The DC-3's revolutionary flight across America

In 1938, an American Airlines DC-3 would make the revolutionary flight across America...

On an early evening in 1938, history was about to be changed forever. Until this point, the journey through the air from East to West over America had taken 25 hours, with plenty of stopovers and flight changes in between. When you consider that now, over 80 years later, we can get to the other side of the world in less than this time – well, it doesn’t seem that impressive. But when you look at it the other way, the realisation of just how much of an important milestone this is really dawns on you. The first solo transatlantic flight had taken place just 11 years prior to this, when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis 3,600 miles from Long Island to Paris. And now, on this evening in 1938, actual paying customers would be given the opportunity to fly 2,500 miles from Newark Airport, New York to Glendale, California.

The aeroplane to have this honour was a gleaming new American Airlines DC-3. The plane had rolled off the conveyor just months before but the model itself had been introduced 3 years prior. Upon take off on this historical journey in this exciting new aeroplane, a reporter inside the cabin looked outside, later recalling in Fortune magazine: ‘Halfway along the runway she left the ground so smoothly that none of the first fliers in the cabin realised what had happened until they saw the whole field rushing away behind them and the factory lights winking through the Jersey murk ahead’.

While the flight wasn’t non-stop (there was a series of short refuelling breaks in Nashville and other cities), it was still revolutionary. Passengers didn’t have to disembark or change aeroplanes; they simply waited the short time it took to refuel before taking off again promptly. Making the same journey by train at the time took upwards of three days. Now, Americans could fly from one side of the country to the other in just 18 hours, cutting the original flight time down by seven hours. And they were able to do this in the luxury of the DC-3 rather than the cramped conditions of a locomotive. From cocktails and sirloin steaks to goose-down bedding and expensive silverware. Passengers were able to experience this pioneering journey across the States in truly opulent surroundings.

The DC-3 was a low wing metal monoplane powered by two piston engines and two propellors. It had conventional landing gear, a conventional aeroplane design and flew as many of the conventional aeroplanes of the time did. But it was much more than simply ‘conventional’, especially for those onboard to experience America’s first flight from New York to California. And it became the flight that would pave the way for commercial air travel over the fifty years that would follow. Bigger discoveries may have been made, and better and more innovating engineering was to follow. But nothing could take away from the fact that this American Airlines DC-3 made such a ground breaking journey in 1938.