A rare appearance: the Douglas DC-5

The name ‘Douglas’ rings a bell in commercial aviation. Think of the highly successful DC-2 and DC-3 before the war and the DC-6 to -10 after the war. Still, one is missing: the DC-5.

Although the DC-5 was never seen in the Netherlands, it is an aircraft that played an interesting role in a turbulent period of Dutch aviation: World War II. The Douglas DC-5 was a twin-engine, 16-22-seat shoulder-decker, fitted with a nosewheel undercarriage (quite unique at the time) intended for shorter routes than the DC-3 or DC-4. However, when it entered commercial service in 1940, many airlines canceled their orders; consequently, only five civilian DC-5s were built. With the Douglas Aircraft Company already transitioning to war production, the DC-5 was quickly overtaken by events, although a limited number of military variants were produced.

Design and development

The DC-5 was developed in 1938 as a civil airliner with a capacity of 18/24 passengers (later reduced to 16/22), designed to carry either the Pratt & Whitney R-1690 or the Wright Cyclone 1,000 hp R-1820-44 at use engines. Innovative features for the time included a high wing and tricycle landing gear, the relatively unique configuration that facilitated passenger boarding, loading and engine maintenance. The prototype made its maiden flight on 20 February 1939. A very early design change was to change the horizontal tail surfaces from straight to a 15-degree angle to improve stability as the tail surfaces had to deal with turbulence from the high-mounted aircraft, main wing and engines.

Another major change, changing the nacelles, was adding tailpipes that were retroactively installed after the series went into production. The V position of the tail bays was also used on the ‘Douglas A-20 Boston/Havoc’ light bomber. The Japanese were eager to know what the effect of this was and how it was constructed.

An unusual “optical trick” applied to the profile of the prototype was to paint the top of the vertical tail plane and the outline of the nacelles in a darker color, with the shapes curving to follow the contours of the aircraft, making the tail and engines slightly smaller and the aircraft appear slimmer.

PJ-AIW from the West Indian company KLM. Photo is from late 1940, shortly after the two DC-5s moved to the Dutch East Indies
Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, via Flickr

It wasn’t easy to fly: there were no power rudders yet, and some pilots complained about the heavy controls. The Japanese test pilot who flew a captured example to Japan raved about it, calling the flight “a remarkable experience”.

Operational service

Ironically, the prototype (equipped with only eight seats) became William E. Boeing’s personal plane; as his former company was already in full military production mode. The aircraft was later sold to the US Navy and converted to military use as an R3D variant.

The remaining four aircraft were sold to KLM. Two were used by KLM West Indies on the Curaçao-Paramaribo airline. Why were the planes for KLM delivered, while the order for two American airlines was simply cancelled? Well, Director Donald Douglas and KLM Foreman Plesman got on well and the relationship between them must have contributed to this ‘preferential treatment’. In addition, Douglas quickly switched to war production of, among other things, the SBD ‘Dauntless’ aircraft for the US Navy. This put the construction of civil aircraft on the second level.

The other two DC-5s were sold to the Dutch East Indies government and used by the KNILM. In 1941, the two KLM West Indian aircraft joined the KNILM fleet. Among other things, they were used to evacuate civilians from Java to Australia in February 1942, when the Japanese overran the Dutch East Indies. One aircraft, ex-PK-ADA, was damaged in a Japanese air raid near Batavia (present-day Jakarta) and later seized by the Japanese. They repaired the aircraft, transferred it to Japan for further studies, after which it flew for some time as a transport aircraft, in green camouflage with Japanese markings. This machine was found in Japan in 1945, partially disassembled and stripped of its engines.

The remaining three aircraft later operated in Australia. Here they were purchased by the Allied Directorate of Airlift and put into service by the USAAF as the C-110. Two DC-5s were soon transferred to Australian National Airways. One of these was lost in a landing accident.

In 1948, Australian National Airways’ last remaining DC-5 (c/n 426) VH-ARD was sold and smuggled to Israel for military use. The aircraft arrived at Haifa in May 1948 and proceeded from there to Sde Dov, where the markings were removed and the name “Yankee Pasha – The Bagel Lancer” was crudely hand-painted on the nose. The aircraft joined the 103rd Transport Squadron at Ramat David, but when Israel was in the middle of the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, the aircraft was also used as an improvised bomber. The bombs were then rolled out by hand through the cargo hatch. A not harmless activity, as the shock tubes were already screwed into the bombs.

Built versions

DC-5 Basic passenger version – 5 aircraft were built.

C-110 Designation in USAAF. Current USAF records indicate that the C-110s (3) were in inventory between 17 March and 31 December 1945 and stationed at Luzon, Philippines. However, it is highly doubtful that US Army Corps serial numbers were ever carried by the DC-5s, and it seems certain that this was only an accounting operation.

R3D-1 Military version of the DC-5 built for the Navy as 16-seat crew cars – 3 were produced.

R3D-2 Military version of the DC-5 built for the US Marine Corps as a 22-seat paratrooper version – 4 were produced.

R3D-3 Designation of the DC-5 prototype used by William E. Boeing as a personal aircraft and converted for military use.


The DC-5 is a typical example of a good plane at the wrong time. It could have been a nice addition to the DC-3 and DC-4, but the war put an end to this. It could also have been a useful aircraft for short and medium-haul routes in Europe. The DC-3 and DC-5 are not that different: the DC-5 has a slightly longer range (2575 vs. 2400 km) and a slightly higher cruising speed (370 vs. 335 km/h) with the same engines and fuel consumption, but the DC-5 was able to carry fewer passengers (16/22 vs. 21/28) and is therefore economically less favorable than the DC-3. The DC-3 entered the market in large numbers after World War II at predatory prices, with the result that there was no market for the DC-5. It is remarkable that the five civilian DC-5s have had such an eventful history.

Read also: Albert Plesman and KLM’s Skymasters

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