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Alaska: land of the Big Props

By Jan Koppen
August 30, 2001

The world’s largest DC-6 fleet, still at work in the 21st century

When you work for a major cargo airline, you find yourself constantly surrounded by modern planes and screaming jet engines. Although that’s very enjoyable, once in a while the need for some aviation nostalgia must be fulfilled.

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Photo © Shawn Miller

It’s becoming harder all the time to experience examples of the “good old days” of aviation, when piston engines ruled the sky and kerosene was only lantern fuel. Fortunately, Alaska still has a good number of operational “Big Props” lumbering through northern skies. Last April, I decided to pay this great land a visit and experience its aviation wonders first hand.

After spending a couple of days in the city of Anchorage I departed for the central Alaskan town of Fairbanks. There I was invited by Northern Air Cargo to have a closer look at their cargo operation and ride aboard a DC-6 on a scheduled service to the remote communities of Barrow and Deadhorse.

Photo by Jan Koppen.

All Cargo – All the Time.

Some airlines carry cargo as a sideline, but at Northern Air Cargo they do it for a living. It’s been that way since they moved their first planeload of freight in 1956. Over the years they have provided customers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest with a reliable means of shipping goods by air.

Originally established as a charter airfreight service, Northern Air Cargo pioneered air cargo transportation in Alaska. Using the unique C-82 ‘Flying Boxcar’, they specialised in the delivery of outsized cargo to rural communities on a charter basis. Customers knew that if they lived near a remote airstrip, and if their cargo fit in the airplane, NAC would get their load to them, no matter what the cargo might be: from nuts and bolts to live animals. This ‘can do’ commitment to their customers continues today.

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Photo © Propfreak

Northern Air Cargo operates the largest DC-6 fleet in the world. Besides these propliners the company operates three Boeing 727 freighter jets. NAC serves more than 20 Alaskan cities with scheduled, all-cargo services, plus flagstop and charter flights to many other destinations. Their motto is ‘All cargo – All the Time‘ and judging from the cargo on their ramp at Anchorage and Fairbanks, they really mean it.

Barrow-bound Ken Zachary was our captain for the early morning flight to Barrow. Zachary is a veteran “bush pilot” and first learned to fly DC-3s at the age of 19! The first officer was Joe Holland and the crew was rounded out by flight engineer Artic Wikle. The manifest described our full load of cargo as “hard cargo and foodstuffs” and included several snowmobiles, plus and a 3000 pound (1500 kg) generator. Our aircraft for the flight was N2907F (c/n. 44636), built in 1955 as a C-118A for the US Air Force. It went to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, for storage in the mid-1970s, before being auctioned off in May 1976. After a period of inactivity at Tucson it was converted to DC-6A standard and registered to the Time Aviation Services Company in 1978. N2907F was bought by Northern Air Cargo in March 1991. To April 2001 the aircraft had logged a comparatively low 31,530 hours since new.

By 08.30 local time, loading and all other departure formalities were completed and ten minutes later the four Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines successively wounded-up amidst clouds of glorious av-gas exhaust. Fairbanks ground control then gave us our squawk number, taxi and flight clearance.

Our routing was to take us out over the Tanana River and then on to Barrow via the Bettles intersection. We taxied out to the run-up area, the throb of the engines accompanied by the familiar squeaking of brakes. Following a lengthy check of all engines, ‘Yukon 60’ was cleared for take-off on runway 19 right. Ken rotated the DC-6 at 120 knots and we established a steady climb at 500 feet/min at 160 kts with a full 2,400 rpm given by each engine. During the climb-out the DC-6 banked gently over the Tanana river and established a heading of 299 degrees, on track for Barrow.

After climbing gently for about 25 minutes, we leveled off at 10,000 feet and settled into a cruise of 185 kts IAS with the engines throttled back to 2,200 rpm and the fuel flow to each of the roaring monsters eased to about 520 lb/hr. During cruise, fuel flow to each engine is about 520 lb/hr.

