Plane known as `Lady Lou’ is still looking fine at 59
A piece of aviation history that brings smiles to pilots is docked at the Garfield County Airport.
Lady Lou, a well-preserved, 59-year-old beauty, was reportedly the last DC3 passenger aircraft in operation in North America when Air North retired her in the 1960s. Russ Pearce and Richard Cottier bought the DC3 in 1997, “for no other reason than we wanted one,” Pearce said.
“Pilots who flew it always have a soft spot for the DC3,” Pearce said. “This is the neatest thing to fly.”
Pearce, who lives in the Rifle area, and Cottier, of Clifton, own and operate Precision Aircraft Maintenance at the Garfield County Airport. Pearce said 15,000 to 16,000 of the twin engine, propeller-driven DC3s were built from 1938 into the 1950s.
“Today there are only 1,200 flying,” Pearce said Friday, not long after taxiing the yellow, green and silver Lady Lou up to the Precision Aircraft Maintenance office.
The DC3 was a workhorse. The Allies used the prop plane to parachute troops into France on D-Day, and to launch gliders the same day. After World War II, DC3s stayed on duty hauling freight and passengers.
“The English called the DC3 the Dakota. For Douglas Aircraft, which built the plane, it was the DC3. For the U.S. military it was the C47,” said Pearce, who started his aviation maintenance career in the Grand Junction area in 1959.
This particular DC3 was built for the U.S. military in Dallas in 1943. She spent two years in stateside military service before Canadian Pacific bought her for passenger service.
Air North later bought the plane to shuttle passengers between White Horse, Dawson City, and Fairbanks in Canada and Alaska. Pearce said the plane is named after a Gold Rush era cancan dancer named Lady Lou. She continues flashing her legs from the plane’s tail.
Pearce estimates the plane would bring $130,000 to $200,000 if he and Cottier were to sell it today.
Lady Lou is still equipped with the 24 seats passengers sat in as they watched mountains and countryside roll by while flying at 23,000 feet. “That’s the service ceiling,” said Pearce, who holds a multiple-engine pilot’s license. “Its top speed is 160 miles per hour, and it has flown 8 million miles. It’s been around.”
Pearce and Cottier use the plane for pleasure. Making money on it through charters or high-altitude parties isn’t part of the picture due to insurance considerations.
“Insurance is the big stumbling block,” Pearce said. “It’s really expensive, and getting more so.”
Sometimes, Pearce and Cotter fly Lady Lou to air shows, but even that’s expensive. “It takes 100 gallons an hour, so we can’t do much free stuff,” Pearce said.
Still, when Pearce or Cottier takes Lady Lou out to other airports, “it usually draws a crowd,” Pearce said.
Each of Lady Lou’s 14-cylinder, Pratt and Whitney engines generates 1,200 horsepower. By comparison, a high-performance car might generate 250 to 300 horsepower.
Pearce said to prove how powerful and reliable the DC3 was when it was first introduced, the manufacturer used only one engine to take off from Winslow, Ariz., and fly to California in the dead of summer, when aircraft lift is least powerful.
Before the DC3, commercial airlines had three engines. “The DC3 was the first two-engine plane for the airlines,” he said.
Unlike today’s computer-driven passenger planes, the DC3 is mostly mechanical, and there’s little if any automation.
That means pilots must actually fly the plane pretty much the entire time it’s in the air.
Flying a DC3 without a co-pilot is “nearly impossible,” because many of the mechanical controls, such as those that lower the landing gear, are on the co-pilot’s side.
“You can reach over there, but it’s a stretch,” Pearce said. To fly a DC3, “You have to do your job all the time,” he continued.
Another thing Pearce likes about the DC3 is very basic. Smiling, and speaking for pilots everywhere, he said, “It always gets off the ground.”
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.