I hadn’t planned to go to Dallas this year for the annual AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) conference. I was still settling into my new job and still (and will be for a long time) trying to save money and build my savings back up from being unemployed for 11 very long months. But when my instrument instructor from years ago when I was living in California said he and some of my other pilot friends were going, I checked out ticket prices to get there and figured I could spend the little bit of money it would cost for the short flight on Southwest, and I got one way just on points, so my rationalization of the trip was even easier. Until I was looking at the information on what would be going on around the conference and…ooh shiny! You know the way kids will notice anything shiny? That’s me with really cool airplanes. I decided it was some serious fate in the works when I saw on AOPA’s Facebook page that a group called The Greatest Generation (http://www.gga1.org/) would be giving rides and the opportunity to actually fly (for a price, of course)…wait for it!…a C-47! What’s a C-47, you ask? I don’t blame you. I had to look that one up myself. But I almost swallowed my tongue when I saw that C-47 is just the military’s way of saying DC-3. You read that right. A chance to not only ride in but to also pilot a DC-3?!? Is my mind playing tricks on me?
I mentioned that you could do these things for a price, yes. But what about trying to save money, Erin? Thank you for asking. I did some quick calculating in my head of some stuff I was selling on eBay and justified the entire flight experience with that. Okay, so it really came up $200 short. But what’s an extra $200 above what I just sold on eBay for a chance to fly a DC-3? Nada. That’s what. Here’s my credit card. I had been so good lately about saving money. One has to occasionally reward oneself for good behavior.
I began to read more about DC-3s and C-47s in general and tried to find as much information as I could about this plane in particular, named Southern Cross. DC-3s came about when American Airlines asked Douglas for a larger version of the DC-2 that would allow for better sleeping accommodations on international flights. The DC-2 was a 14-passenger plane, and the new plane, designated DC-3, would accommodate 24 passengers. It is credited as being the biggest influence for the nearly 600% increase in airline passenger traffic between 1936 and 1941. It was one of the famous “Pan Am Clippers” and is invoked often when speaking of the “golden age” of aviation. It took what was then thought of as a short 16 hours from San Francisco to Hawaii, something that now takes about five hours. The military quickly figured out that it would be great for transport but specified some modifications to be made, including larger engines, stronger floors, and larger cargo doors, in its large order of them in 1940, now with the military designation of C-47 Skytrains. It was also known as “Dakota” by the British, R4D by the Navy, Skytrooper, Gooney Bird, and a few colorful names I won’t mention here. It flew the infamous Burmese Hump and was a utilitarian troop transport in various campaigns in WWII. It was also the original aircraft used in the Berlin Airlift before being replaced by the bigger and faster C-54 Skymasters and DC-4s. What an incredibly noble and storied past!
I barely slept the two nights leading up to my flight. I kept telling myself, while tossing and turning, how ridiculous it was to lose sleep over this, but my mind just wouldn’t turn off wondering what it was going to be like. I knew our time together would be far too fleeting – only 30 minutes. So I wanted to make the most of every second!
When I arrived at the Vintage Flying Museum at Ft. Worth Meacham Airport (KFTW), the C-47 was already pulled out of the large hangar and was parked on the ramp near a taxiway. The C-47 is a taildragger, as all planes used to be before the tricycle gear became the norm. And I have my taildragger endorsement, having flown many Citabrias, Super Decathlons, an Extra, and a Pitts. But never anything like this! It pointed up so high that it looked like it was begging to be taken into the air and was too impatient to wait. Since I knew I’d only have 30 minutes to fly it, I wanted to spend at least that amount of time beforehand taking pictures of it. I had just taken my first one when a gentleman asked “Are you here for the pilot experience?” Why, yes. Yes I am. He introduced himself as Chris, one of the C-47 pilots, and said he flies in from Florida just so he can fly the plane. Can’t blame him there!
Chris escorted me inside the hangar and introduced me to Jim Terry, the C-47 instructor. I also met Don, the other pilot who I would be sharing a flight with. Jim brought us into a small room on the side of the hangar that had a submarine torpedo sitting on the floor. Well that’s something you don’t see everyday! Jim already had a diagram of the airport drawn on the whiteboard and talked about the important speeds for tail lift, rotation, climb out, downwind, and final approach. I tried to ingrain them in my memory but also knew that in the heat of controlling the airplane for the first time, I’d forget absolutely everything, possibly even my name, and would rely heavily on Jim for instruction. He also said that it’s so loud with takeoff power that we won’t be able to hear each other even with our headsets on, so he’d use hand signals during that time. I actually didn’t believe that and thought I’d be able to hear with my super-duper noise cancelling headset. All this information was great, but all I could think was “So when do I get to fly it?!?”
