The story of the ‘Wielewaal’ (Dutch for ‘oriole’, a colorful passerine bird) reads like a story book; from KLM pre-war flagship on the Batavia route, via military transport and general MacArthurs VIP plane, to the first Australian ‘Viewmaster’. Despite the less powerful engines, it managed to make itself indispensable over the years through numerous modifications, such as the much appreciated extra fuel tank and later the panoramic windows. Now it is displayed in the Queensland Air Museum museum as the 12th oldest DC-3 in the world.
The Douglas DC-3-194B with serial number 1944 was built in the spring of 1937 at the Douglas factory in Santa Monica. It was the 67th DC-3 built and featured a standard right hand entry door, 12 volt electrical system and Wright Cyclone R-1820 engines rated at 1000 horsepower each.
The first test flight took place on April 24, 1937 and a day later the aircraft was handed over to KLM via intermediary Fokker, who had previously sold 9 Douglas aircraft.
The plane flew to New York, where it arrived on April 28 and was decommissioned for shipping aboard the S.S. Pennland. In May 1937 the aircraft was assembled at Waalhaven airfield (near Rotterdam Port). Australian John Gyzemyter was one of the young KLM technicians involved in that process.
Flagship on the Batavia route
Together with 9 other DC-3s, the aircraft was equipped with 11 luxury "sleeper seats" for the routes to the Dutch East Indies (where 21 seats were the European standard in the other 14 KLM DC-3s). On July 3, 1937, captain van Veenendaal took off for the first week-long flight KL456 to Batavia. 34 return flights were to follow until the outbreak of World War II.
PK-ALW and the last flight to Batavia
Due to the outbrake of the war in Europe flight operation was transferred to the KLM subsidiary in the Dutch East Indies, the KNILM, in June 1940. The aircraft was re-registered as PK-ALW however it remained the property of KLM. First, the route was maintained from Bandung to Naples, and when Italian airspace was closed, the flight was made to Lydda in Palestine. On February 8, 1942 "Wielewaal" left Lydda under the authority of captain Evert van Dijk for the last flight to Batavia. In Medang the luxury seats were taken off board and left behind to evacuate 36 women and children to Batavia. She arrived there on February 15, 1942. At that point, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the route to Europe was cut off.
Last flight from the Dutch East Indies
In preparation for the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies, "Wielewaal" was equipped with a camouflage scheme and extra fuel tanks to reach Australia non-stop. This specific modification would make her very valuable in the coming decades. The rear cabin windows were also removed to accommodate a machine gun on either side.
During the Battle of Java, on March 7, 1942 at 1 a.m., the PK-ALW flew the last flight from the Dutch East Indies a few hours before the surrender to the Japanese. While combat operations took place 15 km away, "Wielewaal" took off from an unfinished highway outside Bandung with a number of high-ranking persons on board. There were no seats and the passengers had to hold on to a length of rope stretched across the cabin floor. After a non-stop flight of more than 7 hours they arrived safely in Port Hedland, Australia.
Pass under the Sydney Harbor Bridge
All 11 KNILM aircraft (2xDC2, 2xDC3, 3xDC5, 4xLockheed 14) were initially chartered by the Americans, but later requisitioned. The KNILM crew was ordered to prepare the aircraft for transfer to the USAAF and test flights had to be made. Probably prompted by the frustration of losing the fleet, on May 14 captains Frans Van Breemen, Dirk Rab and Peter Deenik decided to make a formation a low pass under the Sydney Harbor Bridge (twice). DC2 PK-AFK, DC5 PK-ADC and the DC3 PK-ALW first busted the cruiser Hr.Ms. Tromp, before heading to the bridge. On board the DC5 was John Gyzemyter, now in the position as flight engineer. The planes were handed over the next day.
First flight of the Wau Airlift.
The USAAF gave the aircraft the type designation C-49H and the military number ‘1944’ (after the serial number) and radio callsign VHCXE. Only in 1944 the official military designation 44-83229 was applied. The aircraft was assigned to the 21st Transport Squadron in Brisbane. There it made the first aid flight from Australia to Papua New Guinea on 23 May 1942, after the Battle of Wau.
General MacArthur's VIP transport
The aircraft was notable for its long range (due to the extra fuel tanks). On June 17, 1942 General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in the Southwestern Pacific, flew in "the Dutch DC-3" from Melbourne to Canberra. On the return trip the pilots Colonel Henry Godman and Walter Seidel gave the General a nose bleed. From the memoires of Godman: “When leaving cruise level, I started to descend too steeply, causing hitting the general's head. I was yelled at by the general's doctor”. After this little incident, MacArthur no longer wanted to fly this plane.
In May 1943 the aircraft was converted into a troop transporter (still with the right hand entry door). Saddles were placed on the side and all remnants of the former luxury interior were removed. The call sign was slightly changed to VH-CXL and was transferred to No. 36 Sqn of the RAAF. It was the only aircraft without camouflage (bare metal). On April 23, 1944 she made her last military flight. Australian National Airways (A.N.A.) offered £ 5,000 for the plane. It was accepted for the Australian Certificate of Airworthiness on April 1, 1944 under number X-16, officially with 22 passenger seats. On April 24, 1944 it was handed over to ANA.
Between December 31, 1944 and April 6, 1946 the aircraft flew as VH-CXL for ANA on the Brisbane-Melbourne-Brisbane route. Followed by further modification to DC-3-G202A standard, including transferring the entry door to the other side of the fuselage and Cyclone R-1820 G202A engines of 1200 hp each.
On October 1946 the registration VH-ANR and the name Oana (‘Inform’ in the Aboriginal language) was received. A year later the 12 volt electrical system was replaced by the standard 24 volt system of the C-47 Skytrain / Dakota. That made a modern cockpit possible and the entire instrumentation was replaced.
In 1958 the installation of extra large windows in the cabin and the conversion to 28 seats followed. This made "Oana" the first Australian DC-3 to undergo the "Viewmaster" conversion. The old aircraft was now up-to-date to post-war standard and thus secured its flying future for the next 15 years to come.
On July 24, 1972, the aircraft was flown from Sydney to Schofields for storage. A few months later, the registration was canceled. However, the engines were started every month. December 14, 1974 she made one final ferry flight (under a special permit and with the wheels locked down) to Camden. On arrival, the aircraft had flown 48,774 hours and 13 minutes.
The aircraft was handed over to a private person in 1981. Restoration began in 1987 to operate the aircraft in the air show circuit. But the necessary historic flying permit was not issued. Thereafter the plane was neglected.
In 1994 it was donated to the Queensland Air Museum. Recovery to flight condition was impossible due to corrosion of critical parts. The aircraft was decommissioned and transported by road to Caloundra. There it was gradually restored to a static display until 2003. The aircraft has been in the museum since 2004.
60 years after the assembly in Waalhaven and 55 years after the famous lowpass, John Gyzemyter visited the plane at the museum in 1997. Thereby pronouncing the words: "We both came to Queensland to retire." John Gyzemyter passed away in 1999, aged 84.
Walter Seidel, one of General MacArthur's pilots, also visited "Oana" back in 2010. A year later, Seidel went west at the age of 90. After his visit to the he spoke the words: “Sitting in the pilot's seat of his old DC-3, 67 years after I last flew it, was the highlight of my trip to Australia”.
And the "Wielewaal" aka "Oana" is still there. in 2037 she will turn 100 years.
Old Gooney Birds Never Die!