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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”