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, www.nasm.si.edu.