The Douglas DC-3, first built in 1935, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
Known by endearing insults — Dizzy Three, Gooney Bird, Dakota, Spooky — the grande dame is still seen in pop culture today, from the Normandy armada in Band of Brothers to the dogfight in Quantum of Solace.
Over 11,000 DC-3s were built. Fewer than 300 fly today. Aviation museums and air shows run a never-ending quest for a Holy Grail – a restorable, airworthy DC-3.
A steady diet of Ernest Gann and Len Morgan books and stories fuels my running love affair with the DC-3.
Thus I found myself motoring along on a houseboat on Thailand’s Chao Praya river, drawn by an intriguing report of a DC-3 on the island of Koh Kret.
My source thought DC-3s looked like bananas. She was adamant. “It was a banana plane, on the river bank! Really, I saw it several years ago!”
Every DC-3 rumor must be checked out. Might be the Holy Grail. So I bought an afternoon on a houseboat for 600 Baht.
Completing the cast was the boat captain, the Thai version of Marcus Brody, Indiana Jones’ fellow archeology professor.
Among the antiquities on his boat were Buddhist talismans, a collection of curious clocks, a CD player, and a flat screen TV. The helm was a truck steering wheel, complete with gearshift lever and horn. His dinner was in a cupboard by his feet.
We chugged laboriously through the brown water. You can almost walk on the Chao Praya’s biological soup. The mutant catfish have feet.
Suddenly, we were there.
It was a DC-3.
Incredibly, it was parked on a house terrace. Either the airplane was teleported there by the Starship Enterprise or the rest of the airport sank in the river morass. The airport lounge’s sofa was still floating on the river.
I quivered with excitement, waiting impatiently as the captain maneuvered us to the wharf.
Ernest Gann flew all over the world in that cockpit. Len Morgan penned a treasure book about DC-3s, my rare copy now pulped by last year’s flood. Pilots flew this workhorse across the Himalayas with outrageous 100% overloads.
In The Wild Geese, Richard Harris was left behind as Richard Burton fled the Congo in a ‘Dak’ flown by a wounded Roger Moore.
In Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig outflew an Italian Marchetti in a wheezing DC-3. And Indiana Jones flew DC-3s to Nepal and Venice. But no pilot could have landed that 8,300 kilogram bird on that terrace.
The boat captain knew that I was a pilot, and he ran up the steps to the house to chatter in sing-song Thai with the house owner, about the aerobatic pilot who had come to see the airplane!
I followed quickly behind him, with visions of watching the sunset from the cockpit windows.
Then I stopped dead in my tracks.
Between me and the Holy Grail was a rickety 15-meter catwalk of planks laid on stilts stuck in the mud. I could see ripples through the gaps between the planks, so the bridge seemed to be moving. No handrail.
You see, I’m acrophobic. I’m deathly scared of heights. I clutch handrails on bridges, porches and open air rooftop bars, because I always get a bizarre urge to jump off, to get it over with.
Why, why did it have to be a bridge?!
In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones faced a test on the path to the Holy Grail.
“Only in the leap from the lion head will he prove his worth.”
I couldn’t do it.
The boat captain was stunned. How could this be? A pilot scared of heights!
I had to try. I shed my watch, my wallet and my BlackBerry. Then, acutely aware that I was parodying Indiana Jones, I stepped out over the chasm.
Somehow, I made it to the gate post, a third of the way across. There I froze, unable to move. The bridge trembled, shaking from side to side. The onlookers thought it was the river current, or the wind.
But it was me. I was making the bridge shake. My legs vibrated like tuning forks. I was about to shake the bridge to pieces or topple it into the water.
It was Marcus Brody who rescued me. At least we had our picture taken, with me leaning on the gate post, smiling bravely.
He held my hand as we crept back to safety.
Back on the boat, people were sympathetic. I could tell because their shoulders were shaking violently, tears were running down their eyes, and their mouths were open in soundless agony, laboring to breathe in between sobs.
I myself wanted to live among the catfish.
On the pensive boat ride back, I took refuge in The Last Crusade — I thought about Harrison Ford telling Sean Connery, “You would have hated it, Dad. There were rats.”
As if he could read my thoughts, Carlo texted me from Manila, “The Grail isn’t meant to be approached without a fedora, Dad.”
Posted from Bangkok, July 12, 2010