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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Model, DC-3 airplane
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection
The 1:20 model is of a DC-3 operated by TWA, cruising in flight, ca. 1939. The model is intended to be representational only.
Physical Description
Scale: 1:20. Model built 2003.
Date Made:
Dates Used:
1936 - Indefinite
DC-3 used worldwide; some still flying

Long-distance air travel became widely practical with the adoption of the Douglas DC-3 by several airlines in the mid-1930s. Earlier airliners were either too small to carry a profitable number of passengers, too costly to maintain, or both. Due to its advanced aerodynamic design and greater passenger capacity, the DC-3 was, at the same time, faster and more productive to operate, cutting costs per passenger-mile and earning more in revenue.

The DC-3 was not the first commercial airplane of all-metal construction, retractable landing gear, and advanced aerodynamics. That was the Boeing 247 of 1933. But the DC-3 was larger, had more powerful engines, and was a direct outgrowth of design work at the Douglas Aircraft Co. on the DC-1 of 1932 and the DC-2 of 1934. These models were successfully developed as the result of a performance specification from the airline, Transcontinental & Western Air (original name of TWA), of which Charles Lindbergh was a technical advisor. A number of airlines, both in the U.S. and overseas, bought the DC-2.

The DC-3 began as a "sleeper" version of the DC-2, called the DST, for "Douglas Sleeper Transport." American Airlines was the instigator. Enlarged and much modified from the DC-2, the DST accommodated 14 passengers in day/night berths patterned after Pullman berths on railroad sleeping cars. (The DC-2 seated 14 in conventional seats.) In 1936, American bought eight DSTs and 12 "day" versions with 21 passenger seats; the latter version became the DC-3.

Compared to the Boeing 247 or the earlier Ford "Tri-Motor," the DC-3's far more stylish lines, comfortable cabin, greater power and range, and economical operation attracted passengers and airline managers alike. TWA and United Air Lines began flying DSTs and DC-3s in 1937. United and Eastern Air Lines bought DC-3s soon thereafter. While the popularity of the DST faded quickly, the 21-seat DC-3 became the workhorse of airlines everywhere on the globe. By early 1942 in the U.S., 80 percent of commercial aircraft on scheduled runs were DC-3s.

In World War II, the DC-3 served the U.S. Army Air Force as the C-47 "Skytrain," flying in every theater of war as the basic air transporter. In the British RAF, which acquired many of them, the plane was called the "Dakota." The C-47 also dropped paratroopers, notably en masse at Normandy in June 1944.

Air travel grew rapidly after 1935, but to keep things in perspective, airlines accounted for just 2 percent of U.S. commercial passenger travel by 1939. Government support - building airports, granting mail contracts - was indispensable to airline economics.

DC-3s flew in scheduled service in the U.S. until the late1950s. A few regional airlines flew them regularly into the mid-1960s.

To learn more about the way airplanes revolutionized travel, visit the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum or visit its website,

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