HOW TIME FLIES. DA MAN’s Joezer Mandagi joins Breitling’s legendary DC-3 in Singapore during its record-breaking World Tour
The Breitling DC-3
Breitling has always been a patron of aviation. The Swiss-watch brand famously sponsors the amazing Breitling Jet Team, the Breitling Wingwalkers, the round-the-world flight by the Breitling Orbiter and many more. So, it comes as no surprise that Breitling also operates a number of historical aircraft, including one of perhaps the only two remaining airworthy Lockheed Super Constellations.
Then there’s Breitling’s very own Douglas DC-3, one of the world’s most celebrated airplanes from the ’40s. And right now, the venerable flyer is making its way around the world.
Meet the Dakota
Few airplanes—if any, that is—enjoy a history as rich as the Douglas DC-3. Nicknamed the Dakota, the plane first flew in 1935 and almost single-handedly revolutionized air travel. Fast, reliable and able to operate from short runways while providing decent range, the DC-3 also made air travel viable as a business.
Then came World War II and the DC-3 really showed its worth as over 16,000 units were eventually built. From transporting cargo and evacuating wounded soldiers to dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines, the DC-3 became one of the most important workhorses of the Allied military. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find movies or TV shows set in WWII without the DC-3 showing up at least once, especially when the Normandy invasion is part of the storyline.
The limited edition Navitimer Breitling DC-3
After the war, the world was left with thousands of surplus DC-3s (along with thousands of trained pilots), and in short order the Dakota, as it was called by the Royal Air Force, found its way into the military and major airlines of numerous countries. One fine specimen even became Indonesia’s second presidential airplane: the Dakota RI-001 Seulawah. Many more, however, would go on to fly until this very day, carrying freight, mail, commercial passengers, soldiers and also skydivers in many parts of the world. And then there’s the one flying under Breitling’s colors.
Naturally, the Breitling DC-3 comes with its own amazing story. The plane, with the tail number HB-IRJ, was initially commissioned by American Airlines in 1940. Between 1942 and 1944, the DC-3 was commandeered by the American military as a troop transport. As the story goes, one time, the plane was en route to the European theater of war when it made a stop in Iceland. While it was there, there were reported sightings of a German U-boat (submarine) and the plane was sent to find and destroy it. Mind you, while it was, in fact, a military aircraft, it was an unarmed cargo plane. Still, the troops improvised and carried bombs that they would drop by hand as the plane flew at low altitude above the waves. In the end, the U-boat was not found, no bombs were dropped and the future Breitling DC-3 continued its journey to mainland Europe. It’s not exactly an epic war story, but it makes for an interesting footnote in the history of the DC-3.
“The takeoff run was understandably bumpy, but much smoother than anticipated. The pilots did quite a good job at hiding their DC-3’s age”
After the war, the plane continued to fly for various airlines until it reached retirement age. Since then, it has been restored twice, first in 1994 to 1996 and more recently in 2008 to 2009. Sharp-eyed aviation enthusiasts might notice changes from, for instance, the additional exhaust pipes on the engines, which are not seen on the original DC-3/C-47 series and hint at contemporary performance upgrades. Then there are also changes mandated by flight safety regulations, such as modern communication and navigation equipment. It’s quite interesting to see flat-screen GPS receivers strapped to an instrument panel that a WWII veteran would probably be familiar with.
So, today, the 77-year-old plane roams the skies pretty much as well as it did back in the ’40s and is also fully IFR/PAX certified, meaning that it’s certified to fly as a passenger aircraft even during conditions where the pilot must depend solely on the plane’s instruments to safely navigate. The plane’s airworthiness and performance, along with the dedication of its pilots, however, would be put to the ultimate test as the Breitling DC-3 begins its World Tour.
A warm welcome for pilot Francisco Agullo at Singapore
The World Tour
Back in March this year, the Breitling DC-3 set off from Geneva, Switzerland, on a journey that would take it across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, America and eventually back to Geneva in September, coinciding with the Breitling Sion Airshow 2017 event. Along the way it will stop at various cities, sometimes simply to prepare for the next leg of the journey, sometimes to take part in air shows and sometimes to welcome aboard a few privileged passengers to take part in the momentous endeavor. It was during its rather lengthy stop in Singapore that I came face to face with the Breitling DC-3.
