(Pounding pistons across South Florida)
I remember like it was yesterday; it was April 1990 and I just arrived at Miami from a trans-Atlantic flight onboard a Martinair B767 on a direct flight from Amsterdam Schiphol international airport. It was late in the afternoon and feeling exhausted I went straight to the Miami Airways Motel, located along Miami's famous NW 36th street. The next morning I was up before sun rise and it felt like another day in the tropics with temperatures already soaring into the 30º C. The Miami Airways Motel was well known place to visit, because of its convenient location along the NW 36th Str. Strewn along this busy road where numerous aviation maintenance companies and cargo operators, which at that time still used the outdated piston engine propliners.
Several renowned cargo companies such as CAM Air international Aviation, Rich International, Bellomy Lawson Aviation, Seckman Aviation, Argo Air and FA Conners had their operations based along this road. Various oil stained ramps where were littered with Douglas DC-3s, DC-4 & DC-6's, Lockheed L-188 Electra's, Convair 440's and a few Curtiss C-46's. During my visit Haiti Air Freight DC-4 could be regularly seen moving away from Miami corrosion corner. Here several others less known operators considered it to be home. Names such as APA, ILPO Cargo, Pat Air and Maya Cargo all had there DC-6 stationed.
For me the highlight were the bulbous blue and white Boeing C-97 Stratocruiser operated by Argo Air and the weekly arrival of the AMSA and Aerochago Lockheed Super Constellation freighters from Dominican Republic. One of the bigger cargo operators along NW 36th street, at the time was Trans Airlink (TAL), who operated a fleet of DC-6s/C-118s and a single DC-7C throughout the Caribbean basin. Their most important cargo run was down to San Juan Puerto Rico and St Thomas VI. Taking pictures on the busy Trans Airlink ramp was not a problem. I got to meet the owner/president Mr. Gary Balnicki and decided to interview him for an article. We spoke for several hours in his tiny office across the DC-6 ramp and afterword's he invited me to make a flight onboard TAL flagship to compliment my article. So several days later I found myself back on the oil stained ramp ready to board the Douglas DC-7C N869TA (c/n 45188) an ex KLM machine, as a jump seat observer bound for Jamaica….!
Now 21 years later I was back in Miami, this time onboard a KLM direct flight from Amsterdam Airport. I arrived late in the evening and after picking up my rental car it was off to the Comfort Inn & Suites along Miami's NW 36th Street….just a couple of blocks away from the old Miami Airways Motel. Who could have believe that it was possible to fly on DC-7 in 2011, but that's was the purpose of my visit! The historical Flight Foundation, Inc (HFF) was offering membership rides onboard their immaculate Eastern Air Lines Douglas DC-7B N836D. Currently it's the only flying passenger configured DC-7 in the world, there are a couple of DC-7 water-bombers still current. With this in mind I decided to book a seat on the 5th November flight to the Fort Meyers Page Field airport open day.
The following morning it was an early rise, still feeling the effects of the jet-lag, I was on my way to visit Roger Jarman, who is the president of HFF. Roger and his wife Carol also run the world famous Atlantic- Models and Airplane shop at NW 68th street, which is a short ride from Miami International airport. I had met Roger the year before when the DC-7 was in the final stages of getting ready for its first test flight. He and his wife are very friendly folks, so I dropped in for some coffee and to check on the status of the upcoming Saturday morning flight. The flight was still on and the DC-7B would be the main attraction and she would be open to the public. Fort Meyers lies on the west coast of Florida and the flight should be about 45 minutes each way. Just be sure to check at 06.00 hours at Opa Locka Miami Executive Aviation mini terminal for coffee and donuts.
Opa Locka airport (OPF) is just a 30 minute ride North from Miami International along Le Juene Road. Over the years this airport has become the home of the last operational piston freighters of South Florida. Currently TMF Aircraft Inc, Atlantic Air Cargo Inc, Miami Air Lease and Florida Air Transport (FAT) call it home. Several DC-3s, Convair 440s and DC-6/7 can be found. During the run-up to the December holiday's season, business usually pick up pace and most operators have a daily flight to the Bahamas. Opa Locka airport is very different than Miami International airport, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and taking pictures is not a problem. I checked in at the FAT office and found the owner's Carlos Gomez and Reynaldo Blanco busy on the phones. FAT is a family run business, outside on the ramp I found Carlos brother and father, Walter & Martin, busy working on the DC-6 and DC-7. Also Eduardo Blanco (FAT assistant D.O.O and pilot) dropped into the office.
After some pleasantries I walked outside, and under glorious tropical weather, I stopped to admire the wonderful scene along the dirty cargo ramps. Several hardworking DC-3s, Convair 440s, C-117s and a DC-6 and DC-7B where basking in the hot morning sunshine! Where else in the world can you admire such a scene! Along the flight-line smart looking DC-7B N836D stood proudly among her fellow cargo mates. Carlos told me that he was going to run-up both engines 3 & 4 and check engine systems.
