April 4, 2013 – The Piper Warrior bounced a bit in the choppy and slightly foggy air as it approached the runway at Middletown Regional Airport (Hook Field) during the summer of 2002. The pilot reduced power, leveled wings and flared slightly. The author, in the right seat, waited for contact with the runway. Rubber tires kissed the hard surface beneath and generated an unmistakable screech. The small plane rapidly decelerated and, at the deliberate application of rudder, eased off onto the grass. A short distance away was a familiar landmark and eating establishment, namely a Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant, where for years aviators sought nourishment after a flight.
Further down the paved taxiway a flock of Miami Valley Aviation (MVA) “Gooney Birds” (C-47s and DC-3s) sat on the tarmac or adjoining turf. One was beginning its takeoff run. The twin Wright engines roared in synchronized harmony as the tail came up in preparation for rotation. It was another day and Miami Valley Aviation (MVA) was as usual open for business.
The airfield and adjacent facilities in southwestern Ohio had been the home of Aeronca, builders of the famous line of light aircraft that included the Chief and Champ. Later, a new tenant set up shop. It was MVA. The business, formed in Butler, County, Ohio, officially registered on August 4, 1959. Over time the firm operated Douglas DC-3, C-47 and C-117 types as air freighters. Unlike the Flagship Detroit flying museum, these birds were not glamorous or immaculately polished. However, that was okay because MVA’s “Gooneys” were workers; the owners and operators were providing service and reaping profits.
Nearly 11,000 DC-3s and C-47s came off Douglas’ production lines between 1935 and 1945. Thousands more were license-built in other countries. Observers on the ground have always loved the looks of the 1930s design. The planes looked sturdy yet graceful. The fuselage lines were sleek and the wings, being long and tapered, were reminiscent of a swallow’s.
Nevertheless, at the onset of DC-3 operations, few realized the type would become such a success. Fortunately for farsighted Douglas, contemporary competitors, such as the Boeing 247 / C-73 and Lockheed Model 10 Electra / UC-36, were less capable and versatile aeroplanes. For decades after World War II Gooneys and parts were readily available at relatively inexpensive prices. The Journal of Commerce records that converted DC-3s and ex-military C-47s “got the commercial air-cargo industry off the ground.” These freighters possessed a 6,400-pound payload and could transport diverse cargoes inexpensively. In a 2010 Flying Magazine article, FAA-designated DC-3 examiner Martha Lunken stated the freighters, which she described as “big, dirty, smelly, cantankerous collections of cannibalized parts,” could haul a wide variety of cargoes. The Journal of Commerce additionally notes the following: “No one has tallied how much freight – commercial and military – moved in their bellies or the fat fuselages of the freighter versions, but the number was immense.” In the late 1950s MVA found an “on-demand” niche and eventually exploited it with DC-3s. In 2002, Miami Valley Aviation reportedly had the largest fleet of Gooney Bird all-cargo aircraft operating. More than 60 years after the first DC-3 flew Gooney transport was “still one of the cheapest ways to move loads of up to three tons, especially over distances of less than 500 miles.”
Unfortunately, MVA terminated on January 4, 2007. It was the end of a remarkable era. Thankfully, some of the old aluminum fowls continue to take to the air at the beckonings of other owners.
Although the classic, tough, old fowls receive ubiquitous praise, even their staunchest fans are somewhat critical from pilot and aircrew viewpoints. In a May 2000 Air & Space magazine article, Mark Huber noted that their “windshields leak.” Furthermore, he said, “When you get out of the airplane, it looks like you’ve been scared real bad.” World War II ace and three-war pilot Richard Asbury remarked to the author that, all “C-47 flights came close to killing him.” Pilot, businessman, and writer J. R. Hafer said, “I love them.” Mr. Hafer added, “I flew one for a short time back in the late 1960s from the right seat. I logged flights mostly over water all around Southeast Asia. DC-3s and C-47s require constant attention because you don’t have an autopilot, and the trim and sync require constant adjustments. Gooney’s are heavy on the controls and handle like a truck. One must pay attention during flights because the ships will slap you to get your attention back!”
Evidently, Martha Lunken concurred with Hafer’s more recent assessment. In her 2010 feature in Flying magazine, she wrote the following: “More than just cumbersome and balky, a Gooney that senses you’re a little too comfortable, cocky or complacent will humble you at best and, at worst, hurt or kill you.” Ms. Lunken stated, “DC-3s are unwieldy on the ground and demand considerable muscle taxing in a wind.” While flying, “You plant your feet on big pedals and grasp a massive wheel with both hands and sometimes with forearms and elbows; you pull hefty levers through big arcs and yank on valves that don’t want to move.” Additionally, the throttle “controls slide back where you definitely don’t want them to be.” Finally, Martha stated the Gooneys “buck and wallow and defy attempts to hold an altitude until you acknowledge defeat . . . and hang on for the ride.”
What about other aircrews’ experiences? U.S. Air Force and Vietnam veteran William Commerford offered that he flew aboard C-47s while stationed in the Republic of Vietnam and DC-3s elsewhere. Bill commented, “Both models provided a bumpy ride.” He added, “C-47s with canvas web seats produced “a really rough ride.”
Despite their shortcomings Gooney Birds excelled at their jobs and are still providing valuable service. How many aircraft types are laboring at age 78? Perhaps the greatest consideration is that the end is not in sight for the venerable avis. Some remain in passenger and cargo service.
SUN ’n FUN 2013 exposition officials in Lakeland, Fla., will welcome the presence of several Gooneys. For those who crewed the winged, aluminum creatures it will be a time for reminiscing. For youngsters, the sight of the planes will be an educational treat. For all, what is old will be new again.
The author (John Stemple) thanks J. R. Hafer and William Commerford for providing their insights.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Douglas C-47 Skytrain
Boeing Model 247 commercial airliner
Boeing 247 – Wikipedia
Model 10 Electra
Lockheed Model 10
The Lockheed Model 10 “Electra”
Air cargo’s foundation
Mark Huber, High Mileage: Just how many hours can you wring from an airplane? As the operators, mechanics, and part suppliers who keep DC-3s in the air, Air & Space, May 2000. www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/mileage.html
Martha Lunken, DC-3, A Real Man’s Airplane
WW II ace Richard Asbury reminisces
Middletown Regional/Hook Field Airport
Middletown Regional/Hook Field
Ohio Secretary of State Business Filing Portal