|By Jan Koppen|
April 10, 2004
It’s becoming harder all the time to experience examples of the “good old days” of aviation, when piston engines ruled the skies. Fortunately, South Africa still has a good number of operational “Big Props” lumbering through southern skies. Jan Koppen returns with his third Airliners.Net article for another flight aboard a rare airliner - this time, the DC-4...
Several years ago I had the opportunity to lay my hands on a detailed DC-4 operating manual. After studying the manual thoroughly, I hoped to observe and discuss the flight characteristics of such a big, round-engine transport. Phoebus Apollo of Johannesburg, Rand Airport, which operates two DC-4s and one Carvair, gave me the chance to jump seat on one of their freighters to sample some real life DC-4 action.
In South Africa, turbine-powered aircraft and jets dominate the transportation scene. Fleets of Hawker Siddeley 748s, Boeing 737-200s and 727s are constantly on the move. Fortunately one or two heavy piston freighters still serve as feeders for the major scheduled airlines. Among the “heavies” is the Douglas DC-4, still moving awkward, heavy loads into the airports of Harare, Zimbabwe, Lusaka, Zambia, and Gabarone, Botswana. Although many propliners were owned by South African companies and the SAAF, their numbers have dwindled dramatically.
Phoebus Apollo of Johannesburg-Rand Airport
Phoebus Apollo of Johannesburg-Rand Airport, has next to a large fleet of light aircraft: two DC-3s, two DC-4s, and one Carvair. Phoebus Apollo’s roots go back to 1976 when the owner, Mr. Henny Delpoort, first flew solo. Their cargo operation info Africa began in 1988 and passenger flights commenced in 1989. The company has grown rapidly into the substantial operation it is today. Next to the above mentioned, this also includes a flight school and an engine division. The company is doing complete overhaul and testing of Pratt & Whitney R-2000s and R-1830s, being the radials of the DC-4 and DC-3 respectively.
Phoebus Apollo is also heavily involved in “The Nostalgia of Air Travels - the way it used to be. When there was no piped music, but gin and tonic was cold, and the roar of the propellers was comforting. When Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia, Maputo was still Lourenco Marques, and, finally, your Boeing 747 was a Dakota!” (Phoebus Appolo)
Phoebus Apollo purchased their DC-3 and DC-4 freighters in the second half of the 1990s from an US broker. The Carvair was bought in March 2002 and the airplanes are based at Johannesburg-Rand Airport, which is situated on the southeast side of Johannesburg itself. The DC-4s are ZS-PAI and ZS-PAJ, and the Carvair was ZS-PAA, though some months ago it was re-registered 9J-PAA and put up for sale for a quarter of a million dollars; the aircraft has not flown much lately. The bulbous leviathan has a slightly lower airspeed then the slender DC-4s and consumes about 10% more fuel. Phoebus Apollo uses the DC-3 and DC-4 freighters strictly for scheduled freight service and cargo charters to its neighboring countries.
Despite rising fuel and insurance costs, round-piston-engined freighters are still economically viable. The DC-4 uses a gallon a mile. Of course, aircraft such as the Lockheed Hercules can take twice as much as a DC-4, but it’s twice as expensive. Since 1988, Phoebus Apollo has been flying ZS-PAI, ZS-PAJ, and ZS-PAA on freight-flights from Johannesburg International, as the impressive facility at Rand is used as headquarters and for maintenance only. Between 1998 and 2003, the DC-4s were always out and running around the clock. Bulk items such as 12,000 pound generators and even complete light aircraft fuselage’s were airlifted. Sadly, last year the company encountered some bureaucratic difficulties and work is presently a bit slow.
ZS-PAI started its career as Factory Number 27319, and was delivered to the USAAF on 13 April 1945. Eventually, she was stored at Davis Monthan Air Force base in February 1973. Rescue from this bone-yard came from Aero Union Corporation in August 1978 and she got the civil registration N4989K. She changed hands quite often in the eighties and, in 1994, was sold to IFL/Air Cargo Contractors of Detroit-Pontiac Airport, Michigan. They used the freighter intensively for charter work in the automotive industry. In 1998 she was finally sold to Phoebus Apollo. ZS-PAJ also started her career in 1945 with the USAAF. In October 1954 she was sold to the 721 Sqn. of the Danish Air Force as N-242. The aircraft was, via a broker, returned to North America and sold to Canadian Millardair. They did not operate the bird but placed her in storage at Davis Monthan in December 1978. In 1991 she also crossed the North-Atlantic ocean for a new career in Africa, with InterOcean Airways as C9-ATS. Later she was re-registered as EL-AWX. In January 2000 she was added to the Phoebus Apollo fleet. Presently ‘PAJ’ is in maintenance at Phoebus Apollo’s facility at Rand Airport and it is expected to be back in the air soon.
