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NOW BOARDING: American Airlines flight from the past

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image The fully restored DC-3 Flagship Detroit flying over the Florida coast. Flagship Detroit is the oldest flying DC-3 in North America. Jim Koepnick (EAA) Photos, courtesy of James Skelly

It holds the distinction of being the oldest DC-3 flying in American skies.

By Mitch Traphagen

The sound of a DC-3 aircraft is the sound of American success. It is a sound deeply embedded into the collective consciousness of millions from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boom. The DC-3, more than any other airplane, put Americans into the sky, flying into cities large and small for decades in the time prior to airline deregulation.

Although production of the civilian version of the aircraft ended in 1942, in some parts of the world, many are still flying commercially today. A common saying among those in the industry is, “The only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3.” By modern standards, they are small and slow but they have made an indelible mark on the history of aviation.

On January 19 and 20, you can relive the golden age of aviation, and, perhaps, a bit of your youth, as the oldest flying DC-3 in North America, the Flagship Detroit, formerly of American Airlines, will be landing at the Tampa Executive Airport. The aircraft is owned and operated by the nonprofit Flagship Detroit Foundation.

“It was found in a field in Virginia,” said foundation member Jim Skelly of Apollo Beach. Skelly said that unique features of the exterior of the craft had not been modified and identified it as a former American Airlines aircraft. Since the foundation had purchased it in 2004, it has been restored to its 1937 passenger service glory both inside and out.

The DC-3 ushered in the era of passenger and long-range air travel and American Airlines played a prominent role in that transformation. Only decades from when the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, commercial airlines began springing up, primarily to carry U.S. Mail, and airplanes had changed dramatically.

In the early 1930s, the Boeing Company had a contract to build 60 Boeing 247 aircraft for United Airlines, and had refused to sell aircraft to other airlines until that order was completed. TWA Airlines contacted Donald Douglas about the development of an aircraft that could compete with the 247. The first two versions that resulted were a moderate success, but American Airlines CEO C.R. Smith had bigger dreams for what airlines could provide. Smith convinced Douglas to build an aircraft with sleeper compartments for long-range passenger flights to replace AA’s fleet of biplanes. He also committed to buying 20 of the craft should Douglas agree.

The result was the DC-3, taking to the air just 32 years after the Wright Brothers first flight. Transportation forever changed with nonstop flights now possible from Chicago to New York and cross-country travel no longer requiring nights spent on trains. With the DC-3, flying a cross-country west bound flight, with three fuel stops, took only 15 hours and east bound flights took just over 17 hours (the difference due to prevailing headwinds).

The DC-3 was also modified to provide service without sleeper berths. Those planes typically carried 21 to 32 people, as opposed to the 14 berths on the sleepers. Over the decades, capacity, however, was a nebulous limit for the craft. In 1975, one DC-3 set a record with 106 people on board, flying 98 orphan children and crew to Saigon in Vietnam.

A few years before that, Captain Randy Sohn, as detailed in an article he wrote entitled, “A Simpler Day and Time,” would be sitting at the controls of a North Central Airlines DC-3 flying a sleepy route from Minneapolis to rural communities in Minnesota. As far as air traffic was concerned, they were on their own, often flying just 1,000 feet over the farm fields.

Sohn recounts that on one flight, the captain had taken a brief nap, waking before landing in the small town of Worthington, Minnesota, known as the Turkey Capitol of the World due to numerous turkey farms in the area. On the short flight from their previous stop, Sohn had purposely adjusted course slightly in order to fly over his own boyhood farm. Upon waking, the captain immediately knew of the course deviation because he looked down and saw turkeys running from the sound of their plane. The turkeys on the correct course had long-since adjusted to the plane flying over them multiple times per day. Since the turkeys he saw were running, that meant they were unaccustomed to the sound, and thus the plane was off course — a simpler day and time, indeed.

One DC-3 owned by Sohn’s company, North Central Airlines, had spent the equivalent of nearly 10 years in the air making the equivalent of 25 round trips to the moon. In the history of North Central Airlines, a DC-3 had never suffered a fatal crash.

And so it goes with Flagship Detroit. The plane was the 21st built for American Airlines, entering service in March 1937, flying for the following decade with the airline. In all, 607 civilian DC-3s were built along with more than 10,000 military versions. Many of those aircraft were converted to civilian use after World War II.

Flagship Detroit was built with a capacity of 21 passengers, a captain, a copilot and a stewardess, the latter of which was also a registered nurse. Founded largely by retired American Airlines pilots and crew, the Flagship Detroit Foundation spent six years restoring the aircraft to its former glory. Today it holds the distinction of being the oldest DC-3 flying in American skies.

Although the roots of Flagship Detroit are in commercial passenger service, the aircraft is not a commercial conveyance today and flights are available only to members of the Flagship Detroit Foundation. The foundation is open to anyone for a tax-deductible donation of $150. The organization is dedicated to the preservation of the Flagship Detroit and accepts donations in any amount to further that objective.

“Every member of the foundation, we consider them family,” Skelly said. “We are not an elitist group, you don’t have to be a pilot. Everyone is family here.”

Stepping aboard is much more than simply boarding a plane for a short flight — it is stepping back in time, to the dawn of the golden age of aviation. As summed up so aptly by Captain Randy Sohn, the craft itself represents a simpler day and time. That time isn’t gone — it lies just inside the door of a DC-3 known as Flagship Detroit. As a result, on January 19 and 20, area members of the Flagship Detroit Foundation will do more than simply fly aboard a legend, they will travel back in time. That’s not bad for a plane that tops out at 150 miles per hour.

The Flagship Detroit is available for air shows, appearances, special events, and fundraisers. For information on the January 19 and 20 appearances at Tampa Executive Airport, flights, and general membership information for the Flagship Detroit Foundation, please contact Capt. Jim Skelly (American Airlines, Ret.) at (813) 495-0340 or visit www.FlagshipDetroit.org.

Articles by Capt. Randy Sohn and other North Central Airlines pilots are available at www.hermantheduck.org.

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