When introduced in the mid-1930s, Douglas Aircraft Company’s venerable DC-3 changed the face of commercial aviation, providing the nation’s airlines with a more capable and comfortable airplane that enabled the expansion and extension of transport routes. The outbreak of World War II brought new missions for the airplane, designated the C-47 and R4D by the Army Air Forces and Navy respectively, its service under fire burnishing its reputation.
Following the war, Douglas shifted its attention back to peacetime pursuits, including the design of a replacement for the DC-3, soon deciding to build upon a good thing and modernize a number of existing airframes. The result was the Super DC-3, which boasted a strengthened fuselage, new horizontal and vertical tail surfaces, squared off and mildly sweptback wings, and nacelle doors that fully housed the retracted landing gear.
Unfortunately, the intended market for the Super DC-3 did not materialize—it was not advanced enough for the major airlines and regional carriers were turned off by its expense. Therefore, Douglas focused on the military. The U.S. Air Force turned it down, but the U.S. Navy awarded a contract for conversion of 98 existing R4Ds to the new configuration, which was designated the R4D-8 (later C-117D). With Wright R-1820-80 engines that boasted 275 more horsepower than the engines on the R4D-5, the overall capability and performance factors increased substantially.
In the tradition of the earlier R4Ds operated by the Navy, the new version proved quite versatile with its employment in an array of missions. R4D-8s transported personnel and cargo around the globe, including in-country operations during the Vietnam War. Assigned to various naval air stations, they also supported the operations of the official U.S. Navy Parachute Team, the “Chuting Stars.” R4D-8Ts (TC-117D), their fuselages packed with individual work stations and equipment, served as flying classrooms for teaching navigation to naval aviators and naval flight officers. Ski-equipped R4D-8Ls (LC-117D) supported Operation Deep Freeze on the frozen landscape of Antarctica. The R4D-8Zs (VC-117D), modified with a plush interior and comforts befitting VIPs, transported flag officers and high-ranking civilian officials.
The museum’s C-117D (Bureau Number 50821) was originally delivered as an R4D-6 in 1943 and served with Transport Squadron (VR) 3 during the latter part of World War II. It was converted to an R4D-8 in April 1952 and initially served in Europe with VR-24 before stateside service with VR-31 and then at Naval Air Stations (NAS) Atlanta and Corpus Christi, Texas, during which time it was redesignated a C-117D. After another period of overseas service in England and Spain, it was assigned to Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) El Centro, California, where it supported the “Chuting Stars.” Its final service was at Naval Weapons Center (NWC) China Lake, California. It was accessioned into the collection in 1982.
Manufacturer: Douglas Aircraft Company
Dimensions: Length: 67 ft., 9 in.; Height 18 ft., 3 in.; Wingspan: 90 ft.
Weights: Empty: 19,537 lb.; Gross: 31,000 lb.
Power Plant: Two 1,475 horsepower Wright R-1820-80 engines
Performance: Maximum Speed: 270 M.P.H.; Service Ceiling: 22,700 ft.; Range: 2,500 miles
Crew: Three with provision for 33 passengers