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The Gooney Bird Goes To War

The Douglas Commercial airliner dons khaki as a workhorse for the Allies

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 23, Number 1, Spring, 1998 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

In 1929, Donald W. Douglas reorganized The Douglas Company into the Douglas Aircraft Company and built a new plant at Clover Field in Santa Monica, Calif. Douglas had built torpedo bombers and the famous Douglas World Cruisers for the U.S. Navy, and observation planes for the Army Air Service during the 1920s. They also built the M series of single-engine commercial transports, used extensively to fly the U.S. mail.

In addition to military designs, the Santa Monica plant began production of single and twin-engine amphibian flying boats, in anticipation of an expanding civilian luxury transport market. That market, however, evaporated when the U.S. stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 triggering a worldwide economic depression. Douglas’ existing military contracts and its conservative fiscal policies kept the company afloat and financially sound.

Birth of the Douglas Commercial

By 1932, problems with the safety of single-engine transports and high maintenance of wood and fabric planes caused U.S. airlines to look for something faster, safer and more dependable. Boeing was developing its Model 247, a sleek, low-wing twin-engine transport, with 70 on order by United Air Lines (UAL). In August 1932, Donald Douglas received a letter from UAL rival Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) asking if Douglas was interested in designing and building ten or more three-engine transports for TWA.

Despite the relatively small market for a new airliner, Douglas proposed an advanced twin-engine design, and on September 20, 1932 a contract for the Douglas Commercial One (DC-1) was signed, with options for sixty further planes, if the prototype proved successful.

Powered by 690 hp Wright Cyclone engines, the DC-1 made its first flight at Clover Field on July 1, 1933, just nine months after the contract’s signing, and TWA ordered twenty production versions with the fuselage stretched by two feet, increasing the seating to 14 passengers. The production model was designated the DC-2 and 59 were built in 1934 and another 130 in 1935. The U.S. military also took note of the new Douglas transport, the Navy ordering five as R2D-1s while the Army Air Corps ordered 18 cargo transports as C-33s.

In 1935, American Airlines asked Douglas if it could modify the DC-2 with a wider cabin to carry sleeping berths, to replace the airline’s Curtiss Condor biplane transports on the New York-Chicago route. American obtained a $4.5 million loan to prove it could pay for the new aircraft. When the first Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) took to the air on December 17, 1935, it was really a new design, using less than 15 percent of the components of the DC-2, and as day transport versions, without sleeping berths, began to be ordered, they were designated DC-3s.

Engines for the DC-3/DST could be either 9-cylinder Wright Cyclones or 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps, both producing 1,000 to 1,200 hp, depending on the model. Due to a lack of funding for new designs, the Army Air Corps ordered 35 C-39s, which combined the fuselage of the DC-2/C-33 with the wings and tail of the DC-3. The last C-39 was delivered in September 1939, the same month that the Second World War began in Europe.

The Gooney Bird Dons Khaki

With a global war a real possibility, the American military finally began to rearm in 1940. In September, the Army ordered 147 military versions of the DC-3, to be called C-47s. Powered by 1,200 hp P&W R-1830-92 engines, these were to be built in Douglas’ new plant in Long Beach, Calif. Military funds also allowed the opening of a third plant in Oklahoma City, Okla. Planes built at Santa Monica carried the suffix DO, Long Beach DL and Oklahoma City DK.

Prior to America’s entry into World War II, Douglas had delivered 430 civilian DSTs and DC-3s, and about 149 more were either on order by airlines or under construction. The latter were impressed into military service, often with little more modification than the fitting of military radios, and given a variety of designations, as shown in the table below.

Designation Airline customer Total
C-48 United


C-48A unknown


C-48C Pan Am


C-49 TWA


C-49A Delta


C-49B Eastern


C-49C Delta


C-49D Eastern


C-49J various


C-49K various


C-50 American


C-50A American


C-50B Braniff


C-50C Penn Central


C-50D Penn Central


C-51 Can Col


C-52 United


C-52A Western


C-52B United


C-52C Eastern


C-53C various


C-68 unknown


Undesignated Pan Am


R4D-2 Eastern


R4D-4 Pan Am


The C-47, officially named Skytrain by the Army Air Forces, was fitted with a large two-section cargo door on the left side of the fuselage. The floor was reinforced for up to 6,000 pounds of cargo or 28 paratroops in folding seats on each side of the cabin. The first C-47 was delivered from the Long Beach facility in November 1941 and the last on December 23, 1941 when production shifted to the C-47A, with minor improvements, including a 24-volt electrical system.