FINALLY (okay, so it was only like 10 minutes), we got to do a walkaround of the airplane with Jim explaining things as we went along. The wingspan on this thing is a whopping 95 feet, just a tad longer than my airplane’s 36 feet. And the cockpit sits up about 16 feet high, giving me a rather different perspective than sitting about six feet high in my airplane. You gotta love an airplane that you have to climb up an incline from the back to get into the cockpit! The main gears were so big that the top of the tire came up to my chest. Just the flaps alone were about the size of my entire wingspan. The cover for the landing light had protective wiring covering it because apparently if a rock or enemy fire broke the cover and the landing light, it was such a huge drag that the wing could barely produce enough lift to stay in the air. Oh and those big, beautiful radial engines! They were covered in oil and there was a pretty good oil spot on the ground just from sitting out for an hour or two, and Jim said that’s all normal. This airplane is definitely not for the faint of heart nor for those who mind getting dirty.
Since Don had more ratings than I have, I suggested he go first so I could watch and hopefully learn something from seeing him fly it and more hopefully not make a total ass of myself when it was my turn. It was a really dreary, overcast day with a big storm and cold front due to hit that night. We taxied out and picked up the ATIS that said the ceiling was broken at 900 feet. In order to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), the ceiling has to be at least 1,000 feet high, but Jim said that since we would only be staying in the pattern, we’d have no problem getting a Special VFR from the ground controller. So when he called up the ground controller and the controller asked “Do you have an IFR flight plan on file?”, Jim said “Negative. Request Special VFR to remain in the pattern.” The ground controller came back with “Unable Special VFR.” My world came crashing down as I knew that the weather would only deteriorate from here on for the day. Good thing I didn’t have a microphone or I would have yelled “But don’t you get that this is a once-in-a-lifetime flight?!? Please let me go!” We all looked at our watches to see how long it would be for the next weather update to come out. It was 10 minutes away. Jim said he couldn’t sit there with the engines running for 10 minutes, so we taxied back to the hangar and shut down. Both Don and I were completely dejected. By the looks on our faces, you’d think someone had just died. Jim suggested we look around the museum while we waited, which we did while we traded flying stories and compared ratings and hours. About 15 minutes later, Jim found us and said that they had signed up a full plane of passengers who wanted to take a ride around the city. The ceiling had miraculously lifted to 1,100 feet. He asked if we wanted to ride along and then hopefully we’d be able to fly it after. Did we want to ride along? Gosh, lemme spend a whole nanosecond thinking about that. “YES!” Did I say that too loudly and eagerly?
Since Don had already had the pleasure of taxiing it before, he let me taxi it over to the conference flightline where we’d pick up the passengers. It’s normal for me to need a cushion even in my plane to be able to reach the rudders. I needed two cushions in this plane and still had to kind of slouch so I could get full deflection on the rudders. And full deflection was absolutely necessary because it took full deflection to get any response from the plane. So I’d be taxiing, it’d stray a bit from the centerline, I’d gingerly push on the rudder like I’m used to doing in my plane to get a quick response, realize it hadn’t budged, and then put in full rudder, but then it was already pointed too far the other way. So taxiing, and this is with the tailwheel lock making it easier on the straight parts of the taxiway, was a full leg workout. I pulled up to the flightline, and I’m telling you every single person standing there had their cameras out taking pictures and video of this beautiful beast. I felt a little weird being the one driving it in all these pictures and wished I could have told them this was my first time ever touching the airplane just to see their reaction. I’m sure they expected some grizzled war-weary veteran to be sitting up there, certainly not l’il ol’ me with my two cushions behind me. Once we shut down the engines, though, it was time for me to give up my fantasy and turn it back to the real pilots.
Since the city tour had sold out all 22 seats, Don and I perched on the foldout jump seats where the parachuters used to sit and were happy as could be while we secretly prayed that the ceiling would stay high enough for us to fly it later. Jim wasn’t lying when he said it got loud with takeoff power. I used my phone’s sound level meter app (consequence of being an audiologist’s daughter), and it got up to 105dB! This plane is no joke! Once we were in the air and I was looking out over the huge right wing, I started to get really choked up. I was so thankful to be one of the few people to ever have such an opportunity, and I kept having to fight back tears of joy. I would NOT be the woman who cried on this airplane, even if I were crying for a good reason. I just turned my head further outside while I fought back the tears each time.
The flight was short, just enough time for the passengers to snap some pictures while we circled over the city. It was a little crosswindy coming back in for a landing, and Chris put it down in a textbook one wheel down first crosswind landing. Jim had said to never pull back once we land to put the tail down. It will settle by itself as we lose speed, and it settled down ever so gently and slowly as if someone were setting down a newborn baby and didn’t want to wake it. After the passengers got off, the ground crew said we had another full flight signed up and then would have some free time. So would we like to ride again?
