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A Gooney Bird tale – Douglas C-47B – Monogram 1/48

When I got back into plastic modeling a few years ago, I set a couple of goals for the projects I would do. The first was to model subjects I had never done before, which has proven to be successful as I have yet to build a Mustang. The second was to build models of airplanes that I have worked on and flown in during my 40 year aircraft maintenance career. This model is the first of those.

N102BL started life as a C-47B-25DK, USAAF S/N 44-76322, in the Douglas Wichita plant in April 1944. What I know of her early life came from reading through the mountains of paper that were her maintenance logbooks. Mostly, she did what Gooney Birds do best, which is hauling stuff all over the place. I recall a few entries from a place called Templehof in the late 40's, but have not been able to fully verify she was in the Berlin Airlift. More of the same went on through the 1950's. By the mid 1960's, she was in Vietnam with the US Air Force. A friend at the time told me he thought she had been assigned as a "bulls--t bomber", dropping leaflets and broadcasting propaganda messages from huge PA speakers mounted in the cargo bay. The U.S. then sent her to Laos, where she operated with the Royal Laotian Air Force for several years. The USAF got her back in 1974, and in 1976, she was declared surplus and offered for sale. DHL Air Cargo bought her in Bangkok, Thailand and ferried her to Honolulu, where she was converted to a DC-3 by removing all the military equipment, issued a type certificate and the registration N102BL. After a few years of hauling cargo under contract to Hawaiian Air, she was again offered for sale, being bought by my employer at the time, Pronto Aviation Services, based at Sunland Park Airport, just a few miles from the US border crossing at Anapra, NM. After a four day ferry flight from Honolulu to El Paso, TX, and a few weeks proving to the FAA that we could operate the airplane, we put her back to work on a contract for Emery Airfreight, hauling cargo from Tucson, Albuquerque, Corpus Christi and Brownsville to El Paso for pick up and distribution. We also did a lot of on demand charter work.

Most of my memorable aviation adventures were the result of my association with this airplane. We did some flying work for Chuck Norris in the movie "Lone Wolf McQuade", had an encounter with a ghost paratrooper in Willcox, Arizona, and got to see a whole lot of the country from an altitude of about 6000 ft at the stately speed of 120 kts. The silver elevator was the result of an errant wind gust blowing the airplane into my pickup truck one windy March day.

N102BL met her end in July 1982 after a right engine shutdown due to high CHT on the way to Tucson, after which pilot decided to return to El Paso. I'm not sure of the exact details, but apparently the crew thought it would be a good idea to try a single engine go-around after the airplane was on the runway. I was told there was an unsafe gear indication. They ran out of airspeed, altitude and ideas about a mile and a half east of the airport, bouncing across the tops of two sand dunes and coming to rest on the third. The gear was indeed down, as the left one was ripped from the airplane and the right one came up through the nacelle. I spent two days on the wreck to keep scavengers away before the salvage crew came to cut her up. I took her data plate with me, it now resides on the end of workbench in my model room. What's left of N102BL is in the fire department boneyard at El Paso International Airport, used for fire training.

The model is the venerable 1978 boxing of the with a few modifications to DC-3 standard. The build was basically OOB, with some scratchbuilt modifications to the cockpit and the addition of a bunch of parts from the junkbox to add details missing from the kit. All the mods can be found on the build thread in the In Progress section.

The first pic of the real N102BL was taken in Honolulu just after her purchase by DHL in 1976. The second two were shot on the set of the movie "Lone Wolf McQuade" at West Texas Airport in October 1981. There is a shot of her data plate, followed by what she looks like today.

A few thank yous are in order. First, to my friend Seamus Boughe, who sent me the kit and was the source of much encouragement and advice when I got back to the hobby. Frank Cronin and Joe Caputo also came through with advice and pieces parts when I was tearing my hair out looking for stuff. And finally, to Geoff Goodall, whose amazing aviation site I stumbled upon while looking for info on my Gooney. The photo of N102BL before her stripes is from his website. Stop by and visit, there's some great stuff there!

And last, but not least, thanks to Jerry, John, Cheater, the two Mikes and Mary, without whom Pronto Aviation wouldn't have existed. They still don't believe me about the ghost...

13 additional images. Click to enlarge.

23 responses

  1. What a great story! and model. Ghost you say?

  2. Jaime, my first flight that I remember was in a DC-3 from Lafayette, Indiana to Chicago. I was 6. I've flown in several since then, but none since the early 1960s. My Mom was a stewardess for Lake Central Airlines and they had many DC-3s & converted C-47s. She said they called the "Leaky Centipedes." To ME the DC-3/C-47 is THE classic transport/airline plane. At about 120 kts. LoL!

