The Breitling DC-3 airplane is on track to make history as the oldest plane to fly around the world — and after taking a ride, I can report that it still gets around pretty well for a 77-year-old.
The plane is scheduled to make 50 stops worldwide for refueling and maintenance, but on Tuesday it took a break from its months-long journey to take VIPs and reporters on a short flight over downtown Seattle to show off what the plane can do.
“Welcome aboard, everybody,” one of the pilots said as I and the other passengers boarded the twin-engine propeller plane at Boeing Field.
We got a sense of the plane’s age as soon as we sat down and looked out the windows, which were surrounded by classic wooden frames.
The seats resembled the ones on modern-day commercial jets, but with much more legroom. The plane once housed 30 seats, but some were taken out to make room for reserve fuel tanks. The extra fuel had to sit in the middle of the plane for proper weight distribution.
Extra fuel isn’t the DC-3’s only cargo. The plane is also carrying 500 Navitimer Breitling DC-3 limited-edition watches on its journey around the world. They’re part of the world’s oldest continuously produced line of chronographs, and are much loved by military pilots.
The world-tour watches won’t be released until the fall and don’t yet have a price tag, but other Breitling Navitimer watches go for as much as $21,180.
“That’s been the baby that we’ve been carrying the entire way,” pilot and flight mechanic Paul Bazeley said during a presentation at Boeing Field. “They’re not a world-tour watch until we get them back to Breitling in Geneva.”
As it maneuvered into position for takeoff, the 64.6-foot-long plane turned on a dime effortlessly. When the engines fired up, we heard a symphony of loud noises – but that was nothing compared to what the pilots experienced in the cockpit.
“In the passenger cabin, it’s all right,” pilot Raphael Favre told us. “In the cockpit you cannot hear each other, so you have to wear the headsets to be able to talk to each other.”
There were no lights reminding us to put on our seat belts, and if we wanted air conditioning, the only thing we could do was pull a knob for circulating outside air.
The plane flew at an altitude of 1,000 feet, giving us spectacular views of downtown Seattle, Lake Washington and Elliott Bay. The pilots kept that low to stay out of the way of incoming traffic at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. For perspective, the Space Needle is 605 feet tall.
The plane typically keeps to a maximum altitude of about 12,000 feet, although it can go higher if necessary. Bazeley said ice can present a problem for the plane at higher altitudes. When flying to the northern cities on the tour, the pilots sometimes stayed only 500 to 1,500 feet above the ocean.
The flight finished off with a soft and easy landing. It was gentler than the hard “thud” passengers typically feel when a large commercial airliner lands, but there was also an unusual feeling, as if something behind me was slowing the plane down.
It turns out that feeling is due to the design of the plane’s landing gear. The DC-3 is what’s known as a “tail-dragger,” meaning that it has a landing wheel on the back of the plane. This is a staple of older planes, but modern-day jetliners have nose wheels instead. Today, pilots need an extra certification to fly planes with tail wheels.
The Breitling DC-3 was built in 1940 for American Airlines, but was hired out to the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, the plane put in decades of service for a variety of commercial airlines.
When the DC-3 was retired from commercial service in the late 1980s, enthusiasts acquired the plane and restored it to fly under Breitling’s colors. It frequently makes appearances at air shows, and has logged roughly 75,000 hours of flight time to date.
Breitling’s round-the-world tour began in Geneva in March, and the plane has been all across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Each leg of the trip is limited to no more than 14 hours, due to fuel limitations. That means the trip across the Pacific had to be taken in stages, with stops at Shemya and Cold Bay in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
Seattle was the plane’s first stopover in the Lower 48 states. Today it flew to Oregon for maintenance, and for the next couple of months it will make its way from coast to coast. Then it’s onward to Greenland, Iceland and Europe, with a triumphal return to Switzerland scheduled in September.
“We’re a little over halfway around, but we’ve got a long way left to go,” Bazeley said.
Getting around the world on a plane whose maiden flight was in 1940 has been no easy feat. Bazeley said his crew faced a number of setbacks.
For example, the plane flies on aviation gasoline, commonly known as “avgas.” Small airplanes in the U.S. use it all the time, but it’s not available everywhere in the world. In India, the team had to pre-purchase fuel and truck it overland. They faced the same issue with oil.
“Piston engine lubricating oil in the quantity and type that we need is simply not available,” Bazeley said. “These airplanes are not operated in many points around the world.”
During one leg of the trip, the crew noticed an issue with the carburetor on the right engine. The team had to ship a spare to Singapore, 1,000 miles away. A woman at Breitling Singapore picked up the carburetor, bought a plane ticket and took it to the DC-3 as a checked item. As soon as the maintenance crew picked up the part from baggage claim, she headed to departures and flew back.
As daunting as those challenges sound, they pale in comparison with the plane’s exploits in its heyday.
During World War II, the DC-3 was typically used to deliver supplies to the troops, and was flown with the intention of going into combat only once. “This aircraft has the distinction of being the only DC-3 in history dispatched on a bombing mission,” Bazeley said.
Here’s the way Bazeley told the story: The base commander heard reports that a German U-boat was lurking off the coast of Iceland, where the plane had landed. He ordered the mechanics to take off the plane’s door and put an explosive aboard.
The plane never found the U-boat, and never attacked. Nevertheless, the story went down in aviation history — and now the Breitling DC-3 is getting a second chance at fame.