On board a 77-year-old DC-3 making an around-the-world trek

The smooth, comforting thrum of twin Pratt & Whitney radial engines rolled through the cabin as we soared over Scottsdale, Arizona, in a 77-year-old airplane.

The Breitling DC-3 took a break from flying around the world at Scottsdale Airport | Bob Golfen

The Breitling DC-3 took a break from flying around the world at Scottsdale Airport | Bob Golfen

The smooth, comforting thrum of twin Pratt & Whitney radial engines rolled through the cabin as we soared over Scottsdale, Arizona, in a 77-year-old airplane. The beautifully restored DC-3 and its crew were taking a break from their daring task of flying around the world, with the goal of making it the oldest plane on record to accomplish such a feat.

I was invited to hook up with the Breitling DC-3 World Tour during its stop in the Phoenix area, and to enjoy the experience of vintage air travel. The airplane is named for its sponsor and wears the logo of the luxury-watch company emblazoned on its hull.

The Breitling DC-3 flies over Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Breitling DC-3 World Tour

The Breitling DC-3 flies over Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Breitling DC-3 World Tour

The Breitling DC-3 was built on March 9, 1940. It took off from its home base in Geneva, Switzerland on March 9, 2017, flying east across Europe, the Middle East and southern Asia. The plane was flown from northern Japan to an Aleutian Islands military post off Alaska (with one small-island stop in between), then to Anchorage; Juneau; Seattle; Aurora, Oregon; San Francisco; and Los Angeles.

The DC-3 landed in Scottsdale after flying the leg from L.A. Next stop, Houston. After more stops across the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Western Europe, the tour lands back in Geneva in September. At least, that’s the goal.

The flight plan made me think what it might be like to drive a 77-year-old car around the world. I know some teams that have done the Peking to Paris rally in old cars, and it’s no picnic. A few years back, I did a story about an Englishman who was driving a 1930s Lancia around the world, including the full breadth of Russia. Blimey!

The Breitling DC-3 is normally outfitted to carry 30 passengers, but its middle rows of seats were removed for the circumnavigation so that a pair of gigantic, flexible containers filled with aviation fuel could be placed inside the cabin over the wings, which allows the plane to extend its range for long distances. So just 14 of us were invited for the Scottsdale demonstration flight, with most of the folks local flying enthusiasts.

Pilot Francisco Agullo provides pre-flight instructions | Bob Golfen

Pilot Francisco Agullo provides pre-flight instructions | Bob Golfen

We were greeted by the dapper captain of the World Tour, Francisco Agullo, a veteran commercial pilot impeccably dressed in a classic pilot’s uniform. The Swiss national also has been co-owner of the Breitling DC-3 since 2008.

Agullo took us through the history of DC-3s and how the aircraft had changed the face of aviation with its versatility and reliability. The DC-3 is considered the most significant aircraft in aviation history, putting the world on wings much as the Ford Model T put the world on wheels.

“My passion is aviation history and sharing it with as many people as possible,” Agullo said.

He also related some of the more difficult aspects of flying the DC-3 around the world, at an average speed of around 135 knots, or about 155 miles per hour. For one thing, there are no power assists for the pilot, no servos and no computers, just seat-of-the-pants flying.

“You have to fly completely by hand, which is quite a big challenge,” he said, adding with a grin: “It’s great.”

Some of the flying stretches are very long, he said, particularly the segment that crossed the Pacific Ocean. At one point, he and the other two crew members went without sleep for 42 hours.

Another chronic issue, especially in less-populated locations, has been accessing the high-octane aviation gasoline needed for the engines; the tour organizers sometimes had to send “avgas” ahead to refueling stops. Agullo recalled how at one stop, they discovered that the special fuel that was shipped ahead had been sold by the small airport. The DC-3 had to sit and wait for more to arrive.

The lucky group enjoyed a half-hour flight

The lucky group enjoyed a half-hour flight

Mechanical problems have been few, Agullo said, testimony to the renowned durability of the DC-3. There have been a couple of fuel-system problems, he noted, and the plane was required to be serviced during several of the world stops.

Remarkably, this DC-3 has logged a total of 74,500 hours in its 77 years, Agullo said.

Along with Agullo on the trip is co-pilot and flight mechanic Paul Bazeley of Great Britain, and engineer Daniel Meyer of Switzerland, who also serves as official photographer.

Walking out on the tarmac at Scottsdale Airport, I was immediately struck by the glamorous beauty of the DC-3, its proportions looking perfect as it leaned back on its tail wheel, its nose pointed to the sky. For a passenger plane, it seems tiny compared with today’s airliners, but still substantial.

The view over the Pratt & Whitney radial engine

The view over the Pratt & Whitney radial engine

We’ve all seen them in photos and movies, and maybe in museums, but encountering an actual living example that’s being flown on an arduous journey was impressive and inspiring.

Inside the simple cabin, the seats are not all that different from those on today’s jets, although with much more legroom. The small, rectangular side windows are trimmed in wood. I found a seat toward the front, with a close-up view of the spinning starboard-side propeller.

We flew slow and low, with stunning views of Scottsdale and the surrounding terrain of desert and rugged mountain ridges. The ride felt surprisingly calm and sophisticated, not nearly as noisy or bumpy as I had expected.

The only downside was the boarding. The temperature outside was over 100 degrees, and we all sweated miserably inside the unventilated passenger compartment as we awaited takeoff. Once in the air, a breeze flowed in through small circular vents that provided some relief. So that was a real vintage experience.

