Delivery Day at Clover Field

While testing on the aircraft took place throughout the spring of 1924, the U.S. Army Air Corps took official delivery of the last of the five units of the Douglas World Cruiser on March 11.

Testing on the prototype took place at McCook Field, in Dayton, Ohio, with trials on the floats in Hampton, Virginia, and again in San Diego, California. The DWC featured the 400-horsepower Liberty V-12 engine—a proven mount that the Air Corps already knew well from its use in a variety of airplane during the Great War—and it could cruise at 100 mph. According to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, 20,748 of the Liberty engines were built by auto manufacturers, including Ford, Packard, Buick, Lincoln, and Marmon for aviation use.

The Liberty A model V-12 engine, in the collection of the National Air & Space Museum. [Credit: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum]

One of my most cherished books is an original edition of “Sky Master: The Story of Donald Douglas,” signed by Douglas himself. From those pages, I quote the specifications of the DWCs, from a DAC report.

“The fuselage is made in three detachable sections and is constructed of steel tubing. Wings are of the standard wood box beam and built-in rib construction. The wings may be folded back for convenience in storage. The water-type landing gear consists of twin pontoons of built-up wood construction, the top covering being of three-ply veneer, and the bottom planking being two plies of mahogany.

“The specifications of the World Cruiser are as follows: Weight, empty, as a seaplane, 5,500 pounds; disposable load, 2,615 pounds; gross weight, 8,000 pounds; as a landplane, weight, empty, 4,300 pounds; disposable load, 2,615 pounds; gross weight, 6,915. Gasoline capacity, 450 gallons [up from 155 gallons in the DT-2], or enough for eighteen hours of non-stop flight. Wing span, both upper and lower, 50 feet; height 13 feet seven inches; length, 35 feet six inches…”

The Origin of the Douglas World Cruiser Idea

The race to circle the globe has its roots in the first flight made by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk—though it took nearly 20 years for the technology of aviation to advance to the point where such a concept became feasible.

Donald Douglas, in fact, made his first stab at the design that would inform the successful round-the-world model back in 1915, in collaboration with Boston millionaire Porter Hartwell Adams. A couple of years later, Douglas would develop another variation, the Model S seaplane, for the Glenn Martin Company.

In 1920, under the first iteration of the company that would become DAC, the Davis-Douglas Aircraft Company, Douglas’ team of engineers built the Cloudster. The Army Air Corps took a shine to the land-based sportplane its initial prospectus to Douglas, now on his own, in 1923—but he already had a better answer: the DT series.

The Douglas DT-2 on land gear served as a torpedo bomber for the U.S. Navy, and it could also fly on floats. [Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command]

Having sold several to the Navy, Douglas felt the DT-2 was a mature product ready for a new expression. He submitted the design with a handful of proposals for round-the-world requirements. The brass back in D.C. loved the idea, and dropped other manufacturers from the competition, which had included the Fokker T-2.

A Royal Honor For Honest Vision

When I traced the history of Donald Douglas in researching “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story,” one intriguing event in his life took place during a trip he made with his family to England, Scotland, and around Europe in May 1935. The impetus for the trip? An invitation to deliver the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Wilbur Wright Memorial Lecture in London.

To track down the details of that event, I contacted the librarian for the Royal Aeronautical Society in Farnborough, England. Brian Riddle paid careful attention to my request, and I was able to go a step further and visit their archives on a research trip to the UK in 2014. Excerpts from the lecture, and its publication in the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society in November 1935, warranted inclusion in the book–and with the permission of the Society, of course.

Mr. Riddle and I have stayed in touch on a couple of other research questions–and he also asked, after the book’s publication, if we would mind sending a copy for review. Not only is that review forthcoming in the new RAeS magazine, Aerospace, but “Honest Vision” has now joined the stacks within the library itself.

Honestly, I could not think of a more fitting place for this labor of love to reside. Thank you to the Royal Aeronautical Society, and to Mr. Riddle, for your enthusiasm to preserve the story of Donald Douglas.

Records: Proof Of A Concept

The champion rarely needs further proof of success, in the hearts of public opinion. And when you’re trying to entice a reticent audience to take a risk, that proof may be the special catalyst you need.

For more than 100 years, innovators in aviation have recognized that the key to their economic viability usually lies in gaining public acceptance—and there are few more visible ways to achieve that than winning a race, or setting a new record.

When I recall the races to win various speed prizes back in the early days of commercial air transport, I see the parallels to today’s efforts to demonstrate the concepts going into electric aircraft. Case in point: Rolls-Royce building an all-electric aircraft with the intent to move the bar past 300 mph.1 The project, part of Accelerating the Electrification of Flight—or ACCEL—shows that even a world leader in the industry can’t just toil away in isolation. A prize, and the publicity that goes with it, will be needed to catalyze acceptance. With the barriers that we must still surmount in making electric-powered aircraft the standard, having the public behind it is critical.

In 1935, Douglas Aircraft Company met a similar challenge. With its DC-1 and DC-2 flying, it faced intense competition from European manufacturers—and a still-reticent public not yet sold on the idea of transcontinental flight. The U.S.-based National Aeronautical Association (NAA) wished to recapture a raft of speed records and prove the value of American aircraft manufacturing. So TWA, who had purchased the original DC-1, loaned it in pursuit of gaining back the advantage.

