Of the many, aviation books that have been written, I’d still say Ernest Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter” is among the top three of all time. The book chronicles Gann’s years working as a pilot at American Airlines starting in DC-2s and DC-3s when civilian air transport was in its infancy. Although autobiographical, it reads like an adventure novel. That’s because so many civilian transport planes crashed in the early years. As many as 50 passenger planes went down annually in the late 1930’s.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the DC-3/C-47. This plane played a major role in popularizing air travel and was converted to military use during World War II. The Douglas DC-3 probably did more than any other plane to introduce a whole new segment of the population to flying. More than five times as many passenger miles were flown in 1941 than in 1935 and much of that can be attributed to the DC-3. Today, there are only 104 of these planes that exist even though 360 were built as commercial planes and more than 10,000 built as C-47’s (many later converted as airliners).
On July 26th, twenty-six DC-3s were stacked together on the ramp at Sterling, IL, drawn together by the organizers of “The Last Time”. Some of the aircraft had up to 90,000 hours on the airframe, all with fascinating stories of their own, many to be untold. As 52 radial engines roared to life for the historic Monday morning flight to Airventure you could almost see the shadows of soldiers climbing onto transports for Normandy or recall the heady days of early commercial flights. Due to mechanical problems, 23 continued in formation toward Oshkosh. The flight maneuvered to a 40 mile final for a Show Pass down runway 09 for the crowds. With the Herpa DC-3 as lead and coming over top, the order was given: “This is it boys, tighten her up, lights on, smoke on!” After passing directly over Airventure, the flight broke for landing in 5 second breaks and formed a single ship line of 23 DC-3s perfectly spaced with gear down, 100 knots, and landing checks complete. All were cleared to land on Runway 18 and all aircraft were down and off the runway in 16 minutes and 34 seconds.
It brought to mind the feelings that Gann quoted about flying in his masterwork:
As the years go by, he returns to this invisible world rather than to earth for peace and solace. There also he finds a profound enchantment, although he can seldom describe it. He can discuss it with others of his kind, and because they too know and feel its power they understand. But his attempts to communicate his feelings to his wife or other earthly confidants invariably end in failure.
Flying is hypnotic and all pilots are willing victims to the spell. Their world is like a magic island in which the factors of life and death assume their proper values. Thinking becomes clear because there are no earthly foibles or embellishments to confuse it. Professional pilots are, of necessity, uncomplicated, simple men. Their thinking must remain straightforward, or they die — violently.
You can always tell when a man has lost his soul to flying. The poor bastard is hopelessly committed to stopping whatever he is doing long enough to look up and make sure the aircraft purring overhead continues on course and does not suddenly fall out of the sky. It is also his bound duty to watch every aircraft within view take off and land.
You can still get a type rating which would be a little more practical if you had your own DC-3.