CHICAGO — When old planes retire from commercial service many of them are scrapped, some of them are parked in the desert and forgotten, and a special few end up in a museum. And then, some fly on.
Former Chief Pilot at American Airlines Zane Lemon found that out in 2004 when he received a phone call and a tail number: NC17334. For years, Lemon and a group of other current and former American Airlines pilots had been searching for a legacy aircraft to showcase the early days of commercial aviation.
Their prize was sitting in Virginia, still flying as a mosquito sprayer. But NC17334 had once been much more. Built in 1937 by Douglas, NC17334 flew for American Airlines as the Flagship Detroit from 1937-1947. Covering routes throughout the Ohio Valley, the Detroit carried 21 passengers during the height of style and comfort.
Lemon, now president of the Flagship Detroit foundation, purchased the plane and set about restoring one of the lost greats of aviation to its original 1937 condition. Over two years, the foundation repaired and replaced much of the plane. A new interior was installed, replacing the 21 seats, galley, and lavatory of the original aircraft. Workers at the American Airlines maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma, hand-built exact replicas of the seats to supplement the seats they were able to find.
That very same airplane paid a visit to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport last week and, upon arrival, the Detroit immediately attracted crowds. Ramp workers wandered over to get some photos, people in planes taxiing past pressed their faces to the window, and passengers in the terminal came to see what the commotion was all about.
American Airlines employee José Guillén stayed after his shift to see Flagship Detroit. “Having never been around a DC-3, I really wanted to use the opportunity as an employee at O’Hare to get to see it up close” he said. “I was just as happy to see it on the ground and spend a few moments appreciating its uniqueness, the history behind it, and how many people it attracted.”
I headed down to the ramp and was met by Captain Lemon and other Flagship Detroit Foundation members, including Gene Christian, who would be our copilot for the day’s flight around Chicago. Captain Lemon told all assembled a bit of history about the Detroit, the oldest DC-3 still flying. After his remarks, Captain Lemon led us to the plane.
Stepping onboard the Detroit immediately takes you back 75 years. The first thing you see upon climbing up the stairs at the rear of the plane is the galley, which is comprised of six thermoses and a pantry area. The thermoses could be filled with coffee, tea, juice, milk, or water. An expanded beverage service—alcohol—didn’t begin until after World War II. The lavatory on the DC-3 was also ahead of its time. While many airlines now boast of a window in the forward cabin lavatory, the DC-3 sports a skylight and wooden toilet seat. All baggage was stowed in a rear compartment. There are no overhead bins, only a hat rack.
The seats on the DC-3 were built for a time when the average American weighed 135 pounds and are thus narrower than today’s seats, but offer a decent amount of pitch. Each is actually quite comfortable and recline far beyond today’s seats. They come equipped with a small seat back pocket, a reading light, call button, and air vent. One amenity the DC-3 seats have that today’s seats lack: an ashtray. There’s a three-inch long one in every armrest.
The Flagship Detroit was at O’Hare as part of the Chicago Air and Water Show, and so on Friday before the show American Airlines employees had a chance to put their names in a raffle for some of the seats on the pre-show flight. After the raffle was complete the winners came down to the ramp and found their seats in the DC-3. I found my seat behind Captain Lemon on the flight deck and prepared to depart. As the pilots started the 1200 horsepower Wright Cyclone engines the plane began to shake and shudder to life, engine noise filtering in through the open flight deck windows.
Engine Start Video:
As we taxied out to the runway we joined a line of regional jets that made us look small. The noise of the engines was loud during taxi, but nothing compared to the deafening roar and vibration that comes with take off power. As we reached takeoff speed we gently left the runway and climbed to the west. We reached our cruising altitude of 1,800 feet and bumped along at 120 knots flying southwest to avoid traffic at Midway Airport and then turned east to fly up the shore of Lake Michigan.
Flying the DC-3 is a manual affair with constant input needed from the pilot. You really feel each and every bump and wind gust while flying in the plane, and you feel the pilot’s corrections as the plane glides through the air. You can see the airmanship needed to keep the DC-3 steady in the video below.
Video of Landing:
As we came up the lakefront we joined the pattern to land at O’Hare and touched down in the late afternoon sun having spent nearly an hour aloft. As we taxied back to the ramp we waited for an American Airlines 777 to cross in front of us, a visual reminder of how far commercial aviation has come in 75 years.