N836D was delivered to Eastern Airlines back in January 1958, just a couple of months prior to the commence of the jet age. She only flew with Eastern for 7 years and then sold to California Airmotive Corp during September 1965. She was sold to Nomads Inc of Detroit a year later but ended up parked at Detroit Metropolitan County airport, being phased out by an Lockheed L-188 Electra! It was bought by Joe Kocours, who founded the Twentieth Century Travel Club. His intention was to use the DC-7 for world wide charters, but the DC-7 never left the ground and it remained parked at St Paul Downtown Holman airport for over 32 years! The DC-7 was rescued by Carlos Gomez and Marc Wolff late 2002. After a couple of month intense work they where able to ferry the N836D to Opa Locka and initiate a full restoration, which started during October 2004
After a lengthy 6 years restoration the DC-7 made its post restoration flight on the 4th July 2010, under the command of Captain George Riley, co-pilot Eduardo Blanco and F/E Carlos Gomez. Carlos joined me on the ramp and climbed into the cockpit of DC-7 N836D. It was time to run the engines prior to the Saturday's flight. He told it would be a dirty engine run, due to the residue oil in the lower piston of the radial Wright R-3350-30W engine. The massive propeller blades of number #3 engine slowly started turning, counting 7-8 blades turn over, then the R-3350 burst into action, blowing out flames and belching lots of smoke! Number #4 followed soon after. After a couple off minutes both engines where running smoothly. Standing in the hot Florida tropical sun with the big DC-7 rumbling in front of me, it brought back memories of past visit's to the propliner Eldorado's of San Juan and Santo Domingo airports.
After a 10-12 minutes run the engines where stopped and rechecked for oil leaks. For me it was time to pay a visit the other Opa Locka propliner residents.
The day of my flight arrived and again it was a very early morning wake up, this time at 05.00 hour!
Did not bother for breakfast and fired up my Avis rental car for a slow drive to Opa Locka. It was very cool outside but the weather forecast predicted favourable weather condition for the South Florida region. Not many people were at the Miami Executive Aviation lounge once I got there. Roger and Carol were already busy fixing the coffee and donut stand. Some time later Captain Frank Moss arrived. I was glad to meet him again. First time we crossed paths was back in June 1994, at Fairbanks airport Alaska. At the time he was flying for Brooks Fuel Inc and he invited me and a friend onboard a DC-4 for an unforgettable flight into the Alaskan bush. Currently Frank lives in South Florida and together with his two sons operate a Douglas DC-3. It can be used as a freighter, but they also use it to provide multi engine, DC-3 type ratings and flying classes. Additionally the DC-3 has been used in Hollywood movies. The Moss family has recently purchased an historic airliners in the shape of an ex American Airlines DC-3 DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport), which has been sitting in the weeds for almost a decade) It will be a future restoration project…according to Frank. Some time later we where joined by the other DC-7 crew members. F/E Alfred G Day (aka Greg) and co-pilot Eduardo Blanco.
When all the passengers arrived Roger made an introduction speech and briefed us on the DC-7; it was time to finish our coffee and head out to the ramp. The DC-7 was parked in between several sleek and shiny VIP business jets but for me she was the Queen of the skies. Most passengers were snapping away…while I stood to admire the scene of the Big Douglas lines shining in the bright lights ramp floodlights. It was a cloudless night and behind the DC-7 tail…the horizon was lid up by the glow of the rising sun.
We had a total of 43 passengers on board. I managed to get a window seat in the forwards cabin lounge area. Once the doors were closed Roger gave a second briefing on the safety issues of the DC-7B cabin.
The crew was already inside the cockpit going over the 'before-engine' start check list. Engine number #3 started turning first and with a short burst of flames shot out the R3350 exhaust it burst into action.
Soon all engines were up and running and stood for several minutes while the engines warmed up. We slowly taxied past a row of executive jets for runway 23L. Once we reached the runway the DC-7 turned and lined up. The massive radial R-3350 engines were revved up to 2900 rpm; at maximum take-off power of 51 inches on the manifold…..and off we went. At a speed of 95 knot (V1) we slowly lifted of into the cool air and accelerated to our positive climb speed of 110 knots (V2). Both nose and main gears were pulled in and we continued our climb to 3500 ft. With a cruising speed of 200 knots it was a direct heading of 315 degrees to Fort Meyers Page airport.
Below the wetlands of the South Florida Everglades slowly rolled past. Inside the seat belt sign was turned off so everybody had time check out his or hers favourable window seat. Cool drinks were served and 40 minutes later we were already into our approach patron for Fort Meyers Page airport. We made a smooth landing and the DC-7 taxied up the visitor's ramp, thus ending an historic flight onboard this Eastern Airlines vintage propliner.
Carlos and Roger are well known in the propliner community and their friends have been very generous in support of this very exciting project. Donations are vital to a project like this and we should all be grateful for the generosity of these companies and others who have assisted in the restoration project. Operating a four engine vintage DC-7B is a very expensive endeavour and both individual and corporation donations are always welcome.
Special to thank Carlos Gomez (Florida Air Transport), Frank Moss and Roger Jarman (Historic Flight Foundation) for their assistance and help plus Eduardo Blanco for his additional info