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Jet-Propelled Gooney Birds

2 minute read

Long before jets turned world travelers into day-trippers, there was the Gooney Bird, or DC-3. Slow and snub-nosed, more than 10,000 propeller-driven DC-3s made by Douglas Aircraft transported troops to victory in World War II and then re-entered civilian life to lure an entire generation to the skies. More than half a century after its debut in 1935, the Gooney Bird now has a second wind: Warren Basler, an air-freight operator and pilot in Oshkosh, Wis., has started outfitting refurbished DC-3s with turboprop-jet engines that will enable the planes to compete with modern aircraft.

Basler’s business has more to do with economics than nostalgia. A modern small cargo jet or a commuter plane, like the Fokker F-27, commands $5 million to $8 million. But Basler can deliver his converted DC-3s for less than $3 million. Furthermore, a DC-3 averages 18 minutes of maintenance for every hour of flying time, less than the 55 minutes of work needed to keep an F-27 aloft for an hour.

About 1,500 Gooney Birds still fly — primarily on military and scientific missions. When Basler gets his hands on one that has been well maintained, he first lengthens the fuselage by 40 inches, replaces the original transverse spar supporting the wings with a newer, stronger one and adds NASA-designed wing tips to improve the craft’s aerodynamics. Next come modern instruments, radar and communications equipment for the cockpit and then two 1,420-h.p. Pratt & Whitney turboprop-jet engines. Since January, Basler has filled orders for four jet-style DC-3s from air-freight companies. Demand has been so strong that he plans to build a new factory, which will enable him to convert eight aircraft at a time and double his staff to 100 employees.

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