It’s a bird . . . It’s a plane . . . It’s a Super Triple-Tail DC-4E!


The one and only Douglas DC-4E took to the skies June 7, 1938. Douglas test pilot and V.P of Sales Carl Cover said when he landed, “She flies herself, I just went along for the ride.”

This all started a week ago when my brother John Billingsley, my son Rick Kerr and I were engaged in a favorite pastime, discussing aviation history.  John asked me, “Did Northwest Airlines fly any triple-tailed DC-4s?”  I asked him to repeat the question, and when he did I admit I was quick to cast aspersions on his veracity.  He replied that he knew he had seen a photo of one recently and bet me $5 that he was right.  It seemed an easy bet that I was quick to shake on. Who ever heard of a triple-tailed DC-4?

Fast forward a week to Christmas Day.  John pulls out a copy of page 57 of the January, 2016 issue of Air Classics magazine. In a story about the 80th Anniversary of the Douglas DC-3 was a photo of a DC-3 in Northwest livery in the huge Douglas assembly facility at Clover Field in Santa Monica Calif. The note beneath the photo states “In this photograph, a nearly complete Northwest NC21711 frames the company’s mighty DC-4 four-engine triple-tail airliner.” So there you have the photo my brother saw. He had mistakenly remembered that the DC-4 had Northwest livery, so he kindly said the bet was off. I didn’t owe him $5.

I feel as though I really won anyway. What a thrill to be introduced to a one-of-a-kind airplane that never carried a passenger but foretold the future of passenger flight. The Douglas DC-4E; four engine, triple-tail airplane, the first with tricycle landing gear, was introduced in June, 1938. The following Spring Douglas turned it over to United, American, TWA, Eastern and Pan American airlines for flight evaluation tests.  In the end, United and American both ordered the new aircraft.


Don Douglas said to his chief engineer Art Raymond, “I knew we could design planes as big as this and even bigger,; but I frankly didn’t know how we would ever build them!”

Orville Wright, co-inventor of the first airplane in 1903, walked through the DC-4E during a stop-over demonstration at Dayton Ohio in 1939. Wright told a reporter, “This is more of a machine than it is an airplane, a giant complex machine of perfection. It is a thing of mechanical miracles. Man doesn’t fly anymore. The gadgets do all the work.”

Pilots liked it and praised it. Most of the improvements and innovations available to aircraft builders were incorporated in the first DC-4: auto pilots, de-icers, controllable-pitch propellers and navigational aids.

And the cabin comforts were exceptional. It was called “a Grand Hotel with wings!” She could accommodate 42 guests by day and 30 by night in her pressurized cabin. There was a Ladies Lounge, a Men’s Dressing Room, a private compartment up front called the “Bridal Suite.” Comfortable two-abreast seats could be made up into sleeping berths. Other features included air conditioning, hot and cold water, electrically operated galley. There were curling irons for the ladies and electric shavers for the men.

Alas no passengers ever enjoyed these exceptional accoutrements. World War 2 was looming.

In 1940 Great Britain was enduring the “Blitz” and France had fallen.  U.S. Army Air Force General “Hap” Arnold visited the Douglas plant and a few days later Douglas got a teletype directing him to stop work on the big transport planes. United and American were asked to cancel their orders.  But soon, in response to Germany invading the island of Crete with a huge aerial armada, another urgent teletype  came — “Top priority on the big transports.”  Overnight the Army air chiefs concluded that the DC-4 was exactly what they needed for troop transport. The DC-4E became the Douglas Skymaster. By now Douglas had solved the vertical stabilizer problem and the triple-tail disappeared. It was lighter, smaller and simpler. The wing was altered, the cabin unpressurized and Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasps were used.The Air Force called it the C-54.  The Navy the R-5D. A total of 1,245 were produced.


A C54A (cn7470 42-107451) was to become the personal transport for President Roosevelt (The first Air Force 1) and specially modified for this role (C54C). It was named “Sacred Cow”.  Later President Truman used it extensively and in 1961 it was retired to the Smithsonian Museum.

After the war C54s were converted into airliners known as DC-4s, then followed the DC-6, DC-6B, the DC-7, DC-7Cs and finally DC-8 jets.   But they all owe their heritage to the first of the big transports – the triple-tailed DC-4E.

The one lone DC-4E prototype was sold to Japan in 1939 and its fate is unclear, but it is supposed that it was bought to support the Japanese studies into developing a long-range bomber.

Many thanks to Doug Engells for his great article published in the December 1961 American Modeler Magazine Please use link for much more detailed information.

And check these out: Douglas DC-4 Skymaster – Historical background and The Sky Sovereign DC-4E

And check out the January 2016 issue of Air Classics, page 57, to find out what led to this discussion in the first place!


Thanks, John.  I’m so pleased to learn about the DC-4E Triple-Tail airliner!

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