Air Transportation: The Only World War II Aircraft Still In Service

December 14, 2012: On December 12th a South African C-47 transport crashed, killing all eleven on board. What’s unusual about this is that the C-47 (“Dakota”) is a 1930s design (as the DC-3) that was heavily used during World War II and ever since. Obviously, this involved a lot of upgrades and refurbishment. The SAAF (South African Air Force) extensively refurbished ten of its C-47s in the early 1990s. Each of these “Super-Daks” was modified for a specific mission (5 for maritime patrol, 3 for transport, and 2 for electronic warfare). The one lost on the 12th was a transport model.

Some aircraft seem to fly forever. A prime example has been the DC-3/C-47. The latest revival for this iconic plane is a refurb that creates a 13 ton aircraft with a rebuilt and lengthened fuselage, upgraded wings, new engines, and modern electronics. Called the BT-67, it is in use by eight civilian (including the U.S. Forestry Service) organizations and nine air forces (including the U.S. Air Force and the Chinese Air Force). The BT-67 is about a meter (three feet) longer than the original DC-3 and 1.5 tons heavier. Cruising speed is 380 kilometers an hour, compared to 240 for the DC-3. Range is more than twice the 1,600 kilometers of the DC-3. Typical load for the BT-67 (4 tons) is also about twice what the DC-3 would normally haul. The longer range made the rugged BT-67 capable of delivering airfreight to research stations in Antarctica, from an airport in South Africa. The BT-67s cost about $5 million each.

But there are other refurbs. Six years ago Colombia paid about $20 million to convert five C-47 transports to gunships (armed with night vision sensors, a three barrel 12.7mm/.50 caliber machine-gun, and some bombs). These aircraft carried a five man crew. Such gunships first appeared, using World War II era C-47 transports, in the 1960s over Vietnam. The troops called the gunships, which liked to operate at night, "Spooky."

Many DC-3/C-47 aircraft continue to fly. Several hundred are still operating worldwide, mostly owned by small domestic carriers in the U.S. and by some Third World air transport companies. A state of the art aircraft in the mid-1930s (during which only 500 were built), over 16,000 DC 3's were produced for use during World War II as C-47s. The DC-3 was, in fact, one of the most widely manufactured aircraft of the war.

When allied paratroopers jumped it was usually from a DC-3 (which could carry 28 troops but over sixty people were squeezed in during emergencies). With a maximum range of 3,400 kilometers and a top speed of 296 kilometers per hour, the C-47 was the common cargo carrier (up to 3.5 tons) and general purpose "flying truck." It still is, and more and more of these aircraft are being rebuilt, like the BT-67, to keep them flying for another decade or so.

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