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The Seven Seas of Spain and Switzerland (Planespotting the DC-7C!)

By Michael Blank
April 2, 2007

In addition to outlining the history of the innovative DC-7C, Michael Blank gives us an entertaining account of his efforts to photograph these now rare birds before they all disappear.

In early 2002, my wife and I booked a holiday with three friends of ours at a villa near Nerja, on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain. Some time before this, I had learned, through a report in that great aviation magazine, Propliner, that Europe’s last two potentially airworthy DC7Cs had been parked in store at Cordoba airport in southern Spain, since the 1999 bankruptcy of their operator, Basaer. The aircraft had been bought, in 1995, from T and G Aviation of Arizona, USA, to serve as firebombers in Spain. Both were fully converted firebombers, with large under-fuselage retardant tanks.

As a devoted heavy pistonliner fan, the DC7C had long occupied a special place in my affections, dating back to a December 1971 family holiday in Tenerife, where, (aged 14) whilst awaiting our return flight to London at Los Rodeos (Tenerife north) airport, I had the absolutely unforgettable experience of watching a Spantax DC7C (EC-BSQ) start up and then take off.

I had only later realised just what a special aircraft the DC7C was in airliner development, as the first type to achieve “the holy grail” of being able to fly non-stop, reliably, except in the most extreme headwind conditions, from east to west across the Atlantic. Pan Am was the first to introduce the aircraft, to great acclaim, on transatlantic services, in June 1956 (though it had already debuted on transpacific routes in April of that year).

The ability to fly the Atlantic non-stop meant dispensing with the time-consuming refuelling stop at Gander or Shannon and brought a sharp reduction in journey time for east-west transatlantic travellers. The aircraft reigned supreme in this role for a year, until the introduction of Lockheed’s rival L1649A Starliner by TWA, which was capable of the same feat and more. Original operators other than Pan Am were SAS, who used the aircraft on record-setting trans-polar services from Scandinavia to California (via Anchorage), Sabena, KLM, Alitalia, JAL, BOAC, Northwest, Japan Air Lines, Mexicana and Swissair.

The photograph below shows a SAS DC7C in its original late 1950s livery, though by the time this photo was taken, the aircraft had left its glory days long behind, being used then by SAS for (oddly, for what was once the world’s longest range airliner) short haul domestic services. Its service with SAS ended in 1967, the same year this photo was taken and this aircraft was the original Stockholm-Los Angeles record holder, as the inscription on it makes clear.

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A DC7C in the livery of one of its original operators, SAS
Photo © Lars Söderström

Alas, both these supremely beautiful and technically advanced aircraft, were rendered obsolete overnight, in October 1958, by the introduction of jet airliners to the transatlantic route, first by BOAC with the Comet 4; and secondly by Pan Am (again at the forefront) with the Boeing 707.

Of the Starliner and the DC7C, the 7 was clearly the more commercially successful, notching up 108 sales to the Starliner’s 43. This was due to Douglas’s more rapid and technically more ingenious development of their aircraft. Instead of resorting to Lockheed’s much more expensive and time-consuming design of an entirely new laminar flow (and much larger, to give the necessary extra fuel capacity) wing for the Starliner, Douglas came up with the neat solution of splicing in a five foot section at each wing root, thereby considerably increasing the aircraft’s fuel capacity, to give it the necessary trans-oceanic range, with the added benefit of greater lift, to give the aircraft adequate takeoff performance with its heavy maximum fuel load, as well as taking the engines further away from the cabin and thus decreasing noise in the cabin-a triple benefit. Those engines were arguably the most advanced piston aero-engines of all time, 3400hp Wright R3350-18EA-1 turbocompounds, each having three power recovery turbines to take extra power from the otherwise wasted exhaust gases.

These two wing root sections were at 90 degrees to the fuselage, whereas the remainder of the wing, dating back to the DC4, was at a marked dihedral to the fuselage, thereby giving the aircraft a rather different “sit” to all others of Douglas’s four piston engine designs.

Somewhat alarmingly for the unitiated, on night flights, long purple exhaust flames licked back from the engines over the wings, filled with highly flammable 115/145 avgas—perfectly safe. Also, the inboard (and therefore visible from the passenger cabin) of the power recovery turbines in each engine visibly glowed white hot, again making life a little uncomfortable for nervous passengers, until the cabin crew reassured them.

Saddle tanks on top of the engines, to give yet more fuel capacity, a markedly taller and more squared-off tail fin, as compared to the DC7 and DC7B, to cope with increased swing in the event of an outboard engine failing, plus a lengthening of the fuselage to accommodate more passengers, completed the design of a supremely attractive and very technically advanced aircraft. Truly, the DC7C was the Boeing 777 of its day.