As we were waiting for the passengers to board, Jim saw me looking around the bulkhead reading things that people had written on it. There were lots of war veterans who had written their unit and years served. Jim pointed to one and said “This one is my favorite.” It was a person’s name and said that this very airplane had taken her out of Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. Jim asked her if she was sure it was this airplane since there were so many C-47s used in the Berlin Airlift. She assured him that she had written the tail number in her diary, and it was definitely this very airplane. That gives you pause.
I have to say that between two rides, a BBQ lunch with the pilots and ground crew, and then finally our own flight time, I definitely feel like I got more than my money’s worth! Jim and his crew really went out of their way to make it up to us that we couldn’t fly in the morning when we had planned, even though the weather wasn’t their fault. On the second ride, I sat in the tail because there was a small vent in the side of the plane that let some air in back there. It was a hot day in Fort Worth, and the airplane not only didn’t have any A/C but also not much airflow inside at all. After we got back from lunch and were climbing up into the front of the plane, Jim joked “Let me get up there and turn on the air conditioning.”
It was Don’s turn again, so I let him go first. I didn’t learn a damn thing from watching him fly other than it looked like a lot of work. He flew while Jim handled the flaps and gear, synced the engines, and pushed a bunch of buttons that I had no idea what they did. Don landed it and pulled off onto a taxiway and then it was my turn.
I climbed up there, moved the seat all the way up and forward, asked Don to grab me a second cushion, and then grabbed the yoke and tried to contain my excitement. I taxied onto the runway and held the brakes as we pushed the throttles full forward. Keep in mind this was my first flight ever in a multi engine, so I really just pointed the plane around the pattern while Jim handled the props, throttles, gear, and flaps. I touched the throttles once, which was enough for the time being since I had my hands full keeping it pointed in the right direction. He gave the signal, and I let off the brakes as we went roaring forward. He gave another signal and I gently pushed forward on the yoke to lift the tailwheel. We rolled down the runway some more while gaining more speed, and he gave another signal to rotate. I pulled back gently on the yoke and we rose slowly into the air. HUGE difference here is that in my airplane, when you pitch for optimum rate of climb speed, the airplane is pitched pretty far up. The airplane looks like it’s reaching for the sky. The C-47 pretty much lifted off level and felt like someone was simply pushing it up from under it rather than pointing up to the sky. Soon after we broke ground, Jim reduced the throttles a bit and we could hear each other over the radios again. I also only realized to use trim when I felt my bicep straining under the weight of pulling the yoke back as if I were lifting up the airplane myself. Funny how even the most basic airplane feature is forgotten when learning a new one. It’s been so long since I was a student pilot that I don’t remember how I felt then, but I assume I felt a lot like I did flying the C-47 for the first time. I felt totally spastic and like my almost 600 hours showed no experience whatsoever. He said to start my crosswind turn and warned that it takes way more rudder than aileron. Rather than easily and docilely turning, it felt like you had to encourage it around. Each turn was enormous and something you’d have to really think about ahead of time, much like I would imagine driving a bus feels like compared to driving a small car.
We came around for my first landing, and the great thing about the C-47 is that as long as you arrest the descent about a foot or so before touching down, it’ll slowly settle onto the runway to give you a smooth as silk landing that makes you look and feel like a good pilot. We kept the tail up as we rolled and applied full power to do another lap around the patch. Luckily for me, the controller asked me to extend upwind and then again downwind, so I got an extra 30 seconds or so to fly the plane. Even with feeling like a bumbling idiot, I didn’t want it to end. The plane gave me another very gentle touchdown and then the tail slowly settled onto the ground. Once it was on the ground, Jim pulled the yoke back all the way to plant it, and the yoke was squished up against my chest from being so far forward with the cushions. Clearly this airplane was not built for someone my size, but, then again, few if any things are. I just took it as the airplane giving me a goodbye hug.
I taxied back and reluctantly shut down the engines, not wanting our time together to end. Again we parked it on the convention flightline, and people immediately swarmed all around it to take pictures even though there was already another DC-3 parked there.
Don and I walked away together to go check out the other displays, but I kept looking back at the Southern Cross. Nothing could come close to topping that.
In the cab ride back to Dallas Love Field, the driver asked what brought me to Fort Worth. I told him I was here for an aviation convention. He asked if I was a pilot, and I said yes, staring out the window while daydreaming of my time in the DC-3. I’m used to people asking me questions when I say I’m a pilot, questions like “What do you fly?” “Is it hard?” “How long have you been a pilot?” “Do you fly for an airline?” But he sprang a new one on me: “Have you ever seen any UFOs while you’re up there?”