The Douglas C-47 has been lovingly referred to as America’s do-anything go-anywhere WWII airplane. The versatile Douglas C-47 could be used for troop and cargo transport, dropping paratroops, towing a glider, medical evacuation, and virtually any other task assigned to it. It was turned into a troop-carrying glider by the removal of its engines and into a seaplane by the addition of huge floats.
The C-47 operated under all weather conditions on every continent around the world, and it did so with a grace and rugged reliability that made it a favorite of pilots and mechanics alike. This affection led to many nicknames, and the most enduring was “Gooney Bird.”
The C-47 is the military version of the DC-3, which had revolutionized the world of air transport, becoming the best-selling airliner of its day. The DC-3 had placed the United States in the lead in commercial aviation, a position the nation would retain for the rest of the century, and beyond. The C-47 was just as revolutionary for the military.
The C-47 featured strengthened floors, bucket seats, large loading doors, and a pair of sweet-running Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engines of 1,200 horsepower each. When orders overwhelmed the Long Beach facility, a second factory had to be built in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Variants of the basic design were used by all branches of the military and by almost every Allied nation. Even the Luftwaffe flew the doughty Douglas design, using aircraft impressed from airlines of occupied countries.
Flights from India to China to supply American troops were treacherous, taking C-47s over the Himalayas, where there was no place to land, and no turning back. The Chinese airfields that awaited the transports were regularly bombed and strafed by Japanese planes, so few landings were ever considered “routine.”
The aircraft soldiered on, performing well for the United States during the 1948 Berlin Airlift, in Korea, and in Vietnam. The C-47’s longevity derives from the conservative Douglas engineers building in more strength than was necessary, endowing the airplane with a virtually unlimited service life. No wonder it earned General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s praise as one of the five most important weapons of World War II!
When World War II ended, it would have been reasonable to expect the C-47 to serve for a few more years and then retire, going the way of the B-17s, P-47s, and other combat veterans. Some continued in military service, and others, available at bargain prices from U.S. government surplus, were refurbished and became the nucleii of airline start-ups.
During the Vietnam War, C-47s were modified into heavily armed gunships, designated AC-47. USAF Captain Ronald W. Terry and team turned the lovable Gooney Bird into a fearsome warplane, armed with side-firing Gatling Guns. It orbited over villages, laying down a withering 18,000 round-per-minute cone of fire that repelled attacks and earned it the nickname — “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Operating under the call-sign “Spooky,” the AC-47s became indispensable, and it was their proud boast that no South Vietnamese position was ever lost when a gunship was on duty overhead.
The bottom line? There are still C-47s flying in countries around the world. Many boast turbo upgrades to their engines, but all continue to provide dependable transport no matter how extreme the conditions.