American Airlines, then run by the famous C.R. Smith, operated 78 DC-3s during that period and Smith gave all of them ‘Flagship’ names because of his love of boats and sailing. All were named after states or cities where American flew.
‘Flagship Detroit’ – which is said by its owners to be the oldest DC-3 still flying – was the 45th DC-3 built of 607 specifically manufactured for civilian customers, according to Zane Lemon, chairman of the Flagship Detroit Foundation, which owns the aircraft.
Lemon – a former Boeing 777-200ER captain with American – notes that while many thousands more aircraft based on the DC-3 were built subsequently, all aircraft from 1942 onwards (except five Super DC-3s built speculatively by Douglas in 1949) were manufactured as military-transport versions.
These included 10,048 C-47s built in the U.S., 487 Showa/Nakajima L2Ds manufactured in Japan under license, and (officially) 4,937 aircraft constructed under license in the Soviet Union as Lisunov Li-2s.
It is also likely, however, that many thousands of additional Li-2s and aircraft of other types closely based on the DC-3/Li-2 design were manufactured illegally without license in the Soviet Union and China.
Following its retirement from American Airlines service in 1947, NC17334 was sold to a customer in Mexico and saw a varied subsequent career in that country and in the United States. This career culminated in the aircraft working as a crop-sprayer in Bridgewater, Virginia.
A group of retired American Airlines pilots found the aircraft there several years ago and, knowing its history as the oldest DC-3 still flying and as a former American Airlines aircraft, purchased NC17334 for restoration and airshow operation. The pilots formed the Flagship Detroit Foundation to own the aircraft and manage its restoration, operation and maintenance.
The aircraft was restored to its original, just-off-the-line condition, though Lemon says the foundation was not allowed to use some of the cabin materials which featured in the aircraft’s original cabin. Those materials are now impermissible as a result of modern aircraft fire-safety regulations.
Nevertheless, Flagship Detroit’s 21-seat passenger cabin has its original look and feel again. Curtains line the rectangular windows of the unpressurized passenger cabin and each seat – all of which have modern seat-belts – is only about 14 inches wide.
Lemon notes the narrow seat width is faithful to the original seat specifications: when American was originally operating the DC-3, the average American person weighed only 135lb. The cabin has hat-racks, not overhead bins.
The aircraft’s superb livery, which includes a great deal of highly polished silver, faithfully reflects its original colors when operating for American in the 1930s – down to a listing on the tail of the numbered domestic airmail routes it was licensed to operate, and American’s beautiful 1930s logo on the right rear fuselage.
Its pilots even keep a nautical-style American Airlines flag in the cockpit to insert into a flag-holder outside the captain’s window when taxiing in after landing. C.R. Smith had American’s pilots do this when operating DC-3 ‘Flagship’ commercial flights in the 1930s and 1940s.
Flagship Detroit’s cockpit still retains many of its original instruments and controls. However, the foundation also fitted the aircraft with modern navigation equipment – including Garmin GPS navigation units – to allow the Fort Worth, Texas-based DC-3 to operate throughout U.S. airspace and land at major U.S. airports.
One other feature of the Flagship Detroit is particularly notable. While the passenger door is not original, the aircraft has been restored to have the passenger door located on the right-hand side of the fuselage, at the back of the cabin.
While all other DC-3s had left-positioned passenger doors as well as cargo doors, C.R. Smith did not want American’s DC-3 passengers to have to see or be impeded by cargo being loaded on their aircraft. Accordingly, he specified right-side passenger doors for all of American’s DC-3s.
The Flagship Detroit Foundation uses volunteers and charitable donations of goods and services from aerospace companies and individuals to keep Flagship Detroit flying. American Airlines provides the foundation with hangar space and materials at the carrier’s maintenance complex at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth.
Flagship Detroit’s July 18 special flight from New York JFK in Blackman’s honor and with the 70-year-employee on board took place on one of the hottest and most humid days of the year to date in New York City, with temperatures in and around the city reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Since the only air conditioning available to 1930s-vintage aircraft was ram air sucked into the cabin during flight, on hot days crews opened the emergency-exit windows of their aircraft while on the ground to help try to cool the cabin. Flagship Detroit’s crew did exactly this on July 18.
Nonetheless, as NC17334 started its engines and taxied out for take-off at JFK on July 18, the temperature inside the cabin must easily have exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Only after take-off did the cabin temperature cool as a result of the flow of cool external ram air through tubes located on the cabin’s interior sidewalls above each window.