Rare Mojave Dragon now lives in Washington State

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
This World War II vintage twin-engine bomber was developed and test flown by Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, Calif., and was designated as the B-23 Dragon.

It was first flown in July 1939, and incorporated many features of the Douglas DC-3 commercial transport. This B-23 was built by Douglas Aircraft Company, was completed June 28, 1940.

My husband, Al Hansen, and his friend and partner Ascher Ward, bought the B-23 from the University of Washington and flew it from Kingman, Ariz., to Mojave Airport in 1985. The plane had served the university as a weather survey craft for meteorology students. All radar and weather equipment was removed and it was returned to its original configuration.

In 1938, the Douglas Aircraft Company developed the B-23 Dragon to rectify the shortcomings of the B-18 Bolo,.The B-23 Dragon featured upgraded engines, considerably refined fuselage included and a tail gun position found in the B-18.

(Photograph by Derek Haley)

The first B-23 was completed in July of 1939, and completed its first flight from Clover Field at Santa Monica on July 27, 1939. After being evaluated by the Materiel Division at Wright Field in Ohio, deliveries of the aircraft began the next year.

Beginning in February in 1940, the 17th Bombardment Group and the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron at McChord Army Air Field, Wash., received their first factory fresh Dragon Bombers as a supplement to the B-18 Bolos currently assigned to the base. The Air Corps received the last of its 38 B-23s in September 1940.

Early evaluations revealed disappointing performance, even though the B-23 was 66 mph faster than its B-18A predecessor and had a much better range, it was still clearly inferior to other bombers of its era. The B-23 was slower than the Boeing B-17 Fortress, the North American B-25 Mitchell and Martin B-26 Marauder and was less heavily armed. Consequently, the B-23 was never used in its intended bombardment role and never saw any combat overseas. Ultimately relegated to training, and as a utility transport (as UC-67) and many other tests and experiments.

After the end of the war, surviving B-23s and UC-67s were sold off as surplus. Many were refitted as corporate aircraft and were provided with a new and longer metal nose, full washroom facilities, plus accommodations for 12 passengers in two compartments.

California Oil Co. owned this Dragon from 1946-1960 and then Standard Oil Co. of Texas acquired it in July 1960.

(Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

The B-23 Dragon at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

Only 38 B-23s were built. Though it was mechanically sound and dependable, it was almost obsolete as soon as it rolled off the assembly line.

It had a wingspan of 92-feet, a fuselage length of 58-feet, 6-inches and had a max weight of 32,400 pounds, carrying 4,000 pounds of bombs internally. Boeing developed and built the larger B-17 Flying Fortress at about the same period of time, which had two more engines and much more firepower.

When World War II began, it was the B-17 that went into mass production. The few B-23s flying were used mainly as troop transports.

This B-23 didn’t accumulate wartime glory, but it did have its own glamour. We were told that its first post-war owner was billionaire Howard Hughes, who favored the plane for transporting VIP’s on business and pleasure excursions. I wonder how true that story is, but it is fun to imagine Jane Russell or Jean Harlow flying in this airplane.

Retired airline captain Bob Van Ausdell ferried the Dragon from Arizona to Mojave, then on Dec. 11, 1985, he was in the left seat again, with Al as co-pilot, as they lifted from the Mojave Airport on the way to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash. A clean dusting of snow had covered the Tehachapi Mountains and the floor of the desert, as they floated off the runway.

First stop was McNary Field in Salem, Ore., Van Ausdell’s hometown, where a C-130 from McChord joined the vintage bomber and crew.

Weather around the northwestern states is often unfavorable for VFR flying and it was getting thick as pea soup when they were coming into McChord. The C-130 flew alongside and helped line them up for the runway. Al said, “As soon as we touched down on the runway, we just rolled into a huge fog and brought it to a stop on the runway.” Tugs had to come out and tow them off, because there was no way to see which way to taxi.

Mojave’s Dragon is now on display at McChord Air Museum.

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