How many of us travel by a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320 on a weekly or even a daily basis? But just as the history of most cars can be traced back to a select few models like the Austin 7 or the Ford Model T, the history of almost all modern airliners can be traced back to one legendary airplane, the Douglas DC-3. The DC-3 is near folklore for aviation geeks and enthusiasts and seeing one in mint condition today is the stuff of museums and airshows. But, seeing an early model in mint condition with the capacity of trying to circumnavigate the globe is an even rarer occurrence! And that is exactly what a certain original 1940 DC-3 is attempting in collaboration with legendary watchmakers, Breitling.
So let's start with a bit of history about this particular aircraft. The Breitling DC-3 as it is fondly called is 77 years old and if...no, when.... it manages to circumnavigate the globe, will be the oldest aircraft in the world to do so. Originally made in 1940, the DC-3 is one of the first 250 or so original batch airplanes that were made for civilian use, unlike the later ones that were made in their thousands for military use in World War Two. After being used for the Allied forces war efforts to transport troops from Canada to mainland Europe and even used once to hunt a German U-boat in the North Atlantic, this particular DC-3 went into active commercial service, first with Trans Texas Airways followed by Provincetown-Boston Airlines and finally Eastern Express until it was officially retired in 1987. The plane was then bought by a wealthy American regional airline owner and DC-3 enthusiast who restored it in the mid-90s until the current owners (with the assistance of Breitling) bought the aircraft about a decade ago and took it through a thorough restoration.
Taking off from its new home in Geneva (Switzerland) the plane has already made its way through the Balkans and the Middle East and Pakistan to Nagpur airport right in the centre of the country. One of the reasons the Breitling team chose to go with Nagpur as compared to other cities like Mumbai or Delhi is its central location, easy availability of Aviation Gas (as compared to Jet Fuel on which most modern planes fly) and a relatively free airspace to fly us around in! Yes, we actually took to the skies in the long forgotten king(and queen) of airliners. So how is it like? Well, for starters, the cabin has been semi stripped to accommodate 15 passengers as compared to the usual 30 with the freed up spaces used to hold two huge auxiliary fuel tanks for long haul sectors. The plane itself is stanced rearward when on the ground with two large forward landing gear and a smaller rear landing gear as compared to the reverse that is usually present in most aircraft.
Of course, Nagpur and its relatively hot weather were one of the main reasons the Indian Air Force and Boeing decided to set up a central maintenance facility here but the same heat can also be a huge problem when you have to fly around without air conditioning. What is essentially a metal tube with some seats, a set of wings and two 14 cylinder engines making close to about 1200 bhp each and no real air conditioning apparatus apart from small vents that help flow in external air, the DC-3 can be uncomfortable. And considering the fact that temperatures outside were nearing 41 degrees and temperatures in the place were closer to a toasty 50 degrees, we could not wait for the plane to take to the air! That said, the radial piston engines do take about 10 minutes to become fully operational even though the cabin was hot enough to toast bread in, the fact that we were about to experience flight in its very genesis was something that we were looking forward to. After a bumpy run-up and a very different take-off sequence (with the tail coming up first and then the nose), we took to the sky in a plane that should ideally be in a museum! But once in the air, even with the steady cross wind that made captain and owner Francisco Agullo wrestle with the original controls, the DC-3 started to stretch its legs like it belonged in the sky! Our flight lasted about 30 minutes with the flight crew gladly letting us come right up to the cockpit to have a firsthand view of how complicated (and yet easy to operate) these beautiful aircraft really are. After some gentle swoops left and some gentle swoops right, we made our way back down to earth and terra ferma. And although we were sweaty, hot and some even slightly sick due to the heat and turbulence, the short flight in a legend like the DC-3 is going to be an experience you tell your grand children about!
The Breitling DC-3, of course, is flying around the world for a reason. In its cargo hold, it carries 500 brand spanking new 'Navitimer Breitling DC-3' watches that will eventually go to 500 wealthy individuals who will be able to afford one! The watches will come with detailed flight log books personally signed by the crew themselves and will be numbered to maintain their exclusivity and sold only after they have completed the six-month voyage around the world. But, Breitling also has a philanthropic angle to their global flight. The DC-3 will help raise money for UNICEF, especially for children affected by the earthquake in Japan a few years ago with the watchmaker offer $2 for every nautical mile the aircraft will fly.
The Breitling DC-3 will now make its way across southern Asia and Japan on towards Canada and the United States where it will participate in a few airshows and then back home to Europe and its home in Geneva. And as much as we know it would be impossible for one of us mere mortals to be able to afford a watch like the Navitimer DC-3, what a wonderful story that would make!!