age of the shiny metal birds was here. It was still an age of monopolies, however, and with the corporate connections between Boeing and United Airlines, that manufacturer's total initial output of its new all-metal Model 247 was taken by United. Thus did TWA's Jack Frye approach Donald Douglas about a new type of plane, one that would compete - and even beat - Boeing's airliner. Douglas later called the letter he received from Frye requesting a Douglas proposal the “birth certificate of the DC ships". Price for the one prototype Douglas agreed to build: $125,000 (that would be about $2 million in 2011 dollars).

The DC-1 is readied for flight. Presumably, that is Douglas VP
of Sales and Chief Test Pilot Carl Cover who can be seen
through the open cockpit side window.
I'm pretty certain that these photos were taken on July 1, 1933, the day of the DC-1's first flight. The flight almost became a disaster. Carburetor floats that had been installed backwards at the factory in both of the Wright R-1820 engines caused them to quit whenever the pilots pitched the nose up. The first time they quite was just after takeoff, and the plane would have hit the ground except for the fact that the land dropped off just beyond the end of the runway. With the nose down, the engines sputtered back to life, only to quite again. Douglas Chief Test Pilot Carl Cover's expert airmanship saved the day, and he executed an emergency landing on a nearby golf course without further incident. (Note: Some online references note his name as "Carl Clover", but Bill Yenne's authoritative book McDonnell Douglas, as well as several other references, use "Cover".)

But once that was fixed, performance of the DC-1 was phenomenal. Cover is known to have commented "She was born to fly, and she belongs up there with the angels." On September 4, 1933, the final test flight to demonstrate compliance with TWA’s demanding specifications was flown: immediately after X223Y took off from hot and high Winslow, Arizona with TWA pilots Eddie Allen and Tommy Tomlinson at the controls, one engine was shut down and the crew turned the nose towards Albuquerque, the highest airfield that TWA then served. One of the requirements that Frye had listed in the original letter to Douglas demanded the ability for the aircraft to safely operate with an engine out at the airlines highest airport. The DC-1 handled the challenge easily. On September 15, TWA took initial delivery of the aircraft, which carried a restricted airworthiness certificate, and the registration NR223Y.

Two months later, on November 15, with Donald Douglas himself on board, they had to use this capability for real, when one engine failed over the continental divide, Cover turned back and landed at Albuquerque. Douglas is said to have later remarked, "Here was the TWA requirement, for real, but you could hardly tell back in the cabin. It was like nothing happened."

Ground crew personnel meet NC223Y as she taxis to a stop,
Glendale. This appears to have been the first in a series of
images taken that day, and another a few moments later
can be seen on this City of Glendale website. 
Shortly after TWA took initial possession of the aircraft, they returned it to Douglas, which used the DC-1 for a couple of months as a test bed, including replacing the original engines with higher horsepower Wright Hornets for a short time. After a flight test program that encompassed over 200 flights, the plane was finally delivered to TWA in December, 1933, as NC223Y and went into commercial service. It wore the nose number “300” (thus becoming known within the carrier as “Old 300”) and was christened the City of Los Angeles.

On February 18, 1934, two hours before the official end of all air mail contracts, Jack Frye and Eddie Rickenbacker delivered the last commercially-carried sacks of airmail on a flight from Burbank to Newark onboard NC223Y. In doing so, they set a transcontinental speed record for transport-class aircraft of 13 hours and 4 minutes. Just a bit more than a year later, on April 30, 1935, Old 300 set another record, of 11 hours, 5 minutes for a flight from Los Angeles to New York.

Beginning in April, 1934, the plane was operated regularly on TWA's New York-Pittsburgh route until it was withdrawn from service in 1936. Reregistered as NS223Y, it was loaned to the government for a short time for some high altitude research flights.

The records caught the attention of one of the major shareholders in TWA, Howard Hughes, who bought the DC-1 from the airline, with the intention of setting an even more ambitious speed record, a round-the-world one. He had the aircraft modified with extra fuel tanks and larger 875hp Wright Cyclone engines in preparation for the trip. But it was not to be. The maverick millionaire changed his mind, and instead decided to use a Lockheed Lodestar. Old 300 was used a few times by Hughes as a corporate plane, but mostly sat unused at Burbank until it was sold in May , 1938.

The buyer was the English Viscount Forbes, Earl of Granard, who intended to set a transatlantic speed record with it. Again, however, plans fell through. He did take the plane to England, and flew it to the Continent a few times, but didn’t really have a lot of use for the plane.

Some mystery surrounds what happened next, as the venerable DC-1 got involved in the Spanish Civil War. The Earl sold the plane to the French SFTA (the Société Française des Transports Aériens), but a month later, it was in the Spanish Republic wearing the titles of the Spanish carrier LAPE, with camo paint covering her once shiny skin. The plane was operated on the Paris-Toulouse-Barcelona route until March 1939 and the fall of Barcelona to Franco. The DC-1 was even used to carry Republican government officials into exile in France.

After the war ended in April, 1939, the DC-1 was turned over to the new government, and was named Manuel Negron, registered as EC-AAE and placed into commercial service with Iberia Airlines, flying the Seville-Malaga-Tetuan route. One day in December, 1940, the pilot had just rotated and started climbing away from Malaga’s runway, when both engines quit, hauntingly reminiscent of what happened on Old 300’s first flight. But this time, the old girl’s luck had run out, and she overran the runway. No one was hurt, but the plane was far beyond repair. (The Goleta Air and Space Museum's website has a photo of the wrecked aircraft here.)

At this point, legend takes over, as there is no confirmation of the rest of this story, although it is oft-repeated by aviation historians. While the DC-1 was indeed beyond repair, locals claim that part of her aluminum structure was salvaged to construct an andas, a ceremonial throne which is used to carry a statue of the Madonna from Our Lady of Hope in Malaga during the annual Holy Week festivals.


  1. Hughes did not use a Lockheed Lodestar for his round-the world-flight but a Lockheed 14 Super Electra.

    Sönke Schulz

  2. "locals claim that part of her aluminum structure was salvaged to construct an andas, a ceremonial throne which is used to carry a statue of the Madonna from Our Lady of Hope in Malaga during the annual Holy Week festivals". Sadly, this DC-1 was full scrapped. This "andas" was built using part of a Junkers Ju-52 of Iberia. The andas can be seen now in Malaga Aviation Museum, with a plate wich confirm that.