Before the all-too-brief joy flight scheduled for the day came a short briefing about the history of the DC-3, of the Breitling DC-3 (this part is where the anecdote about the U-boat came up) and the World Tour itself—including the challenges that the old flier will have to face. While everybody joked about the plane being “77 years young,” it certainly showed its age. After amassing nearly 75,000 flight hours, the Breitling DC-3 now required 100 maintenance hours for every hour it spends airborne.
“Every single one of the limited edition Navitimer 01 watches will stay on the plane throughout the duration of the journey”
Then there’s the issue of range. One leg of the trip, the one from Obihiro in Hokkaido, Japan, to Shemya Island in the Aleutians, covers a distance of more than 2,500km. The range of the original DC-3 is 2,400km.
To tackle these challenges, the team behind the Breitling DC-3 World Tour took out several rows of seats to make way for huge fuel bladders carrying extra avgas. Fuel stocks and spare parts were sent ahead of time to planned pit stops. Even then, some problems simply couldn’t have been anticipated. A lack of fuel at Chittagong in Bangladesh (due to theft, supposedly) forced the team to fly straight from India to Thailand. To conserve fuel, they had to fly at high altitude. The lack of oxygen due to the thin air at those heights combined with the cold, the fuel fumes swirling inside the cabin and mounting fatigue due to the extreme range (if the DC-3 were a car, it would be an old model without electronic assists or even power steering; it also lacks an autopilot) turned it into the most challenging leg of the trip yet.
The most unusual challenge faced by the Breitling DC-3 team, however, had to do with its unique cargo.
500 Hidden Passengers
See, to celebrate the Breitling DC-3 World Tour, the watch brand has created a special limited edition of its Navitimer chronographs. This 46mm timepiece, the Navitimer 01, is powered by the Manufacture Breitling Caliber 01 and features an engraving of the Breitling DC-3 World Tour logo on the case-back.
Only 500 pieces are produced, and every single one of them has so far traveled with the plane and will stay on it throughout the duration of the journey. To ensure that these globe-trotting timepieces aren’t stolen, they are hidden on the Breitling DC-3. According to the flight captain, even if you knew exactly where it is hidden—only the pilots know exactly where, by the way—it would take hours to get them out.
Naturally, this has caused some raised eyebrows among custom officials of the various countries visited.
A WWII-era DC-3 flying above the pyramids at Giza
The Flight at SelEtar
Now, some of the Breitling DC-3’s stops before it arrived at Singapore were admittedly much more exciting. In Jordan the plane flew in formation with the Royal Jordanian Falcons and in Malaysia they were joined by four PC-7 trainers from the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
Still, the plane was given a water cannon salute as it arrived in Singapore in early April. It was, in fact, the first time this type of ceremonial welcome was performed at Seletar Airport—and one I sadly didn’t get to witness. Still, when it was my turn to step into the storied aircraft, the day was perfect: Sunny, with clear skies and excellent visibility.
The takeoff run was understandably bumpy, but much smoother than anticipated. I have had some experience in flying on old, military aircraft and had expected something a lot rougher. The pilots did quite a good job at hiding their DC-3’s age. Meanwhile, the empty rows for the fuel bladders (which were thankfully removed for the flight) proved to be a blessing in disguise as it meant that moving around inside the plane became much easier. It also became the perfect spot to take selfies and group photos even as people moved back and forth between their seats, the windows and the cockpit.
It was actually quite hot in the cabin, what with the lack of air conditioning, but I didn’t really mind. Nobody did, especially when we reached cruising altitude and everybody started scrambling for the windows. The plane graciously flew low enough for us to capture some really dramatic moments. All too soon, though, the DC-3 was on its way back to Seletar and gracefully (again, much smoother than I’d expected) touched down on the tarmac.
In total, my fellow passengers and I were only airborne in the Breitling DC-3 for less than half an hour. But for that glorious 30 minutes, we became part of aviation history.