Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Legends: Grand Central and the First DC-3

Sometimes, even staged publicity photos capture really remarkable moments in time. Such is the case with today's photo, an 8x10 glossy press print officially issued by Americn Airlines in 1937. Shown is American Airlines' Flagship Texas, which many consider to be the very first Douglas DC-3. If this photo looks familiar to Glendale enthusiasts, it is because it is a very similar view to the photo used on the cover of John Underwood's seminal book Grand Central Air Terminal. However, a glance at the aircraft in the background shows that this was taken on a different day.

The caption accompanying this press photo reads, "With the crew in place, all that remains are the passengers, shown boarding the Flagship for an overnight flight to New York. The plane is ready for the take-off from Grand Central Air Terminal Glendale, Los Angeles terminal for American Airlines, Inc." The photo is stamped "American Airlines" and was received and filed in the reference department of the National Editorial Association on November 3, 1937. A close look shows the nose number to be A-115, the Flagship Texas.

Only, this wasn't exactly a DC-3. The visual give-away are the small slit-like windows above the normal passenger windows, and the note in the caption about this being an overnight flight to New York: this is the first Douglas DST-144, the Douglas Sleeper Transport. A couple of years ago, posts here recounted how the DC-1 and DC-2 came into being at the behest of TWA's Jack Frye, and so it's fitting that we follow with the similar story of how the DC-3 was born.

American Airlines was enjoying moderate success with the idea of adapting Pullman railroad-style sleeping berths to air transportation with their Curtiss T-32 Condor, but those aircraft became instantly obsolete when the DC-2 took to the air. With Boeing selling the 247 exclusively to their sister company, United Airlines, American's C.R. Smith and his engineers took a look at the DC-2, but it didn't have as much power as they would have wanted, and more importantly, the fuselage was too narrow for the sleeper berths. So American's chief engineer, William Littlewood, sat down with his engineering staff to see if they could come up with a redesign of the DC-2 that would meet their needs. With notional sketches in place, Littlewood then approached Douglas' chief engineer, Arthur Raymond with the concept, and Raymond refined the drawings and authored an internal report the outlined the logical follow-on to the DC-2 design.

Then it was up to Smith to pitch the idea to Donald Douglas himself. Douglas initially said no. Now, TWA had started the DC-2 production with an unheard-of order of 25 aircraft, and the Douglas plant was in full swing cranking these out, as well as DC-2s for other customers. It was clearly a successful design - even though it didn't meet Smith's requirements - and in those times (remember, this is only five years or so after the start of the Great Depression, a time when capital investment by corporations was severely limited), Donald Douglas was understandably reluctant to divert resources from such a successful program and invest in something new and speculative. It was not until Smith upped the ante with an offer to order at first 10, and then 20 of the new, bigger aircraft that Douglas saw the financial benefit of pursuing the design. Smith financed the development of the design with a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corp., a government entity set up to jumpstart the nations economy.

American and Douglas engineers worked together as one team to come up with the detailed design for the DST. American loaned Douglas a Condor so that the berth design could be improved on...and one detail that the engineers noticed during the time they spent in the upper berth of their mockups was that it was easy to feel claustrophobic there, so they added the small slit windows (a photo of the berth configuration can be seen here). Since the standard-seat DC-3s don't have these berths, they understandably don't have the slit windows.

What resulted was essentally a larger, wide-body version of the DC-2, and ultimately used very few parts in common with the -2. But once Donald Douglas embraced the design, he didn't just stop at the sleeper version, but saw that there would be a ready market for a version that had only traditional seating, a version he designated as the DC-3. Eventually, Smith modified the order so that it consisted of eight DSTs and twelve DC-3s A total of 40 DST and DST-As were produced, but over 10,000 DC-3s and related civilian and military variants were built in the US, and another 5,000 were license built in Russia. (A much more detailed history of the development of the DST can be found here.)

The first DST, NX14988 (Douglas c/n 1494), took to the air on her maiden flight on December 17, 1935, a mere 32 years to the day after the Wright Brothers' first flight, and only seven months after Raymond's original report had been written! The crew consisted of Carl Cover, Fred Collbohm and Ed Stinemann. After initially serving as a flight test aircraft, the plane was finally delivered to America with an NC registration and became their nose number A-115 and was named Flagship Texas. The Texas was formally accepted by American on April 29, 1936 and "Flagship Service" with the new planes was kicked off on June 26, 1936, with inaugurations featuring the Flagship New York at Newark NJ and Flagship Illinois at Chicago. By the end of 1936, Donald Douglas' gamble had paid off, and American had possession of their twenty aircraft, and ten more had been delivered to other carriers.

As for our plane, the Texas, in 1940 it was converted to standard 32-passenger DC-3 configuration. It was later sold to TWA to be used in flying Army cargo contracts, and then later sold to the War Department and the Army Air Corps (as serial 42-43619) and assigned to the 24th Troop Carrier Squadron. Unfortunately, it it crashed and was destroyed on 15 October 1942 during bad weather near Knob Noster, MO.

This photo is incredibly clear, and so in a high-resolution scan, the planes in the background can be clearly identified. It is thus fitting that one of them, the fartherst away from the camera, is the DST's predecessor, the DC-2, here in TWA colors.

In the foreground is another American Airlines aircraft, though one seemingly from a different era, NC482W, a Stearman 4-CM-1 Senior Speedmail. American had purchased a dozen of these sturdy biplanes from Stearman in 1930 to serve on airmail routes in the midwest. To see one at this late date on the west coast, and still in American colors, is a bit intriguing. In the middle is a Lockheed 10C Electra with Mexican registration. From the photo, though, it is difficult to distinguish whether this is XA-BEO or XA-BEQ...what I think may be the tail of a "Q" could merely be a shadow. BEO (which was originally NC14260) crashed on November 1, 1937 at Playa Vicente, and BEQ crashed at Tuxlax Volcano a year later on November 7, 1938.

On the left side of the background is a parked WACO cabin-class biplane. Because WACO offered so many models and variations in their cabin class line, it's tough from this photo for me to determine exactly what type is shown here.

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