Basler BT-67: Reincarnation of sublime simplicity | Expert

An aircraft that was no longer modern in World War II is still flying around the world. The device was even featured in a reality series. What is the secret behind the eternal Basler BT-67?

On December 17, 1935, exactly 32 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, a plane named DST took to the skies in California. DST stood for Douglas Sleeper Transport. The American Airlines chief had his sights set on a plane that could fly from the east to the west coast of the United States in about 15 hours, while the passengers were comfortably in bed. However, no available aircraft would fit two beds side by side every once in a while. Therefore, the Douglas aircraft factory developed a wider version of its existing airliner, the DC-2. The sleeper didn’t really catch on, but that didn’t change the fact that it could fit many more seats than competing aircraft. With a capacity of up to 32 passengers, the DC-3, as the plane was quickly dubbed, was a behemoth. Airlines are making profits, and within a few years 600 units were sold. At a time when flying was still strictly reserved for the elite, this was an unprecedented number. KLM used the DC-3 from 1936 on the fortnightly Amsterdam-Batavia-Sydney service. Including overnight stays in hotels, such a flight took no more than six days – three weeks faster than by ship.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the fledgling civil aviation was brought to a standstill. Passenger planes were used for cargo and troop transport. Nevertheless, the DC-3 saw its finest hour during this dark period. The Allied armed forces ordered more than 10,000 new units, which under the designation C-47 – and the nickname Dakota – performed all the frontline services at the front. During the invasion of Normandy, for example, the plane dropped about 50,000 paratroopers. Under the name Lisoenov Li-2, the Russians built more than 6000 licensed examples.

After the war, the military Dakotas were largely converted to civilian aircraft, reviving civil aviation. in 1948 and 1949 the planes were used for the airlift to West Berlin, which successfully broke through the Soviet blockade. By this time, many more modern airliners were already rolling off the production line, such as the DC-6 and the Lockheed Constellation. These planes were not only much larger, but also had pressurized cabins. This allowed them to fly above the weather, rather than straight through it. In addition, the new aircraft can cover much longer distances, making flights between Europe and the US routine.

But the DC-3 did not allow itself to be referred to the museum. The planes scrapped by the major airlines turned out to be in high demand. Today, according to a rough estimate, around 170 copies are still flying around. Perhaps the best known of these are the planes of Buffalo Air, the Canadian cowboy company from the former reality series Ice Pilots. Buffalo maintains a regular service with the antique planes, but also transports the craziest things to the most inhospitable places. Anyone who has seen a few episodes of Ice Pilots will understand why the device is still in use: the DC-3 is sublime in its simplicity.

Elon Musk likes to say that the best part is not a part. There aren’t actually too many rivets on the DC-3. The aircraft has only two engines, where its successors usually had four. It limits the payload, but on the other hand, those things only break half as often. The landing gear retracts, but a small part of the tires always stick out: useful if the wheels refuse to unfold. The DC-3 does not have a pressurized cabin. This not only saves on all kinds of parts, but also prevents the aluminum skin of the aircraft from weakening over the years due to the constant pressure on the fuselage. A hull, moreover, which, like the wings, was designed by the Douglas engineers to be more robust for safety than was considered strictly necessary. Finally, the DC-3 is not controlled via a hydraulic system, but simply by cables. It also saves maintenance.

Tech tycoon Elon Musk likes to claim that the best part is no part. Indeed, there is no rivet too much on the DC-3

An aircraft from the war is naturally equipped with engines from the war. With 173,618 units, the 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp is the most produced aircraft engine of all time, and also served as the power source for, among other things, the American B-24 bomber. The good result is that there are still plenty of spare parts available. But yes, it remains an old-school piston engine: relatively susceptible to malfunction and thirsty for old-school leaded jet fuel that is no longer readily available everywhere. Wouldn’t it be great if the DC-3 could be selected for a modern, reliable and low-maintenance turbine engine that burns the ubiquitous kerosene? You can do it.

The American company Basler Turbo Conversions converts DC-3s into so-called Basler BT-67s. About a third of all flying aircraft have now undergone such a metamorphosis. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop engine not only makes the aircraft 30 percent faster, but also increases the payload by about 30 percent. The maximum flight range is an impressive 3700 km – or a flight of 13 hours. Basler emphasizes that the BT-67 is more than a souped-up DC-3. More than 90 percent of the original aircraft is thrown away, the company says. Only the basic structure of the fuselage and wings are preserved. The rest is new. “Because it looks like a C-47, people tend to say, ‘Oh, it’s an 80-year-old plane,'” said a company spokesman, “but it really isn’t.”

Basler therefore uses the strangest production concept within the aviation industry. The factory in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, stores about 30 wrecks that will eventually transform into brand new planes. In addition, the company knows there are at least 150 to 200 other wrecks around the world—a number that Basler says could increase over time. The company builds two to four BT-67s per year, so the number of Dakotas will not decrease in the future, but increase! If there is an aircraft that deserves such a reincarnation, it is indeed the sublime Douglas DC-3.

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