Carvair 9J-PAA started as a C-54E-5-DO for the USAAF in April ’45, but was reconfigured to a DC-4 by the Douglas company a few months after the second World War. Registered N88881 for Pan American World Airways, it served on transcontinental and transoceanic runs when four engine propeller airliners were at their zenith. The Pan American Clipper was sold to Japan Airlines in February 1958 as JA6015. Seven years later she was sold to Ansett-ANA of Australia. Replaced in the jet age, c/n 27314 became a candidate for Carvair conversion by Aviation Traders in Southend-on-Sea, U.K., in the summer of 1968.
In 1974 she changed hands again. Being importated to New Zealand as ZK-NWB she flew cargo for Nationwide Air. In March 1996, the old bird, had to cross the Pacific Ocean as she was sold to Hawaii Pacific Air as N5459M. She operated inter-island cargo service, before she was stored for a some time at Honolulu Airport. In 1996 she was finally made operational by WonderAir of Pretoria, South-Africa and the plane arrived on South-African soil in July that year. After been stored some time at Pretoria-Wonderboom Airport she was bought by Phoebus Apollo in March 2002.
The Early Morning Positioning Flight
It was from a small waiting room several month’s ago at Phoebus Apollo that I first saw the round, slender bodies of the two DC-4s and the fatso Carvair, as several ground mechanics tended to their maintenance needs. As I was a guest of the company, my good friend Mr. Michael S. Prophet and I would accompany ZS-PAI on an early morning positioning flight to Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts International Airport, which is situated only a couple of miles northeast of Rand Airport.
When walking up to ‘PAI’, I understood how anyone could mesmerized by the size. The wings, to which four Pratt & Whitney R-2000s were attached, extended 117 feet, 6 inches from tip to tip. The huge 13 foot, 1 inch Hamilton Standard propellers were many feet from the oil-stained tarmac. Nose to tail, the length was 93 feet, 11 inches and the rudder towered above some of the nearby historical hangars of Rand Airport (keep in mind, Rand was already established before the second World War and its main terminal building was build in the shape of a Junker 52, which South African Airlines operated during those days).
Captain Tony Baxter and First Officer Laurie Mey made up the crew. Baxter and Mey had earned their way to their respective seats by “driving” long hard hours flying everything from underpowered Cessna 172s to coughing, cargo-laden DC-3s.
At departure time, ‘PAI’ was light on fuel and devoid of any cargo. F/O Mey checked each of the large tires and the brakes. With fuel and oil verified, we boarded ‘PAI’ by a precarious ladder which was placed against the wide cargo doors aft of the massive left wing.
In the cockpit, behind the pilot, were two observer seats – a separate compartment behind the cockpit held a sleeping bunk and storage bin. The instrument panel was festooned with switches, levers of red and white, lights, and a digital ADF, two VHF’s, an ILS head, a horizontal directional gyro and even two GPS’s. Once-brilliant red paint on the emergency panels had faded into dull splotched blotches. Greasy handprints showed around the window frames. Behind the flight deck was the 55 foot, 5 inch cargo compartment. Of course she looked a bit worn in a few places, but judging by the snag-free maintenance log, ‘PAI’ is a well cared bird. Complicated airplanes like the DC-4 require detailed flight manuals. With the crew’s permission, I perused the voluminous tome of ‘PAI’ to learn that at the time of our flight, the airframe had a total of 28,800 hours on it. Douglas ‘PAI’, a heavy at 41,405 pounds empty weight, was topped with 120 US gallons each main tank of volatile 100LL. “Fuel consumption’s is approximately 220 US gallons per hour,” explained Tony. “With full fuel, we can remain airborne for fourteen hours.”
At 08:15 precisely, “Phoebus Apollo 8004 contacted Rand Ground Control for start-up clearance. This was duly approved, and conscientious pre-start exchange between the pilots indicated the DC-4 would soon be coming to life. Bells rang in test, gear horns blared and hands flew to switches and throttles and back again. Soon – an APU sounding much like a lawn mower reverberated from somewhere. Tony planned to start number three engine first. To the tune of “Turning! 3! 6! 9! Switches!” the blades paddled by, the engine shook, belched blue smoke and soon settled into a rumbling deep bass. Numbers 4, 1 and 2 were then started in succession.
