Flying the Douglas Dakota – 1

A Dakota Experienceby John Van Gelder

FOR THOSE WHO LIVED THROUGH THE LATE 1930s and through the 40s, 50s, 60s and probably even today the mention of the Douglas DC3 is synonymous with flying and air transport. Incredibly, even today television advertising tells us that we can have a ‘luxury’ tour over Sydney in a Dakota! For pilots who were fortunate to fly the aircraft it was more than just another aircraft, it became almost a way of life.

After about four years of successful airline service with the DC2 followed by the DC3 and with the rapid approach of war, the American armed services looked for a new reliable and robust transport aircraft. Modifications to the DC3 to suit it for military service were relatively simple. Some strengthening in the rear fuselage area, larger doors for cargo handling, an astrodome and uprated engines were basically all that was needed. In this way the military version of the aircraft was born and became known as the C47, referred to as the Douglas Skytrain by the Americans and the Dakota when they entered service in the British and Commonwealth services. In total, about 13,000 were built.

 The longevity of the DC3s and C47s was due, no doubt, to an extremely sound and aesthetically pleasing design, and of particular significance, the inherent strength of the multi spar wing construction. The visual appearance of the Dakota seemed to inspire confidence.

The RAN operated four ex-RAAF Dakotas from HMAS Albatross between 1950 and the mid 1970s. Two were in service when I was invited to take more than just a casual interest in the aircraft in early 1957. The two aircraft were A65-43 and A65-23 with side numbers 800 and 801 respectively. The last two Dakotas transferred from the RAAF to the RAN were A65-90 and A65-123 and flown from RAAF Base East Sale to Nowra in February 1968. Their side numbers were 802 and 803 and I had the honour to deliver both aircraft from East Sale to Nowra.

In January 1957 I was enjoying myself flying Fireflys and Sea Furies from HMAS Albatross when I was bidden by the Director of Officers’ Appointments to take myself off to the RAAF Central Flying School at RAAF Base East Sale for a conversion course on Dakotas. This came as a complete surprise to me, but never one to disobey a direct order I travelled south and delivered myself unto the tender mercies of one Flight Lieutenant Robert ‘Snow’ Joske to be instructed in the intricacies of the legendary Dakota. ‘Snow’ was an A1 category Qualified Flying Instructor and perhaps the most professional flying instructor I have ever known. Incidentally, Group Captain Joske RAAF (Rtd) is a good friend of mine to this day.

Two weeks concentrated flying on the Dakota taught me many things I had not appreciated when flying single engine aircraft, but mainly how to fly a twin-engine aircraft on one engine! It was very rarely in a training flight that one engine didn’t ‘accidentally’ fail because the instructor had surreptitiously turned off the fuel to an engine, and one found oneself like a one-armed paper hanger trying to keep the aircraft flying with one hand and rectify the problem with the other whilst at the same time trying to complete a complex instrument homing or approach procedure.


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In any flying training programme simply taking-off and landing the aircraft and basic manoeuvres are the easy part. Where flying training is most important is in teaching the pilot how to overcome problems when things don’t go according to plan. That is the critical time when an emergency happens. If a military pilot does not concentrate every second he is in the air thinking about what may happen to his aircraft if unexpected things happen he is likely to die.

Since Dakotas were designed as a transport aircraft there was a fundamental requirement to fly them over relatively long distances in all but extreme weather conditions. For this reason Dakotas were fitted with de-icing equipment on the wings, propellers and windscreens. Additionally, the two RAN Dakotas, which were originally equipped only with radio compasses as a navigation aid, were upgraded in 1956/57 with Visual Aural Range (VAR) combined with Instrument Landing System (ILS) instrumentation. The addition of this equipment meant that the aircraft could now operate safely in the Civil Air Routes and could be flown into major civil airports in inclement or low cloud weather conditions. This also meant much more instrument flying practice and the need to become proficient in civil instrument approach procedures for the naval pilot. A type of flying in which he had very little previous experience.

