Warplanes: Older And Better

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October 20, 2016: Some things never get old, they just get better. For example take the pre-World War II air transport the DC-3. Starting in the 1990s Colombia paid about $5 million each to convert seven World War II era C-47 (DC-3) transports to AC-47T Fantasma (“spooky”) gunships. These carry a seven man crew and are equipped with night vision sensors and a three barrel .50 caliber machine-gun or a 20mm autocannon and sometimes a few bombs. Since then two AC-47Ts have been lost to accidents but the rest are still patrolling the coasts and remote interior forests searching for drug gangs or leftist rebels. Typical missions last about ten hours, usually at night.

AC-47s gunships first appeared in the 1964 over Vietnam. Back then there were thousands of relatively new C-47s to be had. The troops called these gunships, which liked to operate at night, "Spooky." During the 1969s 53 AC-47s served in Vietnam and 36 percent were lost in action (usually to accidents and mechanical failure). The AC-47 was soon superseded by larger armed transports, especially the 1950s era C-130.

The DC 3 (or C-47 or "Dakota" in military usage) continues to fly in commercial service into the 21st century. Several hundred DC 3s are still flying worldwide, mostly owned by small domestic carriers in the U.S. and by some Third World air transport companies. A state of the art aircraft in the mid-1930s (during which time only 500 were built), that all changed in 1939. Over 35,000 DC 3's were produced for use during World War II. The DC-3 was, in fact, the most widely manufactured aircraft of the war.

When allied paratroopers jumped, it was usually from a C-47/DC-3 (which could carry 28 troops, but over sixty people were squeezed in during emergencies). With a maximum range of 3,400 kilometers and a top speed of 296 kilometers per hour, the DC 3 was the common cargo carrier (up to 3.5 tons) and general purpose "flying truck." It still is even though production ceased by 1944. Since then the rugged and reliable design has been constantly upgraded with better engines and electronics as well as new mechanical and structural components that are stronger and longer-lasting than the original. Because of that the most modernized DC-3s can carry at least five tons of cargo. All the DC-3/C-47s remaining in service are over 70 years old and some will still be flying a century after the first one entered service.

The refurbishment of DC-3s has been going on for decades. The most successful and thorough upgrades were done by an American firm (Basler Turbo Conversions). This outfit did the conversions for Colombia to produce the AC-47T. The new turboprop engines were more efficient and reliable and the modern cockpit (all flat screen displays) and electronics (including sensors constantly monitoring the condition of the rebuilt aircraft). Thus the BT series of DC-3 transports competes as a more affordable alternative to much more recent designs. Current users of the BT conversions includes Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mali, Mauritania, Thailand, and by the United States government. Only the Colombians bought an armed model, all the other users have cargo or surveillance models. The Philippines is considering buying a gunship version but for use mainly as an armed surveillance aircraft. The BT aircraft are well suited for this because they have a cruising speed of 375 kilometers an hour and a low service ceiling of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).

 


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