DC-3 flies exuberantly into its 50th birthday. `Gooney bird' has served in peace and war and is now older than most pilots flying it

Its aluminum skin still gleaming, Eastern Airlines DC-3 N18124 hangs in a place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum. It seems to be aiming for a landing just south of the moon rock. The presence here of this venerable airliner proves that sheer reliability can be historic. The first DC-3 took wing 50 years ago today; since then ``threes'' have hauled millions of passengers, to every corner of the world.

They have been fighters, bombers, crop dusters, and wire layers. They have bounced off mountains, lost tails, collided in midair, and continued to fly. They have been made into restaurants, trailers, and airport wind socks.

``They leak like a sieve though. Never saw one that didn't. You get puddles right under the cockpit seats,'' says retired Air Force Lt. Col. Paul DeCourcey, who has flown 12 versions of the DC-3.

With its stubby body, bent wings, and nose-in-the-air approach to life, the DC-3 looks like a chubby kid trying to make the best of things. It was designed by Douglas Aircraft Company in 1934 as a 14-passenger sleeper, after a request from the then-fledgling American Airlines.

Carriers soon realized that its wide body would carry an unprecedented load, and berths were replaced by seats three and four abreast. As the first airliner capable of operating easily at a profit, the 20-plus seat DC-3 made modern air travel possible. At the onset of World War II, DC-3s were carrying 90 percent of US air traffic.

As the US went to war, so did the DC-3, under the designation C-47 in the Army, and R4D in the Navy. Troops soon had other names for it, however: ``placid plodder,'' ``dizzy three,'' ``and gooney bird'' (after the awkward looking but equally durable albatross).

Gooneys served in every major theater of war, dropping paratroops over Normandy, delivering fuel to Guadalcanal. One overloaded DC-3 landed 80 live sheep in Burma, as Christmas dinner for British troops. Another made it back to its Chinese base despite being riddled with 3,000 bullet holes, which moaned in the wind and earned the plane the nickname ``Whistling Willie.''

After the war, newer, faster airliners began to outpace the old plane. The last remanufactured DC-3, built for Sabena Airlines of Belgium, rolled off the assembly line in 1946.

But with an airframe built like the Rocky Mountains the DC-3 was far from becoming a museum piece. Versions of the airplane served in the Berlin airlift, carrying coal and food to the beleaguered city. During the Vietnam war the venerable aircraft, usually older than the pilots who flew it, saw action both as a transport and a gunship. Today some 1,500 of the 10,000 Gooneys built in the US are still flying, says McDonnell Douglas spokesman Frank Tomlinson.

Only one scheduled carrier -- the financially troubled Provincetown-Boston Airlines -- still uses DC-3s. They own 11, which are used on Florida routes in the winter, New England ones in the summer.

``It's a forgiving plane to fly. But it's a little tricky on the ground in a cross-wind,'' says Joseph Skidmore, PBA director of operations.

Most use of the plane is by short-haul freight carriers, charter outfits, express mail companies, and even drug smugglers. In a classic case of old meeting new, a DC-3 owned by Academy Airlines of Griffin, Ga., was recently chartered to haul power units for the space shuttle Challenger.

``We love talkin' about 'em,'' says Academy chief pilot Bruce Williams of his firm's three DC-3s.

Obeying the sort of impulse that leads retired sailors to turn dinghies into planters, plane lovers everywhere have subjected DC-3 carcasses to all sorts of indignities. A California man bought one at a junk yard and made it into a mobile home; a Canadian airport uses an old fuselage as a wind indicator.

In South Africa, one was mounted as a restaurant sign. It was later taken down, refurbished, and sent back into the skies.

``It's just a heckuva good airplane,'' says Colonel DeCourcey.

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