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September 7, 2017

Flying Into History: The Breitling DC-3 World Tour

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Written by: Michael Lothrop
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Swiss watchmaker Breitling has a long standing tradition of promoting its line of high end aviation watches with impressive aviation events. 2017 saw the “DC-3 World Tour” kick off in March and we were lucky enough to catch up with it in Massachusetts.

Historical Significance

At the end of the world tour, the Breitling DC-3, originally delivered on March 12, 1940 to American Airlines, will become the oldest aircraft to circumnavigate the globe. If that’s not cool enough, there are 500 special edition Navitimer watches hidden in the aircraft to commemorate the flight. Yes, I said hidden. More on that later though.

This event had a special piece of history for local aviation enthusiasts, and a very extra special piece for me. Back in 1970 the Breitling DC-3 had been owned and flown domestically by Provincetown Boston Airlines, making this something of a homecoming for the aircraft.

In 1987 Provincetown Boston Airlines parent Texas Air Corporation purchased 50% of Bar Harbor Airlines by transferring ownership of PBA to it. The Breitling DC-3 was still employed at this time flying under Eastern Express colors. I grew up around a small airport in Maine, not too far (by air) from Bar Harbor, one time headquarters of the defunct Bar Harbor Airlines. I had heard about the company from many other old time pilots in the area, but I never thought I would fly on one of their former aircraft.

It’s easy to forget, especially if you didn’t experience it first hand, that the DC-3 and other vintage aircraft were used in regional service in the 1980’s. More than one of the 14 of us on board the flight recalled flying on DC-3’s as an airline passenger during that time. I couldn’t help but wonder if some of these Boston area folks had in fact flown on this very aircraft during it’s time with Eastern Express.

Flight Experience

The morning of the flight saw the arrival of passengers at the Signature Flight Support terminal at Laurence G. Hanscom Field, the now civilian side of Hanscom Air Force Base. After partaking in some light breakfast snacks, passengers received a briefing from the flight crew on the morning’s flight, the history of the aircraft, and about Breitling.

A true treat for any aviation enthusiast is the opportunity to board via the stairs on the ramp as opposed to shuffling down a jet bridge into a waiting aircraft. While the jet bridge is undoubtedly convenient in foul weather, I was glad to be walking across the ramp for boarding today.

A pair of Breitling enthusiasts pause to photograph the DC-3 prior to partaking in a guest flight.

Passengers prepare to board the Breitling DC-3 at Hanscom Field.

 

Flying in a vintage airliner is an entirely different experience as a passenger. As a tail wheel aircraft, boarding the DC-3 is done through the aft stairs, which are actually built into the aft door that swings down. Three steps and you’re in! Another unique sensation is walking up hill to get to your seat.

Boarding the Breitling DC-3.

What does remain consistent with modern aircraft is the interior of the Breitling DC-3. In order to fly passengers, the aircraft must meet certain regulatory requirements. This includes modern seating, safety equipment, and avionics. Safety is the name of the game when flying passengers in aircraft old or new and Breitling has done an excellent job with the DC-3. If not for the absence of overhead bins and an armored cockpit door, it would be easy to mistake the interior for that of a regional airliner.

The interior of the Breitling DC-3.

Flight attendant’s jump seat on the Breitling DC-3, complete with safety equipment.

Soon after the big radials fired up and we taxied out we were cleared for takeoff and barreling down the runway. Soon after applying power and a short roll the tail came up, bringing everyone level and shortly after that we lifted effortlessly off the ground, making a sweeping turn on course. Passengers were treated to beautiful views of the greater Boston area, as well as the sounds of an aviation legend boring its way through the sky. A passenger can truly feel the power of the engine, but not enough to be of a nuisance. If I had been tired, I am sure it would have lulled me to sleep. After an all too short flight around the greater Boston area, we were soon settled in on final approach and made a smooth wheel landing.