The DC7C outsold its rival because its clever, cost and time-saving design, enabled it to arrive in the market place more than a year ahead of the Starliner; and also because, by the time Lockheed’s aircraft arrived on the scene, it was clear to many that jet airliners were shortly going to take over from pistonliners on long haul routes, thereby severely limiting the sales appeal of the Starliner—a great shame, for it too, like the DC7C, was a supremely attractive and highly technically advanced aircraft for its time-in piston-engined airliner terms.

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The L-1649A Starliner
Photo © Mel Lawrence

Few fully foresaw the revolution that the advent of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC8 would wreak and by 1962-3, the DC7C was out of transatlantic service, out of the service of most major airlines and had begun that long slide down the airliner “chain,” through secondary and charter airlines-who it served magnificently, enabling the birth of several notable airlines-travel clubs, then freight operators. After its airline days were over, the aircraft had a further career, as a firebomber and hence how two DC7Cs came to be at Cordoba.

Fast forward to 2002: between booking the holiday and going on it, in October of that year, I studied a map of southern Spain and realised, with excitement, that Cordoba was only ninety miles or so from Nerja. I knew also, from a 1997 visit to the city (I did not then know about the DC7Cs and so, on that occasion, had not visited the airport), that there were plenty of non-aviation attractions to the town, to tempt the non-aviation minded members of our party (one other was an aviation enthusiast) into making the journey to the city.

We hired a large people carrier for the whole of our two week stay near Nerja and I had planned an itinerary for the holiday. Needless to say, this included a day trip to Cordoba to see the DC7Cs and the beautiful old city and in particular, the Mesquita, an old mosque (of which more below).

So, on 22nd October, we set off for Cordoba. The journey ran through interesting, changing scenery-mountains near the coast, with mainly flatlands thereafter, running through quite a few towns. The roads were good, so we arrived in the vicinity of Cordoba in the late morning.

We had decided we would visit the airport first, then the city. As we approached the airport, my first anxiety-that the aircraft might have been scrapped-disappeared. Both were parked out on the main apron, not far from the small terminal building. Intense relief flowed through me, as well as the realisation that this was the first time I had seen a DC7 in nearly thirty years—I had last seen one in Aer Turas service in the UK in 1973-4.

We pulled up in front of the terminal building and went in. A quick look around found an unguarded door leading out onto the apron, from which the DC7Cs were visible. In the post 9-11 climate however, we decided to be cautious, so merely photographed the aircraft from this door, using zoom lenses, without advancing through it. It was obvious that they had suffered for their three years of storage, with a number of flat tyres and heavy algae growth on one side of the upper fuselage of one of them. They were however 100% complete and overall in reasonable condition.

Pointing our lenses through the doorway produced some reasonable images, but not nearly good enough. We therefore went in search of the airport director, to try to obtain permission to go out onto the apron to take better photographs. We eventually located him, but he was on the phone. After waiting the best part of half an hour for him to finish his call, it became obvious that this was not going to be a short conversation, so we decided to do our own thing. We drove away from the airport, back along the approach road and then turned onto a minor road that looked as if it went around the back of the airport.

It did and before too long, we were behind, but quite some distance from the DC7Cs. From this angle, the 90 degrees to the fuselage, five foot wing root extensions were clearly visible. We drove on, the road now having deteriorated to a rutted track. We passed one end of the runway and carried on. At one point, our car was besieged by dozens of barking dogs, as we passed a kennels, but we pressed on until eventually, we got to a good photographic viewpoint (well away from the kennels, I’m happy to say), though we still needed zoom lenses.

From here, we took numerous photos of the aircraft. What magnificent relics they were and how sad to see two of what had once been the world’s premier transatlantic airliner, slowly deteriorating in long term storage on a dusty backwoods Spanish airfield. Still, at least they were in one piece and I had managed, after a near thirty year gap, to see not one, but two DC7Cs again.

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Photo © Jose Muñoz
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Photo © Jose Muñoz

After that, it was back to normal holiday routine and we drove into Cordoba, to gaze in awe at the Mesquita-a magnificent Moorish mosque.

Our next holiday took us to Gran Canaria. This was no chance decision: throughout 2002, alerted to the presence of two further DC7Cs on this island, again by Propliner, and that great book “Survivors 2002” by Roy Blewett, I had been telling my wife what a wonderful holiday destination Gran Canaria was and how we really should go there for a wintersun holiday.

My heavy hint-dropping paid off and in January 2003, we duly flew from Manchester to Gando airport on Gran Canaria, for a week’s holiday in the resort of Playa Taurito. I knew one of the DC7Cs was at the airport and this was none other than EC-BSQ, “my” Spantax DC7C that I had witnessed starting up and taking off at Tenerife north more than thirty years prior. An ex-Sabena aircraft, it had apparently been in storage at Gando since its last service with Spantax in the late 1970s. It was, it appeared, in the care of AENA, the Spanish national airports authority, who had painted the aircraft in their colours. As our Britannia Airways 767 landed, I had a glimpse of EC-BSQ, parked well away from the terminal building, but was unable to photograph it.

