As the vintage Douglas DC-3 began to slew left on take off, I contemplated how far aviation has come in the last 70 years. Crosswinds and turbulence have been tamed and the most you have to worry about is adjusting the nozzle that blows chilled air on you while you sit comfortably waiting for the bar cart to roll down the aisle. 80 years ago, at the dawn of commercial air travel, travelers had to contend with bumps, fumes in the cabin, and frequent refueling stops on long journeys. Each flight was an adventure. A nervous flyer to begin with, I was surprised to find that the DC-3, unlike modern aircraft, doesn’t hurl itself into the sky nose first. No, the tail lifts itself off the ground until it’s horizontal with the wings before the entire plane flutters into the air. Getting aloft is more of a negotiation with the prevailing wind than a simple transition. I should have read the manual.
The refurbished DC-3 that landed in Toronto on Thursday is a holdover from that early era, and Breitling took a group of us up not just to experience the roots of aviation but to celebrate the plane’s only Canadian stop on its round-the-world journey. In attempting the voyage, Breitling is also hoping to find a place in the record books. When it returns to its home base, this particular DC-3 will become the oldest plane to successfully circumnavigate the earth. It’s as much a logistics triumph as an aviation record: 77-year-old planes that have been faithfully restored don’t use fuel that you can get at just any airport. The team had to ensure that fuel was shipped well ahead of time to destinations around the world where they were stopping. Before the flight, pilot Francisco Agullo briefed passengers on the history of the DC-3 and shared anecdotes of the journey so far, including a tense episode over the North Pacific where he had to fly as low as 500 feet above the waves to avoid ice forming on the wings. The stories he shared were not all nail-biters. While in Japan, the DC-3 played host to groups of school children in a nod to that country’s aviation history as well as the mission’s tie-in with Unicef – for each nautical mile travelled, two dollars are being donated to that organization.
In addition to good deeds, the Breitling visit to Toronto also promoted their special DC-3 edition of the Navitimer, which will be available later this fall. It’s special because the 500 watches are making the journey around the world onboard the plane. In a shrewd move, Breitling is doing more than simply asserting history and heritage as part of a limited edition release: they are creating it. Each DC-3 edition Navitimer will come with a log book chronicling the stops made on the round-the-world journey. The story of the watch – which is as important to watch collectors as the watch itself – is a verifiable and, in this case, exciting thing, not an allusion to past glory (though there’s plenty of that with a Navitimer). At C$10,800 this Navitimer and the history it is taking part in (and making) seems a steal.