The suburbs of greater Boston as seen over the top of the starboard engine of the Breitling DC-3 on a warm summer morning.

The in flight view of the cockpit.

The obligatory wingtip shot, with Hanscom Field in the background.

Passengers were treated to further photo opportunities and a cockpit door before collecting their certificate commemorating their segment on the historic Breitling DC-3 World Tour.

A wonderful parting gift from the Breitling team, including a flight certificate signed by the pilot.

Feeding the Beast

As with anything in life, the bigger an event you plan, the more resources it takes to keep it viable. Taking a 77 year old aircraft around the world does not come without its challenges. Aside from the normal issues of feeding, resting, and changing out the crew, the airplane likes to eat and sleep too.

Fueling in the aircraft is a major concern during the daily operations. Some locations around the globe do not have a steady availability of aviation fuel, so the fuel was shipped ahead of the aircraft. This often necessitated fueling by hand cranked pumps directly from the fuel barrels. In one circumstance, the fuel was sold before the aircraft even arrived!

The Breitling DC-3 has 14 passenger seats which are available for use during guest flights. During positioning flights these seats are removed and packaged for flight and fuel bladders are set up and secured in the forward part of the cabin. This allows the aircraft to extend its range past the standard 8 hour mark as needed to reach its next destination with adequate fuel remaining should there be an issue.

To facilitate all of this, plus deal with regular maintenance requirements, the Breitling DC-3 flies with an aircraft mechanic. The mechanic overseas the interior change overs, as well as regular inspections and periodic maintenance on the big radial engines. To put it in perspective, every hour of flight is backed up by about 100 hours of support work.

Selling Watches

While the folks at Breitling have a long standing and genuine interest in aviation and aviation history, it goes without saying one of the main goals of the DC-3 World Tour is to promote their brand. While I was fortunate to be invited on the flight as a member of the media it was not full of reporters. As a matter of fact it was not full of aviation enthusiasts. It was full of watch enthusiasts.

A Breitling World Tour guest takes a photograph through the window of the DC-3. Note the Breitling watch worn for the trip.

Breitling prides itself in making “instruments for professionals” and they have quite the following. My fellow passengers on this flight were top level jewelers with their best Breitling customers. These customers were just as enthusiastic about watches as we here at NYCAviation are about aviation. They were kind enough to let me handle their watches and see them first hand. The Navitimer actually has a flight computer built into the bezel! I’ve never owned a nice watch, but I certainly wanted one after handling theirs!

Breitling has a media team for the World Tour that handles all aspects of public relations. While they get to fly on the aircraft a lot, most airline in to the next tour stop ahead of the DC-3 to handle the setup for the arrival of guests. Much more goes on behind the scenes with web based media, follow up, and take home items for guests.

The End Is Near

The DC-3 World Tour will come to a close at the end of September at the Breitling Slon Airshow in Switzerland. Many events are planned around the historic event and record setting journey. The most anticipated event for the watch collector community will be the unveiling of the location of the 500 watches hidden aboard the aircraft.

While the watches were originally hidden for security reasons, they have become something of a guessing game among followers. There are only a hand full of people who know where they are located and are only removed during long periods of inactivity during maintenance periods.

After removal, the watches, which are kept in a special case, will be returned to Breitling to be carefully inspected by craftsman. Most of the watches are already spoken for and will be sent out for final delivery just before Christmas. Each of the specially numbered Navitimer watches will come with information about its travels, a certificate signed by the flight captain, and bears a specially engraved backing.

While I will not be on the list of folks receiving a Navitimer this Christmas, I got my present a little early by flying on such a historic aircraft. We appreciate Breitling allowing us to have one of the coveted seats on this historic journey and hope you have enjoyed a glimpse inside the adventure.



About the Author

Michael Lothrop
Michael Lothrop is a lifelong aviation enthusiast and writer originally from Maine. Mike grew up around aviation and is currently the director of operations and safety for an aviation related company.




 
 

 

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