The C-47A was produced in greater numbers than any other military version of the DC-3, with 2,954 built in Long Beach and 2,299 in Oklahoma City. The Skytrain had a top speed of 230 mph at 8,800 feet, service ceiling of 24,000 feet and maximum allowable weight of 31,000 pounds but normal cruise as 160 mph and normal loaded weight was closer to 26,000 pounds. The normal fuel load of 804 gallons was good for about 1,600 miles, but up to 900 additional gallons could be installed in ferry tanks in the fuselage, giving a maximum ferry range of 3,800 miles.

By early 1942, the need to fly supplies in the China-Burma-India theater over the Himalayan Mountains or "Hump" resulted in the C-47B, with two-stage superchargers and improved heaters for high-altitude operations. Over 3,200 were built and Skytrains carried much of the load over the Hump until April 1943, when the first Curtiss C-46 Commandos began to arrive in India. The C-46 proved better at high-altitudes, and many C-47Bs had their second stage supercharger clutches removed and were redesignated C-47Ds for normal service.

A second military version of the DC-3 was the C-53 Skytrooper, designed as a troop transport, without the large cargo loading door and with provisions for towing transport gliders. The initial batch of 221 C-53s had fixed metal seats and was powered by the same P&W R-1830-92 engine as the C-47. Eight were built for Arctic operations as C-53Bs, and the designation C-53C was used for aircraft impressed into service from the airlines, as listed in the table above. The final version was the C-53D, whose 159 aircraft had side-mounted seats in place of conventional seats.

The final USAAF version of the DC-3 produced in World War II was the C-117A, fitted with 21 airline style seats and used as staff transports. Mechanically similar to the C-47B, 17 of these more luxurious versions were built late in the war.

Ready For Duty With The Navy

Of more than 10,000 military DC-3s built or impressed into service, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps ended up with only 567, most transferred from USAAF contracts. The designation R4D indicated that it was the fourth transport obtained from Douglas. The R4D-1 was basically a C-47 cargo carrier fitted with Navy equipment. The first of 106 was delivered in February 1942. The designations R4D-2 and R4D-4 were given to ex-airline aircraft, while 20 R4D-3s were C-53 personnel transports originally ordered for the Army.

The 238 R4D-5s were C-47As transferred from the USAAF, and were the most produced Navy version of the DC-3 design. A number were equipped for special duties including electronic and radar countermeasures and air-sea and anti-submarine warfare training. Also built originally for the Army, as C-47Bs, were 150 R4D-6 aircraft, many of which also served in special roles. The last Navy version was the R4D-7, 41 of which were used as navigation trainers.

Primary user of the R4D was the Naval Air Transport Service, created on December 12, 1941. Naval transport squadrons operated R4Ds between the United States and many overseas bases while operations in Pacific combat areas were carried out by the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Service. Carrying high-priority loads, the R4Ds helped keep Navy and Marine air and surface units supplied and in the fight.

Under Foreign Flags

Great Britain received over 1,900 C-47/C-53s under Lend-Lease during World War II, calling them Dakotas, or simply "Daks." Dakota Marks I, III and IV were cargo/paratroop carriers corresponding to the C-47, C-47A and C-47B. The Dakota Mk. IIs were basically C-53 personnel transports.

Even before the beginning of the war, the DC-3 was recognized as a world-class transport, and several countries sought to build it under license. In 1938, Soviet engineer Boris P. Lisunov traveled to Santa Monica to study Douglas production techniques for nearly two years. Licensed production began in 1940 in Moscow under the initial designation PS-84, soon changed to Li-2. Powered by two 900 hp Shvetsov M-62 engines, derived from Wright’s R-1820F series radial, production of the Li-2 was moved to Tashkent in 1941 when German forces threatened Moscow. Some Li-2s were armed with gun turrets and others were used as night bombers, carrying up to 4,000 pounds of bombs underwing. Production continued until the end of the war and is thought to have totaled more than 2,000.

In early 1938, Showa began licensed production of the DC-3 in Japan for the Japanese Navy under the designation L2D. Showa built 414 in both cargo and personnel transport versions, and another 70 or so were built by Nakajima. Powered by 14-cylinder Mitsubishi Kinsei engines rated at 1,000 to 1,560 hp, the L2D was widely used by the Japanese Navy and was given the Allied code name TABBY. A row of extra windows extending aft from the cockpit helped differentiate it from Allied C-47/R4Ds.

Service Above And Beyond

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, over 800 Douglas Skytrains and Skytroopers dropped or airlanded 13,000 U.S. paratroopers behind German lines in support of the liberation of occupied Europe. Dakotas did the same for the British airborne. In all theaters, they flew critical supplies of food, medicine and equipment into combat zones and carried the most seriously wounded back for care. And, of course, it often brought that most precious of cargos to the GIs far from home – mail from home.

When asked to name the weapons that won World War II, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower is said to have answered the C-47, bazooka, jeep and atomic bomb. Pretty good company for a plane designed as a civil airliner. Of course, the end of the war was not the end of the Gooney Bird. But that’s another story.

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