Aboard the vintage Douglas DC-3 airplane, recalling travel from an era of suits and fancy hats

Last week we celebrated the 75th birthday of both one of our favorites and our hometown airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National. We didn't (yet) mention the meticulously restored vintage Douglas DC-3 airliner flew in as the backdrop for the festivities. Dubbed "Flagship Detroit" in an age when American Airlines named these planes for the cities to which the airline flew (mainly around the Ohio Valley), these beautiful planes were flown by all of the major United States carriers in the 1930s and 40s, and is incredibly still flying in very limited use in some parts of the world today.

Walking up, the first thing you'll notice is the striking buffed silver metal livery that in one form of another graced American's airplanes for generations. Unlike modern commercial aircraft most of us are used to, the DC-3's third wheel is situated at her tail, so she sits at an incline forcing passengers boarding from stairs in the rear to walk upward in order to get to the front of the plane. Ambling up those stairs into the cabin, it's not tough for the mind's eye to conjure men in suits and ladies in fancy hats finding their seats and drawing their curtains, reading their newspapers and smoking their cigarettes in the soft light of each lamp. Hat racks hang above the original seats, which are unbelievably far more narrow than the confines we now "enjoy", for passengers were a bit more svelte in those days. A captain, copilot, and stewardess doubling as a nurse flew the DC-3 in its heyday (the stewardess had to be single). A buffet in the aft part of the cabin served hot meals (and, dare we ask, wine?) on fine china and silver.

Today's Flagship Detroit bears all the trappings of a different time. Indeed, our host and pilot, Zane Lemon (a retired Boeing 777 captain) tells us that Eleanor Roosevelt preferred sneaking aboard last to claim a seat in the back of the 2-1 (two seats in the row on one side, one on the opposite side) configuration. Interestingly, it was also Mrs. Roosevelt who became the first woman admitted to the American Airlines Admirals Club, at that time the exclusive domain of gentlemen fliers.

The original concept for the DC-3, pushed by American CEO D.R. Smith to Donald Douglas, was as a sleeper plane designated the "Douglas Sleeper Transport" (DST), but a dozen passengers in beds didn't generate enough revenue. Smith advocated a 22 seat version for which the wings were extended sideways and aft, giving the new DC-3 a striking profile, unusually wide wing span, and a 1300-mile range on 800 gallons of fuel.

She was rescued by Captain Lemon and the non-profit Flagship Detroit Foundation after flying for many years as a mosquito spray plane. Restored in Kansas City, she's now owned by the foundation but hangared by American. We're told the American Airlines maintenance staff work on it in their spare time, undoubtedly a labor of love. Though over 600 were produced in their time, there aren't many left in service today -- though that there are any is a wonder of engineering. I vaguely recall flying in one as a young child, though of course I can't be sure. They remain marvels, a beautiful way to travel... plucked from an era when travel across the country in less than 24 hours was a marvel in itself: a fitting tribute to the nation's airport on her birthday.