Esquire Discovers The Thrill Of Taking Flight In A í40s-era Breitling DC-3 Airplane

As it turns out, vintage isnít limited to watches.

BY Daniel Goh | Jun 21, 2017 | Feature

It’s a Sunday morning. I am on board an airplane with cramped seats, no air conditioning, no inflight service and a barely functioning lavatory. On either side of me are loud propeller engines droning away. If it were any other flight, I would be trolling the airline company on their social media page by now. But this experience is one of the coolest that I’ve had in recent years. Why? Because the Breitling DC-3 that I am on is undeniably one of the most historic aircrafts in the world, and flying in a piece of mechanical machinery that is 77 years old really gives me an insight into how far technology has come.

It wasn’t always known as the Breitling DC-3. The plane is a Douglas DC-3 that was first introduced in 1935. Just to give you an idea of how different it was back then, when Douglas built this passenger plane, it was in direct competition with the railways of America. But soon after, World War II began, and suddenly, there was a need for an aircraft that could reliably transport soldiers, so Douglas was commissioned to build more DC-3s. Sixteen thousand planes were built all over the world during the WWII, and at its height, Douglas could manufacture one of these planes in two hours. Now you can see why I am excited to be on a barebones plane such as this, to fly in the same type of aircraft that was used during the Normandy landings, being in the same space that the US Airborne division occupied.

This particular DC-3 was a result of a restoration partly sponsored by Breitling. The maiden flight was on March 9, 1940, and on the same date, 77 years later, the airplane kicked off its world tour to visit 28 countries and 55 cities over the course of six months. Following its first flight in 1940, this DC-3 was subsequently drafted into the army from 1942 to 1944 where it served as a carrier plane ferrying soldiers from Canada to Iceland. According to Francisco Agullo, our pilot for the Malaysian leg of the journey, on one of the flights, the Breitling DC-3 received reports of an enemy U-boat in the vicinity. Not built as a fighter, the commander of the unit was still adamant to at least try and take on the enemy ship. And so, the soldiers armed themselves with bombs, got on the plane and were told that if they spotted the submarine, the pilots were to open the cargo hatch which would allow the soldiers to drop their bombs. Suffice to say, the mission was uneventful, and after the war, in 1946, the plane went back to being a commercial plane flying passengers from Florida to the Bahamas.

1988 was the last commercial flight for the Breitling DC-3, but since leaving the factory in 1940, the plane has logged over 75,000 hours of flight time to date. As a comparison, Agullo tells me that most modern planes are scrapped when they hit the 60,000-to 70,000-hour mark. It’s not easy maintaining a seven-decade-old plane. “The ratio for maintenance is about 100 hours of work for every one hour of flight, and of the 16,000 that were built, there are not more than 150 flight-worthy DC-3s left in the world,” Agullo explains. If this plane manages to circumnavigate the globe and make it back to Switzerland in one piece, it will be the oldest aircraft in the world to accomplish this feat.

So, there I am, at a cruising altitude of 609.6m above sea level, taking in the gorgeous Kuala Lumpur skyline, with the Petronas Twin Towers perilously close at 451.9m tall. In many ways, the DC-3 reminds me of a mechanical watch. There is a hell of a lot of work that goes into take-offs and landings; instead of pushing buttons, the pilots pull one lever to extend and retract the landing gear, and they engage another lever to maintain the plane’s cruising speed of 130 knots or 241kmh. But knowing that you are flying the exact same way that they used to 77 years ago is something quite spectacular. Much like a modern-day mechanical watch, the components may be new, but the basic premise of the movement is the same as it has been since the mid-19th century.

In order to make some of the longer legs of its journey, the Breitling DC-3 had to cut down the passenger capacity by half to make way for additional fuel storage. Fourteen seats are available for flight crew and passengers, and, of course, a permanent fixture within the plane is a special shipment of 500 Breitling Navitimer watches that are part of a limited-edition DC-3 World Tour collection. These 46mm Navitimer 01s are made with steel cases and powered by the Breitling Calibre 01 movement. Each watch has the World Tour insignia engraved on the caseback and will be delivered with a certificate signed by the flight captain.

The toughest part for any pilot would probably be the take-off and landing (barring any emergencies midflight), but as old as the plane may be, I experience one of the smoothest landings ever. This tells me that if the engineering is spot-on during its conception, even 70-odd years later, with the right maintenance, a product will still work flawlessly. This is probably the same statement that Breitling wants to make for its watches by initiating this partnership for the Breitling DC-3.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, June/July 2017.