Engine treatment of the R-2000 radial engines is a very important aspect in order to extend their lifecycle. Oil pressure must rise above minimums within 30 seconds, otherwise the offending power plant would be destroyed. At least a 800-1000 rpm idle should be maintained to prevent fouled plugs. Run-ups are carried out at 1500 rpm, with a maximum drop of 100 rpm.
With taxi clearance received, we powered our way towards the holding point for runway 29. During our lengthy taxi, we passed many of Rand’s historical hangars and classic aircraft - Tiger Moths, Harvards, a Piago’s 166, a PBY-5A Catalina, Spingbok Safaris DC3 and DC4, both former Transair Cargo DC-6s, a lone DC-3, and even a SudAvion Caravelle-11R.
Rudder pedals are not used at slow taxi. Instead, a small circular steering wheel beneath the left front windshield panel is used. Ordered by Air Traffic Control to hold in position at the holding point of 29 the crew waited for an incoming Harvard of Rand’s flying club. Tony and Laurie held the aircraft against the brakes, knowing propellers can exercise much of their thrust at even zero forward speed. Finally, after receiving clearance, Tony lined ‘PAI’ up over the piano keys. As soon as the aircraft was correctly aligned, the brakes were applied and the throttles were eased forward to 47 inches manifold pressure and 2700 rpm. On release, the old bird rocked and shook violently. We surged forward and gathered speed while racing along the runway. At 50 mph with 15° flap setting, the rudder became effective and the combined power of the engines glided the sprightly airplane off the strip in 19 seconds . Tony held her, once airborne and with the wheels in their wells, at 140 KIAS with 500 fpm, in a smooth, steady climb towards a scattered cloud layer. On the right, Johannesburg’s skyline passed by. A gentle left turn on to a heading of 210 degrees and clearance to climb to 8,000 feet followed.
During the journey upward, Tony and Laurie constantly monitored the engine gauges, making fine adjustment to the throttle settings in order to keep each engine at the correct power setting. When the airplane leveled at 8000, average indicated cruise speed increased to 170 knots, with power settings of 28 inches manifold pressure and 2050 rpm. We next contacted Johannesburg Approach and their controller gave a series of heading changes which set us up to intercept the ILS for runway 03R. Descent speed with no flap and gear up averaged 180 knots. Soon airspeed dropped to 176 knots, so 20° flap could be used. Gear speed was 156 knots and the aircraft’s wheels thumped firmly downwards. At 137 knots, flaps went to 30° and, watching over the shoulders of the crew, I watched us pass over several townships before Johannesburg tower was contacted. Tony flew the downwind leg at 125 knots and base at 120 knots. Five miles from touchdown, we received landing clearance together with the wind of 240 degrees at five knots. With the Douglas neatly following the glide slope, final checks were carried out, undercarriage and flaps selected, and we settled back in our seats.
We watched Tony grapple with the aircraft as he manually flew the ILS to short finals. We crossed the perimeter fence exactly on the centerline and glide slope, making gentle contact with the runway. With light brake application the four engine freighter stopped in less than a fifth of the 11,155 feet long runway and we trundled to the remote situated ‘Whiskey’ apron. It appeared that ‘PAI’ was the only piston-powered aircraft in sight. As the huge flat-bladed propellers wound down an almost eerie silence filled the interior of the freighter. Laurie opened the wide cargo doors and attached the ladder. Our airline representative and ground crew were on hand to meet the aircraft, and within half an hour, a fresh consignment of cargo was being loaded, and the her fuel tanks were replenished as needed. At 11:55 local time, ZS-PAI , using the call sign “Phoebus 8004,” smoked her way out of Johannesburg on a northbound trip to Harare, Zimbabwe, and Lusaka, Zambia respectively. We weren’t aboard for the longer flight however… We left Johannesburg that evening in a less exciting fashion, aboard a regular scheduled Boeing 747 flight to Amsterdam.
We reflected that night what a great day it had been and how lucky we had been to be able to fly such historic airliner. It is my sincerest hope that round-engined classics, like ‘PAI’, will continue to produce wholesome revenue for Phoebus Apollo and outweigh the advantages of owning a more prestigious freighter-jet.
Die skiijwer wil graag Henny Delpoort,Tony Baxter, Johan Scholtz en Laurie Mey bedank vir hulle vriendelikheid, behulpsaamheid en bijstand, wat die samenstelling van hierdie artikel moonhik gemaak het (The author would like to thank the Phoebus Apollo team for their kind assistance).
Jan Koppen lives near Amsterdam's Schipol airport and has been an aviation enthusiast since a child. Currently, he works for KLM Cargo as a Capacity & Flight Optimizer.