The Last Frontier

Early January 2004, while working at my office in Holland, I received a very interesting phone call, which would take me up North to a place called - The last Frontier. The voice on the other end said, Michael we are looking for a operational bare metal Curtiss C-46 Commando and we want to use it for a winter fashion shoot in Alaska! Do you know of any such company and aircraft? We would like to travel as soon as possible while we still have a good change of snow on the ground and in the mountains. The basic idea is to have the C-46 as a background model at a remote dirt strip and we would like to do some air to air as well! Can you make the necessary arrangements with the C-46 people as soon as possible? No problem I replied…as it just happened I had recently visited Alaska and I got to meet with, the Fairbanks based, Everts Air Cargo Company president, Rob Evert. Currently Alaska is the exclusive domain of 4 operational C-46s flying fuel and cargo.

During my yearly travels I get to meet allot of people in and around air cargo freight business. At a previous trip to Alaska, back in 1994, I had ran into Les Bradley, Captain of the C-46F N1822M stationed at Kenai Municipal Airport. As it turned out Les was still flying the C-46 in 2004 and during our telephone conversation he told me that we where very welcome to visit the Everts Fuel office in Kenai. At the age of 59, Les, is a veteran Alaskan Bush pilot, with 40.000 plus hours logged since his solo flight (at the age of 16) and some 20.000 on the C-46. He told me that he got his pilot license even before his got driver's license. He first started flying out of Fairbanks behind a stick of an Aero Commander, hauling cargo for a company called Air North Cargo to the North Slope. He also flew with Wien Air and Audi Air (an Air Taxi Service operator). Air North operated out of the smaller downtown Airport, which was called Fairbanks Metro and had a fleet of 3 Douglas DC-3s which were all painted in different colorscheme's. During the early eighties he was down in Texas with a C-46 cargo outfit, flying TV's and stereos into Mexico! He would land in the middle of the night on a desert strip marked with flares, off load his cargo to the buyers and fly back to the US before the sunset. In 1990 he moved to Kenai into a house next to the airport and never left

History Flies at Everts Air

Serving 13 scheduled destinations from Anchorage International Airport, and Fairbanks, Everts Air Cargo flies to Aniak, Barrow, Bethel, Dillingham, Emmonak, Galena, Iliamna, King Salmon, Kotzebue, Nome, St Marys and Unalakleet. Everts has currently 7 active Douglas DC-6s and 4 Curtiss C-46s. With 40 pilots, Everts Air operates 90 % of its business from Anchorage. Mechanics are based in both Anchorage and Fairbanks. From May to October it is the busiest time of the year. We fly vehicles, small trucks and cars; everything from boats to goats is the standard motto.

Everts Air Fuel has been in the fuel air delivery business for 38 years, it operates two of the four vintage C-46s from Kenai Municipal Airport. It delivers fuel to the Bush communities and road-less towns, within the interior and the Alaskan coast. Company owner Cliff Everts says that the C-46s are invaluable to his business. It's an airplane that's very hard to replace, because it hauls twice the load of a Douglas DC-3, which is considered one of the all time best cargo plane. Most locations Everts Air Fuel delivers are villages and outposts on the West Side of the Cook Inlet, the water passage way to Anchorage, Iliamna and Port Alsworth. But EAF also makes periodic runs to coastal village like Shaktoolik or Unalakleet, where the landing area is just a short unimproved strip or a sandbar.

According to Captain Les Bradley, the C-46 is well suited for operations in Alaska, because of its large forward landing gear, and tail wheel, which allows it to land or take off, fully loaded at a minimum dirt strip length of 3,800 feet! The C-46 flight characteristic can be compared to flying a big Super Cub. It’s like a heavy Mack truck, a great airplane that you have to think ahead when flying. You have to lead it and give yourself several miles; it never has tried to bite me! Built for hostile flying environments the C-46 incorporates Fowler flaps that produce both drag and lift to the airfoil. There is nothing that can compete with the C-46 workhorse as far as payload and utility. The C-46, 108 foot wing span, holds aloft the 51,000 pound bird, along with up to 7 tons of cargo and a crew of two.

