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.
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.
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.
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.