The cockpit design and layout was interesting in itself and probably set a pattern for all future transport aircraft. American aircraft designers were a long way ahead of their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic when it came to user friendly cockpits for pilots. The cockpits were generally spacious and the layout of the instrumentation was logical, and came easily to hand. By modern standards the Dakota cockpit was fairly primitive but functional. The one outstanding piece of equipment fitted was the automatic pilot. This was robust and reliable and a great comfort to have on a long trip.

The aircraft was designed to operate with two pilots, the aircraft captain in the left-hand seat and co-pilot in the right, however, it could be flown without difficulty by one pilot. This was a good thing because with so few RAN pilots qualified on the Dakota during the 1950s and 60s it was usual practice to have an unqualified pilot sitting in the right-hand seat. Once I became a Qualified Flying Instructor this usually meant that almost every flight became a training flight for the co-pilot! I recall putting this procedure into practice one afternoon flying south from RAAF Base, Townsville, trying to convert the co-pilot to the old Dakota in my best flying instructor technique. Little did I know for some time that our transmit button was inadvertently switched on and I was unwittingly giving a flying lesson to any pilot on the Queensland air radio frequency! In any event, I must have impressed my co-pilot since he later became a senior check captain with Qantas.

Everyone seems to assume that the Dakota was a good safe reliable aircraft. Basically this was so but if one was not very careful under some circumstances the old darling could react very badly. One such circumstance was landing in a high crosswind. The Dakota could cope fairly well with a crosswind component of up to 13 knots, approaching that component and beyond became a little tricky.

At HMAS Albatross, Saturday 9th June 1962 was a clear, cold winter’s day with a very strong westerly wind blowing. Mid afternoon I received a phone call from Commander Air, the late Jim Baileyasking if I had had a drink. Assuring him that I had not, he directed me to meet him at the Squadron (724) from whence we were to proceed to the South Coast regional airport of Merimbula in order to airlift a fourteen-year-old boy suffering from an accidental gunshot wound to the chest to Sydney for hospital surgery. With Jim in the right-hand seat (and unqualified on the aircraft) we set off for Merimbula in some of the worst turbulence I had ever experienced. The airport at Merimbula had a single runway running roughly north and south and with almost a gale from the west the prospects of a nice neat landing appeared somewhat grim. In the event a landing was achieved, although it could have been better described as an arrival.

With our young patient loaded on board and made as comfortable as possible, and also attended by a nursing sister who had never been in an aircraft before, we took off for Sydney. To ensure as much comfort as possible for the patient we flew about twenty miles out to sea to avoid the turbulence. On arrival at Sydney at 1800 I was fairly convinced that our good nurse was probably in worse shape than the patient after her first flight! However, we were met by an ambulance and a medical team and also the press. Needless to say next day one of the Sunday papers ran a story and photograph of our Dakota on arrival at Sydney and saying how well the RAAF had executed the medical mercy flight! No wonder HMAS Melbourne was not replaced.

The two RAN Dakotas, A65-23 and A65-43, were configured internally as flying classrooms for Observer training. The aircraft were equipped with ASV 19B radar, the set fitted to the Fairey Gannet. The radar scanner/aerial was located adjacent to the cargo doors and surrounded by a guard rail. In operation the scanner was lowered electrically in its radome, which was about three feet in diameter, and protruded below the aircraft fuselage by about four feet (from memory). Naturally, the radome could not be lowered with the aircraft on the ground as there was insufficient clearance.

One sunny afternoon we were returning to Albatross after a successful radar exercise with a class of observer trainees when I was quietly advised by the observer instructor, the irrepressible Lieutenant Arthur ‘Slug’ Whitton,that he was unable to retract the radome. As I did not fancy landing the aircraft with the radome down and tearing or wearing it off on the runway with the attendant risk of fire I sought a conference with ‘Slug’ in the vicinity of the reluctant radome. Mustering all the electrical knowledge we had between us, which amounted to very little, we came to the conclusion that if we could bridge the gap between two obvious electrical contact points ‘something might happen’. With this course of action agreed upon ‘Slug’ wrapped a pair of navigation dividers in the nearest available Mae West and jammed the divider points onto the two electrical contact points, which were perhaps two inches apart. The results were instantaneous. Three distinct things happened. There was a blinding blue flash of electrical energy, the navigation dividers melted and burnt the Mae West and Lo and Behold the radome retracted into the housed position for landing! Flushed with success and having convinced our observer trainees that we were virtually supermen we retired to the cockpit for the circuit entry and landing. Intentionally leaving the door open between cockpit and main cabin I sat ‘Slug’ in the co-pilots seat and directed him to place his left hand on the throttles and pitch levers. In this manner we landed the aircraft and almost convinced our observer trainees that observers can do anything a pilot can do! Occasionally one can have some fun in the air, particularly in an aircraft such as the Dakota.