Powered by sturdy Pratt & Whitney twin row R-2800s, these 18-cylinder radial engines rate at 2,000hp each. They turn the giant three bladed Hamilton Standard 'full feathering Hydromatic' props. It has a range of 1,200 miles. Whether is uses its two 2,000 gallons fuel tanks, bolted down on the floor of its cargo bay or the 70 160 pounds propane tanks standing on pallets, the Everts C-46s can haul enough fuel to run a small village for six months. The C-46s are very durable planes and will go with minimal work….. Basically the C-46 does no replacement, the only aircraft that can replace it, is another C-46

Heading Up North
A week later, I was checking in at Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport, together with the Dutch PME photo-shoot group. We boarded Continental Airlines for the long flight to Alaska, which routed via Newark and Seattle. Our arrival at Anchorage 'Ted Steven' International Airport was late and our first night was spend at a local Airport Motel. The following morning we where greeted with a moderate snowfall, which never stopped that day. It was our first day as a group and at 09.30 hours we headed out to Everts Air Cargo cargo facilities in order to meet Rob and discuss out 'photo-shoot itinerary' for the next 5 to 6 days
The following day was an early start for the whole team due to our 05.50 morning departure, with ERA Aviation. Under the cover of darkness we boarded a red and white DHC-2 Twin Otter for the short and bumpy flight to Kenai. During our cruise I could just barely make out the rims of the Chugash Mountains on our left-hand side. At Kenai we where greeted by our C-46 pilot Les Bradley and his charming wife Susan. I introduced the group and Les offered to move all the baggage to the 'Everts Air Fuel' (EAF) little office, just 500 meters from the terminal. For the next two days, Les tiny office would be home of the PME fashion group. Out on the ramp both C-46s N1822M and N1837M sat silently. '37Mike' had her left-hand engine cowlings open, one off her cylinder had cracked during the flight from Fairbanks. It needed to be replaced…not an easy task out on the open, wind swept ramp

For me the real model was '22Mike'. This Buffalo (NY) manufactured C-46F was delivered in 1945 as a C-46F-1-CU model to the United States Army Air Force. Five years later in 1950 she began her civil career with Argonaut Airways registered as N1822M. During all these years, she had kept her original registration. Then came a whole series of small companies who utilized her on regular cargo flights with in the mainland US. During 1963 she re-surfaced in Alaska, with Reeve Aleutian Airways. Reeve bought two C-46s in support of the DEW line operations flying cargo and charters. According to the history books she suffered a landings incident at Granit Mountain, but was soon repaired. Reeve sold her to Woods Air Service based at Palmer Airport. She did not stay long with Woods and 3 years later she was registered with a John O Magofin. Cliff Everts bought '22M' June 1986 and there she entered the fuel hauling business.

The Kenai Peninsula

Our third day in Alaska, the first in Kenai, was scheduled to be a reasonable relaxed day. The main focus was to get some ground shots with the snow and Pine forest in the background. On several occasions '22M' fired up her engines and she repositioned to a new spot on the ramp, which was requested by the lead photographer. The day ended with a tasty meal at the Uptown Motel, which was washed down with a couple of cool Alaskan Amber beer
The next day proved to be a more challenging! I joined Les at his tine office, next to the ramp, for some hot coffee and we discussed the weather situation. Our mission was to fly out to Port Alsworth or Pedro Bay strip and do some local photography. At the same time do the air-to-air photography on the way in and out. A message sounded via the radio, it was C-46 pilot Gary Cutsforth, who was piloting the Piper Lance chase plane from Fairbanks. He reported that he was on his way from Anchorage and bringing 'Les co-pilot' Nicolai von Pronay. We discussed the weather at the local airstrips for the afternoon. With any luck we should be able to fly through Lake Clark Pass Captain Les Bradley mentioned

At around 11.15 both planes were ready for departure.'22M' was loaded with food, drinks, several clothing bags, heavy camera equipment and extra fuel. Our take off run from runway 01 was in true C-46 Commando fashion, 'low and slow' The noise during take-off was very loud…almost painful. Communication between pilots is done via hand signals. Before we reached the end of the runway Les signaled 'Gear and flaps up' and then retarded the power levers to ' METO' power setting (maximum except take-off). We accelerated to about 120 knots cruise and leveled off at 1200 ft. and slowly turned northeast, toward the icy waters of the Cooks Inlet. Below us the barren Kenai Peninsula lowlands unfolded still covered under a blanket of snow. We continued our scenic cruise at a slow pace and the piper lance came up next to the C-46. Once out over the water I was looking at a wall of snow covered mountains and volcanoes coming slowly towards us.