Photo by Jan Koppen.

The Brooks mountain range

Late April weather in Alaska is superb. The spring thaw is about to set in, and the lakes are still ice-covered. The sky is blue and the air is clear. The snowy whiteness of the mountain scenery is breathtaking. The Brooks mountain range was ‘on the nose’ and after what seemed an age it slipped below, just a couple of thousand feet away.

The atmosphere in the cockpit was relaxed and discussion topics included such diverse things as women, guns, hunting and how to obtain a new set of Beech-18 wings. Finally we flew into a fairyland of whiteness – the Northern Slopes. We tuned in to Barrow weather – clear skies with a 15 knot wind blowing the fallen snow into a kind of haze across the airfield. Oh yes, and the outside air temperature was –21 degrees Celcius! At 3,000 ft the landing checks were completed and with an approach to runway 24 established the flaps were set first to 20 degrees and then 30 degrees as the undercarriage was lowered with a loud but reassuring clunk and three greens in the cockpit. With 6,500 ft of runway available we rolled smoothly to a slow taxi speed and just like that we arrived deep inside polar bear country.

On went the warm and very necessary iso-overalls, open went the side cargo door and with no further fanfare the unloading process began. The crew did most of the work themselves, and in those weather conditions there was every incentive to finish quickly. I could only manage the briefest excursion on the ground.

Artic at work in sub-zero temperatures. Photo by Jan Koppen.

The ride to Deadhorse

With the loading complete at 12:15, Ken and Joe set about the pre-flight preparations and checks. Artic closed the big rear cargo door and ensured that our freight was well secured. Up in the cockpit everything was looking good so Ken commenced the start-up with a burst of throttle and a squeeze of the starter switches, then a pause before switching the ignition to ‘both’ and depressing the primer switch. With a whirring noise the prop blades turned over, the engine coughed and wheezed and with a big puff of exhaust sprang to life. The four P&W R-2800 Double Wasps were started independently, without recourse to a ground power unit, in the order 4, 3, 2, 1, number 4 being the starboard outer. With little trouble 3, 2 and 1 followed and they ticked over at 800 rpm using primer fuel first, then the mixture increased as the primer was reduced.

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Photo © Shawn Miller

After we received our clearance from air traffic control it was time to taxi to the end of runway 06 for our 200-mile ride to Deadhorse. Just a fraction of Barrow’s 6,500-foot runway passed beneath the DC-6’s wheels before rotation. Our ascribed cruising level of 7,000 ft was reached after a sweeping left-hand turnout. After half an hour in flight we started our descent and turned right to Ocota beacon, at which point we should have been at 1600 ft. Along with the airfield, the Trans Alaskan pipeline also came into view.

Photo Ken and Joe at the controls of N2709F. Photo by Jan Koppen.

Joe was flying this sector and, despite having a long career as a bush-pilot on aircraft such as the Noorduyn Norseman, he still needed some blind landing training on the ‘Six’. After Deadhorse vectored us in for final approach to runway 22, Ken placed an aluminum plate in front of Joe’s windscreen. We watched Joe grapple with the instruments down to short finals and saw through the left-hand cockpit window that we drifted too far from the centre-line of the runway. A second later Ken removed the plate and Joe was a bit surprised at the sight of the aircraft’s position. He immediately readjusted to the world outside and brought the DC-6 back on track for a visual approach at 135 kts, with engines throttled back to a modest 1,500 rpm. Touch-down was ‘by the book’ and the DC-6 rolled at a leisurely taxi speed to the end of the runway before a right turn to the apron and an assigned parking place next to the end of the freight sheds.

While Joe went out to buy us some food, we started unloading the cargo, which was done with the help of a huge caterpillar tractor. Other Deadhorse visitors were an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-200C and British Petroleum Boeing 737-200 (N736BP) that is operated by the Atlantic Richfield Company.