    Yours is a great model, Jaime! Love your narrative, as well.

  3. Here's a clip from the movie "Lone Wolf McQuade" featuring a few quick shots of N102BL. The young man standing fire guard in front of the left engine is yours truly, in my two seconds of cinematic glory. I was 23 years old then...

  4. I remember watching the movie when we were in basic training at Fort Knox, near the very end of our training on a weekend. Our platoon was all stoked because we were headed for Ft. Bliss / El Paso as our permanent duty assignment, where the movie was filmed. We had our 3rd Cavalry patches already sewn onto our uniforms, and thought we were the stuff... Little did we know.

    Good stuff Jaime. Your plane turned out very well. I liked the story behind it too... Send me a PM and I'll tell you about the "weird" photos that both myself and my sister got (from two different cameras) when we were going through the WW1 section of Kermit Weeks' Fantasy of Flight museum... and how we all started getting a cold chill at the same place and time... even though it was 95 plus degrees outside. And no we were not standing under an AC duct. 🙂 It continued on until after we went through his B-17 display. Then it was gone... I still have the series of pictures.

  5. Excellent results, my friend...nice lookin' job.

  6. Great story, great build. Love it.

  7. Outstanding work Jamie, really nice read about your history and attachment to this A/C. An who knew you were also a movie star!

  8. Classic plane, classic story, and classic model, thanks for sharing this with us, Jaime, I really enjoyed this post.

  9. Great post, and an excellent Gooney! I too have an affection for the old bird. While my dad was stationed at Bentwaters in about '63, a guy at the skeet range dumped the entire hot end of his cigar ash into my eye, and I was flown to some off-base hospital in a Gooney. I only have vague recollections now about the trip, but still think kindly of the old workhorse!

  10. I'm told my first flight was in a DC-3 from Houston to Colorado Springs, at age 6 months. 20 years ago I went for a flight in a DC-3 at Chino two weeks after a flight in a Ford Trimotor - an excellent way to experience exactly what a revolutionary airplane the DC-3 was when it first appeared. It was like going from a 1914 Model-T to a 1935 Packard limousine!

    Very nice work on this model.

  11. Thanks, everyone. I can't even begin to describe the flood of memories that came when this one was finished.

  12. Well done, Jaime. All those lessons are paying off, lol. How about a picture of that thermos...You should be proud of the way this one turned out, although now the bar has been raised for the next...but that's what we do..

  13. Really nice job Jaime and very interesting back story,the silver aileron makes it really personal to you and brings your model to life, I have a few "one offs" and I know how satisfying it is to have something in your collection that no one else on the planet has.
    Excellent work all round ,N.

  14. Classic airplane. Always liked the goon, one can hang their elbow out the window, like driving a truck. We used to cruise at around 160, same speed as the smaller, twin Beech we operated.

    I'm getting ready to start the big Monogram kit to represent my cargo flying days and was a bit put off with the fit until seeing your nice build that gave me hope I can turn out a reasonable representation.

    As I remember the three used the single bank, "coffee-can" 1820 Wright 1820, whereas the 47 used the P&W, twin row 1830. Also the military version had stronger, beefed up decking and landing gear. We had an operation next door that flew the three with the standard passenger door while we flew the 47 for cargo. One could hear the difference in the engine note. Course, that was back when I could hear. Large radials are not conducive to acute hearing.

    Back in 1974 I flew in a goon on a cargo/troop drop with the last enlisted pilot in the Marine Corps as PIC, a Master Sergeant who got his wings around the beginning of WWII. His co-pilot was a full colonel.

    • Great story! Last of the Flying Honchos. I heard that all of them retired on the same date. Enlisted pilots- NAPs- were in both the Corps and the Navy. Most fleeted up to Ensign after the start of WW II. I saw a story in an old Leatherneck magazine in the 50s about one of them. Postwar, he got RIF'd, and stayed in as a Flying Sgt. He was flying Corsairs, and when they flew, he had a division. I thought that was fascinating.
      Your DC turned out beautifully. The striping is unbelievable.

  15. Neat model! Sure is nice to see more of these built up. Aside from its age its still a very nice kit that holds up.

  16. Fabulous build and a smart write-up, Jaime! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  17. This is such a great model of a beautiful plane, Jaime @jetmex!
    What is, for me, extraordinary, is the fact that it depicts the exact bird you served an loved.
    Pity to end like this...
    Maybe goaround on one engine, specially if the turn chosen put the "good" outwards, was not the greatest choice. May I have understood there were no fatalities? If so, then all is good!
    Loved the above gents stories, inspired by your build.
    All the best!

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