This is the Lake Clark National Park with its spectacular scenery, stretching about 4 million acres across, from the shores of the Cooks Inlet across the Chigmit Mountains. The Chigmits, where the 'Alaska' and 'Aleutian' Ranges meet, are an awesome, jagged edge array of mountains and glaciers, which include two active volcanoes, Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna. Venting steam, these snows-capped peaks rise more than 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) in the air. Two other volcanoes Mt. Augustine and Mt. Spur join the line up. The whole area is mostly referred to as 'volcano alley'. Although continuously inhabited since prehistoric times, the area remains wild and sparsely populated with aircraft providing the primary means of access. Lake Clark is 50 miles long and is a salmon habitat to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. The western flanks of the Chigmit are tundra-covered foothills to boreal forests, lakes and wild rivers fill the valleys. Port Alsworth is located on the southern edge of Lake Clark and is one of the main destinations for Everts Air Fuel.

We reached the foot of the pass and immediately the C-46 is hit with turbulence. We climbed towards 1500 ft and started to fly into the pass, I noticed the rugged canyon walls coming closer to our wing. As we droned onwards Les followed the slight bend in the canyon and we arrived at wider area in the canyon valley. Looking out through the C-46 forward window I could see that thickening clouds base was minimizing our view for onward flight! The weather through the pass had worsened Then Les applied full power to the engines and banked the C-46 a full 360 degrees and we back tracked our route out off the canyon. It was not safe to continue onwards through the pass. As we flew out over the Cooks Inlet, we where back into clear weather! We turned southbound and followed the rugged coastal cliffs towards our second destination Pedro Bay. On our left Mt. Redoubt came into view, her peak obscured by the low clouds, but her majestic flanks ran down into the inlet. The little plane joined us again and the lead photographers busy taking his air-to-air pictures. After about 35 minutes later we reached Ursus Cove and to our left was a second pass to Iliamna Lake, but again the weather had worsened, it started to rain and we circled the bay negotiating our options. Again it was not safe to try to reach Pedro Bay and a third option was suggested, Beluga River was still clear. Beluga River 4500-ft strip lies on the flanks of Mt. Susitna, also known as 'Sleeping Lady' and would be an ideal location for ground shooting. We turned around and headed north. Due to a 40 knots strong headwind we where slowed down to 90 knots ground speed! But the reassuring drone of the R-2800 radial engines pounding away gave the C-46 Commando a comforting feel. It was time to sit back and enjoy the grandeur of the Alaskan coastal scenery. We passed over the deserted Kalgin Island and headed out to Trading Bay, where several oilrigs passed beneath us. Beluga River strip is located near the Beluga River and is a natural gas depot. It's one of the scheduled delivery stops for Evert's fuel. The Piper landed ahead and waited for our arrival. With a low pass we concluded our flight and landed on the snow covered gravel strip

Destination Palmer Airport

The following day we had the same routine. After a successful day at the Beluga River airstrip we decided to move to our next destination Palmer Airport. Palmer is nestled in between the Chugash and Talkeetna mountain range and would provide for some excellent backdrops. The weather forecast for Palmer was favorable so we packed our stuff for and said our goodbye. Palmer is situated in the Matanuska Susitna Valley, 35 miles North of Anchorage, on the old Glenn Highway. It is a picturesque little town with an agricultural flair. The small airport is located along the Matanuska River and has two runways. It is a low-key airport with its main focus on general aviation and has a large BLM facility for air tanker operations. Our main reason for visiting Palmer where the spectacular and awe inspiring peaks that surrounds the airport. This was the place to photograph the PME model and the C-46! We arrived at Palmer 600ft paved runway and taxied to the large aircraft apron opposite to the ex: Woods Air hanger, which was now used by Northern Air Cargo Douglas DC-6. We taxied up close to the gravel ramp and parked next to 4 dormant Douglas DC-3s and two Fairchild C-119s boxcars!