I’m generally a bigger fan of ships than planes, but I have to say I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the DC-3. I would venture to say that the DC-3 is probably the most important airplane of all time, excluding (perhaps) the original Wright Flyer, which first flew today 110 years ago. But the DC-3–undoubtedly the most popular, durable and significant airliner ever built–also flew for the first time today, 78 years ago, on December 17, 1935. Thus, I thought we should celebrate the birthday of this amazing plane by taking a look at its fascinating role in the history of aviation.

The idea for the DC-3 was hatched in 1933 when the CEO of American Airlines, C.R. Smith, demanded that the Douglas company build him a plane that would enable American to compete in the rush for cross-country air service, which then was being won by TWA. What Smith thought he needed was a plane with sleeping berths for long flights. (Can you imagine that today? Sleeping berths on planes?) Douglas went to work, and the “Douglas Sleeping Transport,” or DST, debuted in December 1935. There wasn’t even a prototype of the DC-3. The very first one that rolled off the assembly line went into service for American Airlines. With its passenger-friendly design and beefed-up engine power compared to earlier airliners, the DC-3 could fly from coast to coast in 15 hours with only three refueling stops. That gave it a decided advantage over any other airliner in the sky.

DC-3s almost immediately revolutionized American air travel. The days of the cold, clunky, uncomfortable planes like the Ford Tri-Motor were instantly a thing of the past. Douglas couldn’t build DC-3s fast enough, and eventually it was the backbone of the service fleets of Eastern, American, TWA and United Airlines. Passengers loved them because they were comfortable and felt safe. Pilots loved them because they were easy to fly. Airlines loved them because they were easy and cheap to fix. Above all the planes were built to last. Even long after many more advanced aircraft designs were developed, airlines all over the world were still flying DC-3s. They were proven workhorses.

modern dc-3

This DC-3, which was manufactured no later than 1942, was still making regular flights in 2011. Pretty cool, eh?

When America went to war in 1941, so did the DC-3. Douglas began building a military variant of the plane, the C-47, to haul troops and cargo. Eventually the C-47 was joined by a similar model, the C-53. DC-3s were in the sky over Normandy on D-Day, air-dropping supplies to Allied troops battling to come ashore in France. They were used to ferry Allied supplies to China over “the Hump,” the treacherous air route across the eastern Himalayas from India, when the Japanese had cut off all other means to supply China (who people forget was a member of the Allies). Along with the ships, bombers and tanks that lay wrecked in ruins all over the world in the aftermath of World War II, there were plenty of DC-3s, who suffered casualties just like any other force.

Amazingly, the DC-3 was only manufactured for seven years, from 1935 to 1942. That makes it all the more incredible that there are still some of these planes flying today. Many of them are still used in developing countries, because DC-3s can land on dirt runways where other airliners can’t. But even in the developed world you can still occasionally see one flying. Canada’s Buffalo Airways still has a DC-3 in regularly scheduled service. Not bad for a plane manufactured over 70 years ago.

Some things really are built to last. The DC-3 is definitely one of them.

The image of the DC-3 from 2011 was taken by Frank Kovalchek and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.