Group works to restore DC-3 plane

Before thousands of Rosies were riveting military aircraft during the World War II effort, one of the most popular forms of passenger transport came from the Douglas DC-3, a propeller-driven, twin-engine airliner that is considered one of the most important transport aircraft every produced.

Originally developed for the now-defunct Transcontinental and Western Airlines, the plane was designed to be a larger, faster version of its predecessor, the DC-2, and nicknamed the “Mr. Douglas” for its creator, Donald Douglas.

While most World War II-era planes can only be seen in aviation museums or in the pages of history books, Tullahoma is special in that it is currently the home of a Mr. Douglas.

According to Tullahoma resident Clayton Reese, Tullahoma’s own municipal airport has housed a slowly decaying plane DC-3 for the past 18 years.

But it will soon be restored to all its former glory, he said, thanks to the members of a nonprofit group ready to get their hands dirty.

 

Mr. Douglas history

During the 1930s and ’40s, the DC-3 was instrumental in helping the boom of the air travel industry, thanks to its size and maximum speed.

According to Popular Mechanics Magazine, the airliner made its maiden flight on Dec. 17, 1935, before completely revolutionizing the way Americans traveled.

It was a more comfortable way to travel, according to the magazine, and made transcontinental trips more common, as trips from Los Angeles to New York City only took 15 hours, as opposed to several days by train.

When the United States entered World War II, most DC-3s were modified into C-47s for military service, complete with the addition of a cargo door and strengthened floors, a shortened tail cone for glider-towing shackles and hoist attachments. The Army Air Corps even converted a DC-3 into a full glider in 1944, which “significantly outperformed the gliders towed by C-47s on D-Day.”

After the war ended, airlines adopted later models of DC aircraft, but the DC-3s were just as visible on tarmacs as their younger cousins. By the early 1960s, DC-3s were mainly used as cargo transports or freight forwarders.

By the 1970s, turbine-engine aircraft had largely replaced DC-3s for air travel and cargo transport, but the Mr. Douglases were by no means unused.

Many DC-3s, including the one at the Tullahoma airport, became the favored aircraft of skydivers and corporate bigwigs such as Conrad Hilton.

 

Mr. Douglas Society

It is thanks to those skydiving ties that the Mr. Douglas at the Tullahoma airport will be getting some much-needed tender, loving care.

A nonprofit group called the Mr. Douglas Society has taken on the job of completely overhauling the aircraft.

Spearheaded by Managing Director Michael Rouse, the group seeks to restore the plane to its former glory and put the Mr. Douglas back in the sky for air shows, demonstrations and more.

“We felt like it was time to bring back this old airplane because it matters,” Rouse told The News when he and his cohorts were in town last week doing some preliminary repairs. “It’s a piece of our history. This plane flew probably 50 or 100 world records back between 1975 and 1997.”

 

Labor of love

For two days last week, the men spent nearly 12-hour days slowly taking the plane apart and repairing, replacing or refurbishing each piece individually.

By Tuesday morning, Mr. Douglas Society member Mark Borghorst said they were ready to start removing one engine and the rudder.

Once the pieces were removed, he said, he and the group would get to work finding new engines to bring back around March.

This project, Borghorst said, is likely a multi-year investment by his estimation, but worth every penny and drop of sweat.

Besides the control surfaces, which had already been refurbished, there were still many pieces of repair work to be done.

New tires and brakes need to be installed, he said, the interior is “a moldy mess” and needs replacing, the entire plane needs to be repainted and much, much more work awaits the members of the Mr. Douglas Society.

The group had packed up with its current repair work by Friday morning, but according to Reese, the group will be back in town to continue restoring and preserving the plane.

 

Personal touches

Restoring the plane is entirely a personal investment for the group, which is made of up aviation fans and former pilots and skydivers alike.

The Tullahoma plane in particular is important because all their lives had been touched by it.

“This one is particularly close to our hearts,” Rouse said. “I used to fly it back in 1982 at the U.S. Skydiving Championships.”

Rouse and Borghorst, were both involved in skydiving trips from the 1970s to the late 1990s. Borghorst was even a previous owner of the airliner, he said.

“I bought it in December of 1980,” he said. While he owned the plane, Borghorst said he mainly used it for skydiving and missionary work. He even piloted the aircraft in a few movies, such as the 1994 drama “Drop Zone.”

For Reese, who has prior experience working with DC-3s, the work is extremely personal.

“There’s three guys I was deeply associated with in the planning stages of bringing this airplane here [to Tullahoma], and they’re no longer here, and I miss them terribly, and I’m doing this in their honor,” he said.

“They can’t be here, and I still am. I don’t want anything for it other than to do it in their honor – just for them,” he added.

He said that deciding to take on a project of this magnitude is reflective of his love for the plane itself.

“You do it out of love of the airplane,” he said.

 

Donations welcome

As a nonprofit organization, the Mr. Douglas Society is accepting donations to help the group restore the Douglas in Tullahoma. Eventually, Rouse said, he would like to see more DC-3s restored and shown around the country.

Those wishing to donate to the society are encouraged to visit www.mrdouglas.org. Donations may be made with a credit card online through the website. Checks are also accepted by mailing them to Save-A-DC-s The Mr. Douglas Society Inc., 202 Union St, Valparaiso, IN 46383.

Erin McCullough may be reached at emccullough@tullahomanews.com.