Flying under the radar: An epic world tour on the Breitling DC-3
Fransisco Agullo, Paul Bazeley and Daniel Meyer — all well into their 40s, in age — are still boys at heart, sporting cheeky grins, bouncing off low giggles, and cocking finger guns with pronounced winks around the dinner table. They’re also living out the ultimate boyhood dream, of commandeering an around-the-world tour on a vintage aircraft.
All three of them are avowed aerophiles — Captain and chief pilot Francisco undertook the record Azimut 270 project in 2010, circumnavigating the Earth in a Light-Sport Aircraft (along with Yannick Bovier) in 51 days; co-pilot Paul specialises in restoring vintage aircraft; while Daniel is an engineer who doubles as the official documenter of the ongoing expedition. They’re also aficionados especially of the Douglas DC-3, an aircraft that radically changed air transport in the 1930s and 1940s.
By the end of April, the trio will have reached Singapore, almost half-way through their six-month project of circling the globe on a 77-year-old DC-3 — the oldest plane ever to make such an attempt. Backed by the Swiss watchmakers Breitling, the trio have a personal mission to add to the tour — to spread their passion for aviation history.
Buoyed by a dream
When Francisco and Daniel were youngsters growing up near Geneva in Switzerland, they’d spend most of their off-days on the terraces of buildings by runways and airfields, clicking pictures of aircraft.
“We were plane-spotters!” says Paul, a Brit based in the US, who did a lot of the same in his teen days. “We would note down and collect the numbers of all the planes,” says Francisco, at a meeting hosted in Nagpur recently, as a part of their India stopover.
Their biggest surprise here — blistering temperatures apart — was in meeting a local student group that goes by the name, Plane Spotters India. In an encouraging note, Francisco recalls that he decided to become a pilot when he was a toddler, on a family vacation to Paris: “The air hostess invited me to the cockpit — that rarely happens nowadays.”
Their shared passion for aviation led them to Breitling, a company known for its chronographs, pilot watches and aeronautical instruments. “Over and above everything else, this is about our love for flying, which we want to share with people around the world,” offers Paul. The vintage aspect adds to the fantastic scope of their adventure.
Interestingly, Paul’s restoration company, Aerometal International, in Oregon, goes by the tag line, “Continuing airworthiness in aging aircraft”, having breathed life back into a Douglas A-26 Invader and a 1942 Boeing Stearman, apart from other classic planes. While production of the DC-3 ended in 1945, today, less than 150 are estimated to be airworthy.
The craft on the current tour — marked DC-3 HB-IRJ — was delivered to American Airlines in 1940, and initially used by the US military between 1942 and 1944. With close to 75,000 flight hours, the craft is now owned by Francisco, and the company he works for, Aeropassion. “We don’t like to speak about money,” says the Captain, with a twinkle in his eye. “DC-3s sell for anywhere from $50,000 to $5 million — this was something in between,” he says, with an air of modesty.
Romancing the machine
The mechanical aspect of the DC-3 is its most compelling. On the tarmac, it sputters and thrums like a vintage motor-bike on throttle. In the air, it rumbles and rolls like a round-bottomed boat. The windows have wooden panes, there’s no air-conditioning, or even overhead storage cabins, for that matter. It also sports a curious tail wheel.
The lightweight chassis, of aluminum etched metal sheets over a wooden frame, makes the aircraft shudder in spells of turbulence, and drift in strong gusts of wind. “Tailwinds are important for us,” explains Francisco, given that the DC-3 is primarily meant for short-haul, low-altitude flights.
At Nagpur, the crew was informed that the special avgas (aviation gasoline) they’d reserved at Chittagong, Bangladesh, had gone missing. As a result, they flew straight to Chiang Mai, Thailand — in a flight that lasted 8 hours, 7 minutes — quite likely the longest the aircraft has flown since its maiden voyage back in 1940. They had to carefully study the winds and weather forecasts, explains Francisco, while avoiding thunderstorms over Chittagong along the route.
At the peak of World War 2, the DC-3 was nicknamed the “Normandy landings plane”, being extensively used by the allied forces in its military transport version — as the Douglas C-47 Skytrain or Dakota. Dakotas were also prominently used by Indian forces in the 1947 and 1965 wars with Pakistan. Though they were rarely ever intended for long-haul travel.
Their longest trip yet is expected later along their tour, adds the Captain, as they intend to make an 11-hour hop from Obihiro, Japan to Shemya, in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast. To cover that distance, half the seats on-board have been cleared out, to make room for additional gas tanks.
The good thing about the short stints in air is that they’re never likely to face jet lag, notes Paul. “This isn’t a jet, and there’s no such thing as propulsion lag,” he says, matter-of-factly. The propeller-driven DC-3 has a cruise speed of about 250km/h. “We’re never going to reach supersonic speeds, and at best, we can expect to cross two or three time zones in a day.”
Winging it to win it
In person, the DC-3 world tour crew remains engrossed in discussions over technical aspects and auto-mechanics. Talk about Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts pitched against American Lockheeds, Boeing Flying Fortresses and British Bristol Beauforts spurs them into animated conversation.
While the DC-3 was mainly a civilian aircraft, it came close to becoming a bomber on one occasion during WWII, recounts Francisco. On a particular sortie north of Canada, south of Greenland, the crew of a DC-3 had spotted a German U-boat (military submarine). But the plane wasn’t prepped to haul bombs. “So they actually carried bombs by hand, and were instructed to drop them through the cargo door,” narrates the Captain. “Thankfully, they didn’t spot the U-boat again, and you can safely say, the DC-3 has never been a bomber, but it came that close to being one!”
In Japan, the Breitling DC-3 will take part at the Iwakuni Friendship Day Air Show, in a special display for war veterans, while also offering joy rides to child victims of the 2013 tsunami. The trio will then cross the ocean to begin a grand tour of the United States, and return to Europe via Greenland and Iceland to complete its journey in September, at the Breitling Sion Airshow 2017 in Switzerland. By then, since its take-off from Geneva on March 9, earlier this year, the DC-3 will have flown 24,000 nautical miles in all.
To make things more special, the aircraft is carrying 500 limited edition engraved pieces of the Navitimer Breitling DC-3 chronograph, which will be put on sale at the end of the tour, along with signed log books and certificates.
For a personal affair, Francisco hopes to get his girlfriend on-board before the final leg of the adventure. It will be his way of sharing the love that he’s been picking up all along the tour, he shares, with a broad smile. For one thing, it’s sure to be a romantic ride like no other.
The writer was on-board the Breitling DC-3 at Nagpur by invitation. Follow the world tour real-time at flydc3.net.