Little-known and totally useless aviation factoid: I have a great liking for the old Douglas DC-3, the “Gooney Bird.” (I actually have a great liking for almost ANY old machine that just keeps going and going and going, year in and year out, far past any reasonable life expectancy. But even in that class, the old Douglas masterpieces stand out.) So when I read that the Bluebonnet Belle, a gorgeously restored and maintained 1944-vintage C-47 which belongs to the Highland Lakes Squadron of the CAF, was scheduled to make an appearance at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum down at Hobby Airport, I ditched my previous plan, “drink coffee and catch up on reading,” and headed down to see her. As with the majority of Gooneys, the Belle is designated “C-47″ because she was built for the military. The “DC-3″ (Douglas Commercial) is the civilian version (of which only a few were built before production was switched over to the war effort); it’s the same plane with a different badge.
Couple years ago the museum had offered a “quick hop in a C47″ (which was actually a C-49, a slightly later variant) as a promotional deal at one of their monthly Wings & Wheels events, and I went for that like a cat on a mouse. Sadly, when I got to the airport it turned out that the weather between D-FW, where the plane was based, and Houston, where the riders were, was bad (hail and funnel clouds) and they’d had to cancel – the turbulence was making the CREW queasy and hail and tornadoes aren’t really good for vintage aircraft. So I was hoping they’d offer a similar deal yesterday, which I could have (barely) afforded. But that plane wasn’t the Belle and yesterday wasn’t a promo deal – the price for rides was up where it needs to be, and my inner adult said “you don’t have it to spare today.” (Meanwhile, of course, the inner child was screaming, turning blue, and banging his head on the floor, but believe it or not he doesn’t always win.)
Understand, I have no problem with a $200 fee, any more than I do with the price of a Leica. I simply can’t spare the money. Old aircraft are terrifically expensive to fly and maintain, and the CAF folks are mostly “ordinary folks” with ordinary incomes, many of them retired and with virtually NO incomes. And officially, the Belle costs almost $600 an hour to fly, just in gas and oil. Tires, other consumables, maintenance, and all the thousands of other things are extra.
These old radials shove a lot of oil out the exhaust in a hurry when you start them up. (They also have “new engines someday” on the “gotta do” list – at 180 grand for the pair. Ouch.)
So I settled for the ground tour, courtesy of John Long, who knows his C47s AND the Belle.
The Belle, in her current role as an educator, is fitted out in a unique pattern to show four of the major roles filled by the C-47 during the war. There’s a cargo section (bare floor with lots of tiedown points), a passenger section (coach class or less), a patient transport section (stretchers hung on the walls), and a paratroop section (hard metal seats along the sides).
(Patient Transport Configuration)
The Gooney Bird was basically the Swiss Army Knife of aircraft – does anything, anywhere, anytime. There was even an early fork off the predecessor DC-2 design which became the B-18 “Bolo” medium bomber. Those were used primarily as trainers, though some were used for offshore patrol and one is credited with sinking a German U-boat in the Caribbean during the early days of the war. (The things I learn doing this…)
C-47s were also used heavily for towing gliders and ferrying troops and cargo (including jeeps and field artillery!). Over in the Pacific, they were the backbone of the India-China route, the fabled “Burma Hump,” where they kept the war effort in China alive, and paid for it as they and their crews died by the hundreds.
Aside from learning historical stuff, the best part of the tour was being able to climb (yeah, there’s quite a bit of slant to the floor when she’s on the ground – old taildraggers are like that…) right up to the cockpit. Not quite so complex as the Space Shuttle, no, but there’s a family resemblance.
As fascinating as the wartime history of the DC-3 is, for me it’s much simpler: This is what an airplane should look like.
Happy 70th, Beautiful Belle.