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Photo © Erik Frikke

We duly picked up our hired car and drove to Playa Taurito, where we had a very pleasant holiday. However, I had allotted one morning of this to propliners, so on 15th January, I left the hotel and drove back to Gando. Once there, I realised it was going to be no easy matter photographing EC-BSQ. The aircraft was parked well away from the terminal building and it was quite impossible to take any kind of half-decent photograph of it from there. A polite request to be allowed into the freight/administrative area of the airport to photograph the aircraft produced a firm “no.”

I then tried my Cordoba tactics. I drove away from the airport and tried to get at the DC7C down side roads-without much success, but I did get close enough to the aircraft to be able to see that it is not in very good condition. However, it is being preserved, in a very safe environment, so all credit to AENA. Eventually, on a minor road above and behind the airport, I managed to take some moderate but distant photos of EC-BSQ. As far as I was concerned however, that was not good enough, so this part of the morning had been an exercise in frustration. All was not lost however…

A quick drive back down the motorway leading to the south of the island, brought me to the resort of San Agustin and the small general aviation airfield of El Berriel. Here, parked on top of a man-made hill, was the second of Gran Canaria’s ex-Spantax DC7Cs, EC-ATR (often thought to be EC-BBT perhaps, but the argument over its identity seems now to have been settled—it is EC-ATR). The aircraft apparently made its last flight into Gando in the late 1970s. From there, it was loaded onto a barge and shipped down the coast to San Agustin, then placed in its current resting place. The original intention of its new owner is not now clear, but over the years, the aircraft has been painted in a considerable number of advertising schemes.

No internal access is possible, but you can walk right up to the aircraft, which is unattended and for all intents and purposes abandoned, with only a low wire fence around it. It was in a very sad state, as the first photo below makes clear; open windows, very badly flaked paint (the aircraft was not, either during my visit or subsequently, in the colours of any advertiser) and an anonymous white and blue colour scheme. Generally, the impression was of dereliction and decay. What a sad end for the most advanced airliner of its day. Again however, at least it hasn’t fallen victim to the scrapman, the aircraft still survives today and, I’m very glad to say, recently received a sorely-needed fresh coat of paint, as the later dated photograph below shows.

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Written by
Michael Blank

Michael Blank is a 49 year old property valuer from Manchester UK, who has had a passion for propliners since planespotting days in the early 1970s. He traces his enthusiasm for these aircraft back to an August 1962 flight (at the age of 4), with his parents, on an Air France Super Constellation, from London to La Baule in France, preceded by a flight from Manchester to London on a BEA Vanguard. Sadly, he has no recall of these flights or the return journey, but feels sure these planted a seed which came to fruition in the early 1970s, when he first became seriously interested in aircraft. He also had his enthusiasm for propliners increased by a number of other flights on these aircraft in the 1960s-more BEA Vanguards, a BEA Viscount, a KLM Electra and a Balair F27. Apart from propliners, his other interests are photography, history and Bridge.

5 User Comments:
Username: UK_Dispatcher [User Info]
Posted 2007-04-14 12:39:59 and read 32768 times.

Very interesting article.

I take it from this that no DC-7s have survived in service, such as in Alaska for example?

Username: Propman [User Info]
Posted 2007-04-16 18:48:46 and read 32768 times.

In response to above, I am the author of the article and can tell you that no DC7Cs remain in service. One DC7 or DC7B remains in commercial service, with Florida Air Transport at Opa Locka I think. TBM-Butler Aviation of Redmond, Oregon operate three DC7s and/or DC7Bs as firebombers, but I'm afraid that's it.There is one DC7 in Alaska (a C), at Fairbanks, ex-Brooks Air Fuel/Cargo, but hasn't flown in a long time and it's in deteriorating condition-I know, I've been inside it.

Username: Propman [User Info]
Posted 2007-04-17 23:08:50 and read 32768 times.

And I've just realised there's another active DC7 firebomber, with International Air Response at Coolidge Az. It's immaculate in period 1950s Delta livery, though without Delta titles of course.

Username: Autothrust [User Info]
Posted 2007-05-01 23:53:19 and read 32768 times.

Thank you for this very interesting and fascinating read.Well done.

Username: Dont37 [User Info]
Posted 2007-05-06 02:47:50 and read 32768 times.

Thank you for such an interesting article about a most fascinating airliner. The DC-7C has always been my favorite plane, and I am proud to have flown on two of them, one a Braniff "Eldorado", and a Pan American Super-7 Clipper. I wish
I could have been on more, but alas, by the time I was grown, all of them were gone, or had been converted to DC-7F's.

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