Greater Tulsa Reporter
TAKE TO THE SKY: Just before take off, Kim Jones, left, deputy director and curator for TASM and Lee Hubby, TASM board member, pose for a photo in front of the vintage DC-3 aifcraft, “The Detroit.”
CHARLES CANTRELL for GTR Newspapers
“The Detroit,” a vintage DC-3 built by Douglas Aircraft Company in 1937 sits gleaming in the April sun on the tarmac just south of Tulsa Air & Space Museum at Tulsa International Airport waiting for a load of eager passengers representing Tulsa area press.
The first thing one notices when entering the plane near the tail end is the steep incline leading up to the two-man cockpit. On the left of the pristinely restored, blue and white, Art Deco styled interior is a row of paired seats washed in bright afternoon light. To the right of the aisle add a single row of seven seats for a total accommodation of 21 passengers.
The second thing one notices when settling into one of the seats is the unnerving tight fit prompting one to ponder the prospect of weight gain. Not to worry assures Captain Rick Owens, tour guide for the American Airlines’ Flagship Detroit’s first of several flights out of Tulsa International Airport to show off the vintage plane to local media thereby helping promote its visit to Tulsa. “When this plane was built 75 years ago the calculated average weight of passengers was 137 pounds. Today the average is around 195 pounds.” Hence the tight fitting seats were explained by Owens and everyone was, well, sort of relieved.
The Detroit is the oldest flying DC-3 in the world and is operated by the Flagship Detroit Foundation, www.FlagshipDetroit.org, a privately funded, nonprofit organization promoting the remarkable history of these renowned aviation workhorses and educating the public on the importance of these aircrafts in the history of aviation in America. The completely restored plane was here during the week leading up to Tulsa Air and Space Museum’s annual Aviator Ball, a major fundraiser for the museum. This year, the event paid tribute to the 65th anniversary of American Airlines’ Tulsa maintenance base.
The plane has logged nearly 50,000 hours in the air, and though this may sound like a lot it is really a young to middle-aged DC-3 based on the life span of all planes in the fleet. Many have been retired or are still flying with well over 100,000 hours. But even as a middle-aged plane, The Detroit has had a full life. In its youth, it was a Braniff Airlines plane flying passengers coast to coast. It once served to shuttle First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt across America on her many philanthropic quests. It fell on hard times and became a drug smuggling airplane for a short period of time in South America. It was at one time equipped for spraying fire retardant chemicals on forest fires. Finally it was rescued by American Airlines and after being restored ended up starring in a rather lack luster movie titled, “The Killer Inside Me.”
“We are especially pleased that the Flagship Detroit Foundation made the aircraft available this year to help us celebrate 65 years of American Airlines history in Tulsa,” said Lee Hubby, TASM board member who was instrumental in getting the plane to Tulsa. The event showcased other planes like a Boeing 757 and a McDonnell Douglas MD-80, but the historic DC-3 was the centerpiece of the event held in American Airlines Hangar 80.
When the pilot revved up the two Pratt & Whitney 1,000 HP, Twin Wasp radial engines and began taxiing for take off, all doubt as to the old plane’s power was gone. Once in the air it was bumps and bounces, sound and fury. We knew we were in a great flying machine. Air conditioning was non-existent in the late 1930s, but small pullout vents blew slightly scented air directly in one’s face by way of small air scoops on the outside of the fuselage above each window. At little over 2,500 feet the view of the city and Green Country on a near perfect spring day was spectacular. As the plane headed northward over Keystone Lake, a strong tailwind created yaw, an effect wherein the plane tends to oscillate horizontally due to the pilot’s continual effort to keep the tail behind the plane.
Sitting in the snug seat of a refurbished DC-3 on a warm, windy and sunny Oklahoma afternoon leaves no doubt one is flying. This was no sterile, synthetically smooth, jet-propelled flight slicing through the air silently beckoning one to relax and maybe take a nap. No way, we were in the wild blue yonder as the plane bounced along, skipping across updrafts like a flat stone on water, suddenly catching a gusting cross wind, reeling, adjusting and straightening up only to be jostled again as the prairie wind played with the plane’s outstretched wings. Greater Tulsa was below, nothing but blue above. We were flying, really flying and it was marvelous.
One of the passengers was Kim Jones, deputy director and curator for TASM. His particular interest in the DC-3 flight stemmed from a project that TASM has undertaken to procure and restore The American Airlines Flagship Tulsa, another DC-3 with just as storied a past as The Detroit with the added feature of being one year older. The museum is coordinating the restoration efforts with a team of local companies, volunteer craftsmen and vintage aviation aficionados.
Omni Air International, a Tulsa based passenger charter service has taken on restoration of the tail groupings. The fuselage and wings are in the very competent hands of volunteer restorers working at Tulsa’s American Airlines facilities. The specialized restoration of the fabric-skinned ailerons and other “flying surfaces” has been turned over to Rich Lewis of American Airlines.
Restoring the twin radial engines could be done by any number of local aviation companies. The jury is out on whether a restored Flagship Tulsa will ever fly again depending on how much airframe structural integrity has been lost due to years of corrosion. FAA requirements regarding the flight worthiness of older aircraft is understandably very picky. But, at the very least, just having the plane eventually on display at TASM will provide another great window into the city’s rich aviation history.
The DC-3 came to the fore in the early 1930s when the country stood at the threshold of a new era. One in which air travel was becoming increasingly more competitive with domestic rail travel. The public’s malaise toward flying was abating. Incredible growth in aviation lay ahead and the Douglas DC-3 was there to serve the new era incorporating every aviation advancement to date. The entire fleet would spend the 1930s, 1940s and beyond transporting passengers and cargo everywhere imaginable around the world and charting millions of safe flight hours. In large part these amazing aircraft formed the foundation of modern commercial aviation.