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Photo © AirNikon

Back home

Just twenty five minutes after our arrival, ‘9027F’ had been refueled, catered and the uplifted cargo properly strapped in. We were cleared for takeoff from runway 22 and minutes later we had already climbed to 10,000 ft. The food Joe had brought with him was excellent. Tuna fish sandwiches, a choice of fresh fruit and a fine selection of soft drinks. What a difference compared with the usual coach-class snack onboard the big airliners! Half-an-hour out from Fairbanks the crew prepared for the descent and approach to runway 19R. We were established as number two to land behind an all-metal finished Brooks Fuel DC-4 (N90201). As we called finals, I took the chance to take a last look at the wide array of propliners based at Fairbanks airport.

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Photo © Ralph Kunadt

Exiting the runway, we taxied back to NAC’s gravel ramp, at the end of what had been just another day’s work for Ken, Joe and Artic, but what was one of most memorable aviation experiences for their grateful and happy fourth crewmember.

In the Arctic there are still signs of the one-time Alaskan independent airline Markair, as seen here on a Deadhorse cargo shed.

Sincere thanks are due to Ken, Joe and Artic, who allowed me to witness the Alaskan way of cargo operations from a very front-row seat.

Written by
Jan Koppen

Jan Koppen lives in the Netherlands and is an employee of KLM Cargo. This story was edited by Colin Saunders.

8 User Comments:
Username: 747-600X [User Info]
Posted 2001-08-30 09:47:55 and read 32768 times.

In Fairbanks last summer I had the opportunity to see a variety of older cargo aircraft sill operating. Most of them were DC-s. From 3s to 7s, the DC-props are still indeed hard at work. I'd give a lot for an opportunity like yours, Jan...
Thanks for the great article on the "nostalgic" ways of air cargo in Alaska!

Username: Jan Mogren [User Info]
Posted 2001-08-30 11:51:23 and read 32768 times.

Nice article! Reminds me I haven't been on a DC-6 since 1993. Gotta do something about that! ;-)

Username: Luzezito [User Info]
Posted 2001-08-31 09:10:03 and read 32768 times.

That Jan has been a lucky fellow, or has looked hard for this opportunity, leaves no doubt. A great article and much more: in this modern fly by wire jet age it made me realise that there are still prop airliners flying and gracing the sky and that their use still has economic sense.
Goed gedaan Jan!

Username: Wapl8s [User Info]
Posted 2001-08-31 18:11:12 and read 32768 times.

Enjoyed the article very much. Having been fortunate to have visited BRW and DUT, I always like to read about "outback" Alaska.

Username: Twa902fly [User Info]
Posted 2001-08-31 19:29:54 and read 32768 times.

Great article! I saw a bunch of abandoned DC-6s, DC-4s and C-46s on the ramp at Fairbanks in August 2000. By abandoned I mean they had no engines and other such things. I did see an Everts Air Fuel DC-6 which was fully operational though. Here are some pics i took at FAI.


Chicago Illinois

Username: EIPremier [User Info]
Posted 2001-09-01 21:46:16 and read 32768 times.

I was just up in Alaska and had an opportunity to fly an ERA DC-3. It was truly an unforgetable experience. Also, I had the chance to check out the cockpit and cabin of an ERA Convair 580 (ERAs 580s have been converted to prop-jets).

I wrote an extensive trip report on my DC-3 flight, and I was thinking of expanding it into an article covering the various old piston engine planes in service up there. So, it's a good thing I read your article before I got any farther along!

Anyway, I'll probably still submit a few of my pictures.

Great report, BTW.

Username: Putput28 [User Info]
Posted 2001-09-04 03:38:40 and read 32768 times.

defintatly a great arcticle. It is great to see DC-3's still in use.

Username: Alaskaairlines [User Info]
Posted 2001-09-07 03:12:27 and read 32768 times.

Great article. I live not far from Anchorage, I go and see those props all the time, I think Alaska is the only place in the world were you are going to find all those old great prop planes.

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