“The first record-breaking attempt launched from Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island, New York, at 7 a.m. on the morning of May 16, 1935. Loaded with extra weight (to meet international class criteria), the DC-1 took off with a run of 30 seconds and headed south at 10,000 feet. For an entire day, [TWA’s experimental test pilot Tommy] Tomlinson and co-pilot Bartles flew a triangular course between New York, Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, breaking a record roughly every three hours. When the clock ticked over 1:50 a.m. the next day, they had set a new record for the 5,000 km mark (nonstop) in 18 hours, 22 minutes, and 49 seconds, at an average speed of 169.03 mph.”2

The proposed electric aircraft from Rolls-Royce’s ACCEL intends to double that mark. Though attaining a pure speed won’t fully solve other critical elements of the problems faced (battery weight and life, among others), it will surely contribute to the public’s good perception of the concept. In hot pursuit of viable electric aircraft, success will breed future acceptance.

1: “Rolls-Royce goes for record with 300mph+ electric aircraft,” published online in Flyer. 2019 Seager Publishing. Accessed January 10, 2019.

2: “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story,” Julie Boatman Filucci. 2018 Aviation Supplies & Academics; page 114

The sole DC-1, owned by TWA

Where Honest Vision Was Born

We’d traveled to Santa Monica on the day before, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the DC-3’s first flight. Because the weather on the actual day, December 17, 2010, threatened low clouds and rain, we planned to fly with a friend in Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, a C-47 based in Paso Robles, on the afternoon of the 16th, from the Santa Monica Airport at 3:30 pm, to match the time that Carl Cover first took a Douglas Sleeper Transport to the skies in 1935.

But we had time to kill—a dangerous thing for a pilot crew—so I told my pals Dan and Matt that we’d drive down San Vicente Boulevard, so that we could see the house that Donald Douglas had designed and built, in 1927, for his family. Well, what we *could* see of it, hidden behind its long stucco walls.

We parked and walked along the sidewalk to the front gate, which had been braced with the Olde English style lamps that Doug favored. I peered through a crack…you couldn’t really see a thing from the road. “Should we see if anyone’s there?” said Dan. I hesitated. It never occured to me to ring the bell, to disturb whoever lived there. But it was early afternoon on a weekday—so in my mind, no one was likely to answer.

But someone did. And introducing himself as the house manager, the man asked what we wanted. Dan told him we were in town to celebrate the DC-3, that we knew the house as Doug’s own. And next thing we knew, the gate parted, opening onto a drive down which strolled Douglas, the kind estate manager, who offered to show us around.

I was stunned, not believing our luck. Jim Douglas, Doug’s son, had told me that he hadn’t seen inside the house since it was sold, following his parents’ divorce, in the mid 1950s.

We walked past the rose garden and around the back into the living room. The house was overjoyed with Christmas decorations, lending it a timeless, enchanted feeling. Douglas detailed the restoration work that the owner had completed—she was a native to the neighborhood, and most everything in the house was still original, as the only intermediate owner died without any money to remodel or fix things up.

He introduced us to the kitchen, the dining room, and the lounge, complete with its own pine-clad bar set into the wall. He showed us where the fallout shelter had been, and where Doug’s shop once stood—it was now an intimate movie theater, where once Doug had built models and tinkered with inventions with his children.

Finally, we stood in what had been Doug’s study, and I took in its somber, yet inviting warmth. I imagined his books lining the shelves—knowing that he kept special ones locked away in a hidden cupboard. I asked Douglas if he’d found it, and he smiled. Yes, and he showed us where it was—exactly where my eyes had been. It was the most logical place, but somehow, also, it made sense to me in a different way. I understood a little bit more that day about the man who led his company to create the DC-3.

He came home to his study each day during those years between 1932 and 1936, when the development of the Douglas Commercial line hit full stride, and came to a milestone with the entry into service of American’s first DST in 1936. Douglas had set out a leather-bound folder on the desk, with Doug’s initials (DWD) embossed in gilt on the front cover. Inside were a series of professional photos, shot dramatically in black and white—they were staged for an issue of Architectural Digest that neither Douglas nor I have been able to locate. These were used to help the owner restore the home to its period state.

But more so than that, they confirmed that where we stood resembled very closely the home in which Doug lived while the DC-3 came to life in the factory over in Santa Monica’s Clover Field municipal airport. I breathed in every bit of those rooms that I could, knowing that someday I would write more about this intriguing man’s life.

That was eight years ago, of course. So this year, I’m proud to wish a Happy 83rd Birthday to the DC-3, and raise a toast to 2018 during which that biography, “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story,” came to life.

The Douglas C-47 Miss Virginia at Oshkosh 2018. Photo by Stephen Yeates.

Happy 80th, Darla Dee

On October 29, 1938, a DC-3-227A, c/n 2054, rolled out of the Douglas Aircraft factory in Santa Monica, California, on a beautiful autumn day. Nothing of particular note on her entry into service–except for where she was bound. She’d soon be put on board the deck of a ship bound for Antwerp, Belgium, where she’d be reassembled and put into flying condition. Reborn as HB-IRO, she’d fly for Swiss Air until the war shadowed Europe and she detailed to that effort.

Her early life, for Swiss Air, as HB-IRO

After World War II, she returned to the United States, where she flew as a corporate transport, until Ozark Airlines snapped her up in the late 1950s, and christened her “N143D.” She flew around the Midwest for several years, until she retired from airline flying in 1968. Academy Airlines, a cargo operation in Griffin, Georgia, put her back to work in the 1970s and 80s, and she trained new pilots to the joys of large tailwheel flying–and the life of the freight dog.

N143D during her days flying cargo for Academy Airlines

Since 2001, she’s had an easier life, back to training full time, then, beginning in the summer of 2017, providing lift for skydivers in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She visits airshows from time to time, sponsored by Gold Seal Ground Schools–but her favorite thing has to be showing kids what flying history looks like. You can read more about her story in “Together We Fly: Voices From The DC-3,” and more about how Donald Douglas led the team that developed the Douglas Commercial aircraft line in “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story.” Happy birthday, Darla Dee!

N143D showing a beautiful wing at Oshkosh 2017. Photo by David Parlee/ASA 2018