The safe and reliable old Dakota could become a bit of a handful if things did not go according to plan. In Hobart, 26th October 1962, the weather was superb with bright sunshine, warm temperature and virtually no wind. We had flown from Nowra to Hobart the previous day for the purpose of returning a few of our maintenance personnel and their equipment to Nowra after they had attended to servicing some Sea Venoms in Hobart.

Take off conditions shortly after midday on the northern runway at Cambridge airport were ideal. No other air traffic in the area, a gentle breeze, and the Derwent River beyond the runway looking like a millpond, although the Dakota, A65-43, was fairly heavy.

With my perennial unqualified co-pilot Jim Bailey in the right hand seat and all pre-flight checks completed we were cleared for take-off.

It should be pointed out at this stage that there are two significant speeds to be considered during the take off and initial climb procedure for multi engine aircraft. The first speed is the Critical Speed, which occurs at about 67 knots for the Dakota, when the wheels just leave the runway and the aircraft becomes airborne. The second speed, known as the Safety Speed, occurs at about 92 knots. The significance of these two speeds is that if complete power is lost on one engine before reaching the Safety Speed the aircraft will not climb and is unlikely to remain airborne. Above that speed the aircraft should maintain height flying on one engine. Obviously, total weight of the aircraft in these situations is a vital factor.

The take-off run was quite normal and as the aircraft lifted off the runway action was initiated to retract the undercarriage. When only a few feet off the runway, with the airspeed perhaps a little over 70 knots, the port engine fire warning light came on. Let me assure you, there is no mistaking a fire warning light in an aircraft, it is a brilliant red light which sears itself into one’s brain with the simple message ‘… Do something – NOW!’  With an engine fire the first action should be to cut off the fuel supply and subsequently activate the fire extinguisher(s).

In this situation the correct, and possibly safest procedure, would have been to shut off the fuel to the port engine, fire the extinguisher and ditch the aircraft off the end of the runway into the Derwent River. Although, this course of action was contemplated for a split-second I then considered that I was not dressed for the occasion, I had no desire to take a Dakota swimming with me and furthermore I did not think it was my prerogative to force a swim on my passengers without their consent. Oh yes!

In the event I took a course of action for which I could be justifiably criticised but fortunately for all concerned it turned out well. The immediate action was to reduce power on the port engine but maintain sufficient power to attain at least Safety Speed. I could see no flame around the engine and the observer, Lieutenant Bob Bloffwitch, at my behest could see neither smoke nor flame coming from the trailing edge of the port wing. On reaching about 300 feet I initiated a tight right hand circuit with the port engine almost back to idling power (under the circumstances it may have been needed again on the approach) and landed the aircraft back on the runway from whence we had just come, at the same time turning off fuel to the port engine.

On shutting everything down on the runway (no other air traffic) the source of the problem was simple to find. In the port wheel well a bolt had sheared and allowed the bottom segment of the exhaust manifold to drop between six and twelve inches. Fortunately it did not fall out of the aircraft but jammed itself into the engine nacelle. The effect of all this was that exhaust flames were pouring into the wheel well initiating the fire warning system. On the downside we were rather lucky, as the flames were starting to burn the hydraulic lines that actuate the engine cooling gills. Within an hour the problem had been rectified and we were airborne again on our way to Nowra.

As I have said many times the Dakota was not just an aeroplane; for a pilot it was a way of life and an enjoyable one at that.

John Van Gelder

Reproduced from the Naval Historical Review