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1939 Douglas DC-3 Airplane

October 5, 2015 Archive Insight, Think THF

1939 Douglas DC-3 after Move from Ford Proving Ground to Henry Ford Museum, June 2, 1975. THF124077

The Douglas DC-3 ranks with the Model T Ford and the Volkswagen Beetle as one of the great engineering designs of the twentieth century. The aircraft was safe, reliable, economical, and did more than any other single airplane to make commercial aviation a viable industry.

Ironically, the story of the DC-3 began with a famous airline crash. In 1931, a Fokker tri-motor operated by Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) went down, killing all seven people on board, including famed University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. When an investigation of the crash revealed that the wood wing of the Fokker was weakened by rot, airlines began scrambling to replace wood-framed planes with all-metal ones. TWA asked several manufacturers for proposals for a new, all metal airplane, with two or three engines, weighing no more than 14,200 pounds, able to carry at least 12 passengers at 150 miles per hour, with a range of 1,080 miles. Douglas Aircraft, which had previously concentrated on military planes, proposed a twin-engine aircraft that they called the Douglas Commercial Number 1, or simply DC-1. TWA chose the Douglas design, but before it went into production an improved version was developed, called the DC-2.


When this airplane touched down for the last time on May 28, 1975, it concluded a record-setting career. The plane had completed 84,875 hours in the air—more than any other airplane in history.

No one was thinking about records when this airplane came out of the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Santa Monica, California on August 17, 1939. At that time, DC-3 airplanes were carrying three-quarters of all U.S. airline passengers, and production of yet another example was unremarkable. This new plane was assigned registration number 21728 by the Civil Aeronautics Administration (for the rest of her working life she was usually called simply “number 728”) and went into service with Eastern Airlines. Number 728’s career with Eastern was just what an airliner’s career should be—uneventful. By 1952 the plane had logged 51,389 hours in the air.

In the years after number 728’s birth, airliners advanced considerably and larger planes took over the routes flown by major national airlines. In July 1952, number 728 was sold to a smaller regional carrier, North Central Airlines. With North Central’s trademark flying goose painted on her tail, number 728 recorded another 31,643 hours in the air, flying routes in the Midwest. But even retirement from regular passenger service on April 26, 1965 could not keep the faithful bird grounded. North Central remodeled her as a business plane, with couches, tables, and a full galley. The plane then ferried North Central executives for 1,843 more hours.

Number 728’s well-earned retirement came in 1975, when the airplane was donated to The Henry Ford. It is currently on display in our Heroes of the Sky exhibit.

Number 728’s record was finally broken in 1981, by a Provincetown-Boston Airlines plane. What kind of plane was it? Why, a DC-3, of course.

Why is number 728 painted in Northwest Airlines colors, rather than North Central or Eastern colors?

Northwest Airlines provided a generous donation toward preserving and interpreting all of the aircraft and other artifacts in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit. After a great deal of discussion and consideration, The Henry Ford chose to recognize Northwest for this gift by painting the number 728 in brand colors from 1939, the year Northwest bought its first DC-3s. The number 728’s long history with Eastern and North Central is explained in the exhibit today. In 2010, Northwest itself passed into history when it merged with Delta Air Lines. Since then, we have continued our partnership with Delta Air Lines as the official airline of The Henry Ford.

Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as a Pic of the Month.

Additional Readings:

California, 20th century, 1930s, travel, Heroes of the Sky, Henry Ford Museum, by Bob Casey, airplanes

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