A DC-3-based C-47 flies over the Pyramids during WWII | archive

A DC-3-based C-47 flies over the Pyramids during WWII | archive

Classic airplanes have much in common with classic cars, especially the everyman models that have been elevated from practical transportation tools to revered objects that impart the style and substance of an earlier era. DC-3s were familiar, widely used aircraft for decades after their introduction by the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1935.

The DC-3 also helped win World War II. When outfitted as C-47 military planes, they fulfilled a wide array of critical missions, from transporting troops and supplies to taking a leading role in the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy, carrying paratroopers and gliders into the fray. General Eisenhower praised the C-47 as one of the “four pillars” of victory in Europe and Africa.

The  DC-3 that would become the Breitling plane was drafted and served as a troop carrier and, at one point, as an impromptu bomber as soldiers dropped handheld explosives onto the enemy.

More than 16,000 DC-3s, including military versions, were built through 1945, and they continued as mainstays of commercial aviation through the early 1970s. But only about 150 examples are flyable today, some still ferrying cargo and supplies and some others, such as the Breitling DC-3, brilliantly restored and used for historic flying. This DC-3 is one of the few that uses its original radial engines; many are outfitted with modern turbo-props.

500 Breitling Navitimer watches are flying on the World Tour | Breitling

500 Breitling Navitimer watches are on board during the World Tour | Breitling

Breitling is a Swiss specialist in making technical watches, and has a long history in aviation timepieces. To commemorate the Breitling DC-3 World Tour, the watchmaker has stowed 500 special-edition Breitling Navitimer watches on board the airplane – well-hidden, Agullo said – that each have an engraving of the World Tour logo on its case back.

The Navitimer watches, the oldest mechanical chronographs still in production, will be sold following their global voyage.

My ride in the simple passenger compartment of the World Tour airplane was surprising smooth, even and relaxing, which is another aspect of the DC-3 worldwide success for four decades. I could see into the cockpit as Agullo busily worked the switches and gauges.

What must it take to fly this antique plane for a total of seven months, with what must be many long, tedious stretches of droning monotony? Whatever it is, Agullo and his crew must have the right stuff to undertake such a monumental journey, what they have labeled “our beautiful project.”

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5 Comments

  • richard bloom the motorhead cpa
    July 25, 2017, 9:30 AM

    As a kid, flew roundtrip in DC-3s between Puerto Rico and St Thomas to go shopping whenever Dad hit the casinos in PR during the 70’s. i don’t recall the airline (something like Caribe Air) but they boasted they had the world’s largest fleet of DC-3s at the time. Oh, i knew their military history since I saw every air force movie ever made so it was a real treat as a kid to go retro after we took the jet airliners down from NYC to get to PR. I remember one time an engine started sputtering after takeoff from San Juan. The pilot kept opening the cowling to fight with the “rough running” engine on the wing just below me. He pretty much got us back to the airport on one engine. We got off the plane and immediately boarded another DC-3 to go buy watches in St Thomas that day. Mom was not happy! I was thrilled and so I bought a Borel watch- i still have it and the memories of another adventure with my amazing parents who dragged their kids everywhere.

    REPLY
  • motors of yesterday
    July 29, 2017, 3:13 PM

    Bob, you are so right, the old planes fellows have much in common with us old car people, except that we have further to fall when a fuel system fails as one of my car club members said – he restored and rallied several great 1920s cars and sunk a fortune into saving, restoring and then flying a 1937 Lockheed 10 VH-UZO “Ansertes”.

    The Captains statement “You have to fly completely by hand, which is quite a big challenge,” he said, adding with a grin: “It’s great.”
    I immediately empathised with him, as I imagine it did anyone else who drives old, and I mean properly old, vehicles – its that challenge in driving the 1900 to about 1930 cars that separates us from those who drive collectable vehicles with power assisted systems and, dare I say it, from those who seem reluctant to take up the challenge of learning and mastering vehicles that don’t have power assisted systems, modern electrics and auto transmissions. (Have got one of those 1980s power assisted classics too and love driving it but love even more driving the open road in an authentic 1929 Roadster or a brass era tourer)

    Ps. VH-UZO “Ansertes”, despite the cost involved in its restoration and it International sale value, was donated to the Australian people by its restorer, he recognised its importance as an object of significant heritage and wanted it to stay forever where it could be appreciated by the nation that it served so well all it’s working life.

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  • Alex Rankine
    July 29, 2017, 5:21 PM

    I worked for a major airline most of my life! My first experience with the DC 3 was flying on PBA (Province Town Boston air) they had a few DC 3in their fleet! I flew on the aircraft from Miami to Key West Florida each winter to meet with a group of friends. What an incredible air plane the fit a finish
    marveled some the best classic cars ever built! What a smooth flight this aircraft achieved eat your heart out Rolls Royce!! That plane truly is the Rolls Royce of aircrafts Bravo!

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  • Tony
    July 30, 2017, 8:11 AM

    Best airplane ever made and the safest.

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  • Jim Henning
    July 31, 2017, 10:10 AM

    The DC-3 has always been one of my favorite airplanes, and I love hearing the radial piston music of those engines! Every kid should see, hear and touch one of these. The memory will last a life time.
    Here in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at our Air-Zoo we have a “Fully Restored” Douglas DC-3 / C-47 Skytrain.
    We are so blessed here in Kalamazoo to have so many dedicated and hard working people diligently restoring our automotive, motorcycle, and aviation history. Most of us still like to drive, ride, and fly the mechanical way, (manually).
    See: http://www.airzoo.org This is a top notch hands on operation with many educational attractions for the hole family.

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