Opa Locka airport (OPF), for many aviation enthusiasts, a well know name and place where many interesting airplanes could be found. For many years this airfield was little more than a junkyard with overgrown dusty ramps where large numbers of aircraft came and spent their last dying days in the hot and humid Florida weather. After the big clean up at Miami International airport, famous Corrosion Corner, many prop and jet aircraft arrived at OPF to spend their days awaiting a new life as a cargo freighter or to end up in a pile of scrap metal. During earlier visits, mid 1980s, I photographed some interesting long term residents such as the prototype Convair 240 and a dilapidated Super Constellation freighter. They were broken up like many others, in an attempt to clean up the airport and attract new business. Currently Opa locka airport is the last stronghold of operational classic piston engine aircraft in the Southern U.S.
Opa Locka Airport, as it is now referred to, is located 7 miles North of Miami International, 12 miles northwest of the city centre and just 3 miles from the Dolphin Stadium. OPF is the largest general aviation airfield of Miami Dade County. It handles a variety of private, pleasure, business, and cargo flights; and additionally acts as a reliever to Miami International. The US Coast Guard takes up a great deal of daily helicopter and fixed wing movements. The airport has one of the longest general aviation runways (8000 ft) and can easily handle the big jets including the Boeing 747. OPF greatly supports the business aviation community and currently Miami Executive Aviation has a large modern and air-conditioned terminal centrally located providing full service. The airport offers a wide range of aircraft repair and maintenance services including airframe, power-plant, and avionics repair.
Like many other airfields in south Florida, Opa Locka has a rich historic background. It was founded by Glenn Curtiss (1927) on the ground of what used to be his Florida Aviation Camp. Shortly before his death (1930) he transferred it to the US Navy; it became part of the US Navy Training Command. During the cold war era, Opa Locka airfield played a small part in both military and civilian operations, including the infamous Black Flights to Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later the airfield became the base for the Miami Naval Air Station and Miami Marine Corps Air Station. Furthermore the civilian flight movements increased and by 1967 it was the world’s busiest airport.
Miami airport ‘Corrosion Corner’ -- sometimes referred to as ‘Cockroach Corner‘ -- was once synonymous with numerous piston engine transports using Curtiss C-46s, Douglas DC-6s, and DC-7s. Companies such as Rich International, Bellomy Lawson, FA Conners Inc, and Trans Airlink were the last great users of these aerial sky-trucks. A combination of heavy competition, accidents, safety issues, and the airport’s desire to expand and clean up, had many companies close down or move out! The last company to move out and re-locate to OPF was Atlantic Air Cargo Inc. (they moved out by late 2001). Currently 6 freight companies, based at Opa Locka, operate daily cargo flights within the US mainland and the Caribbean Islands. Where else can one observe an interesting mix of Douglas DC-3s, DC-4s, DC-6s, DC-7s, C-117Ds (Super DC-3), and Convair 440s, dominate the ramp scene!?!
Atlantic Air Cargo Inc
For more than 70 years the Douglas DC-3 (C-47) has proved to be an almost indestructible tool in air transportation. Perhaps 150 or so examples still fly today carrying passengers and freight. One such company who still uses this vintage Skytruck is ‘Atlantic Air Cargo’ Inc. (AAC) out of Miami. AAC is run by the brothers Castrillo, Ernesto (president) and Julio (vice president). AACs two Douglas DC-3s (N705GB & N437GB) are stationed at Opa Locka and are used on daily cargo runs to the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands. Founded in 1988, it first operated as J/E Aviation Leasing, operating with a Part 125 license. Currently AAC operates under a Part-135 certificate. Julio Castrillo who is also chief pilot flies the DC-3 together with his son Robert Castrillo. Julio (of Cuban origin) obtained his private license in 1965 and currently has an ATP, CF1,
DC-3 type rating and is a DC-3 flight instructor. He has flown a wide variety of types ranging from Beechcraft, Cessna, and Piper to acrobatic aircrafts. Most flights leave Opa Locka during the mid mornings, with typical loads up to 6500 pounds with general cargo, small furniture, and a great deal of food stuff. The majority of these flights goes to Nassau or Freeport and arrives back in the afternoon.
Additionally, Julio is president of J & E Aircraft Co. which is an FAA approved engine overhaul and repair station. Ernesto is vice president of this Miami based company. J/E received its certificate in 1977 and operates now under Part-145 repair station, located just to the West of Miami International airport. We visited the facility and were kindly greeted by Julio and his two sons Robert and Frank. J/E handles various engines types, such as Pratt & Whitney R985, R1340, R1830, R2000, and R2800 radial engines. It furthermore overhauls major Bendix, Titflex, and Bosch accessories. Teledyne Continental and Avco Lycoming engines can also be overhauled. J/E major clients are various DC-3/DC-4/DC-6/Convair and Curtiss operators throughout the Europe, Canada, US, Central, and South America.
Florida Air Cargo Inc.
Another company that operates in the same market is Florida Air Cargo Inc. (FAC) which also uses two DC-3s (N15MA and N140JR). A third DC-3 (N123DZ) shares the active ramp, although in a far less airworthy condition. Devoid of wings and engines, and her fuselage showing bare metal, she awaits an uncertain future. Both DC-3s are used on daily cargo runs to the Bahamas and on intermittent freight charters in the Caribbean. During our visit, FAC morning flight took off at 8 o’clock (the daily newspaper run) which is scheduled to arrive prior to the opening of the airports in the Bahamas. Depending on the amount of cargo, a second DC-3 will depart with typical loads between 6000-7000 pounds bound for Nassau or Freeport. In early 1994 the original owner Paul Kupke started the company at Opa Locka airport and began operating cheap freight flights from the old south side buildings. At the time several shiny bare metal Beech-18s were used on the thinner routes. A firm believer of the DC-3, he bought several of them and started cargo operations to the Bahamas. At a $150.000 dollars the price tag of a DC-3 was very low compared to a mid size jet, parts and repair were much cheaper, and the DC-3 used much less fuel…..so the choice of equipment was not too difficult. At the end of 2002 the company was sold to another investor and was relocated to another part of the airport. At the moment FAC is run by Jim Mullens (president) and Helena Taylor (general manager) at their OPF headquarters, and uses the faithful DC-3 on daily cargo runs and on-demand charters through out the region.
TMF Aircraft Inc.
If you like the sight and sounds of a DC-3 then you definitely will like the Super DC-3! TMF Aircraft Inc., located on Bravo ramp next to Air Repair facilities, operates two such aircraft (N32TN and N587MB). A third example, ex Gateway and Millardair N587LM, lingers on with her tail sticking in the grass. She has lost both outer wings and engines, but TMF owner Jesus ‘Tito’ Melendez assures me that she will return to airworthy condition! (He only omitted to give me a date).
TMF received its FAA part-135 operating certificate on the 31st of October 2003.
It currently operates an on-demand cargo operation. Both C117Ds are capable of handling loads in excess of 10.000 pounds, but in order to comply with FAA regulations, both a/c operate with a maximum payload of 7.500 pounds. TMF primary routes are to the Bahamas, but many other destinations in the Caribbean and US mainland are served. During our visit the polished bare metal N587MB was grounded due to a customary engine change of the number #1 position. Meanwhile N32TN, piloted by Captain Ron Pearson, was very active, making 1 or 2 flights a day! Perhaps some of the readers will recognize this a/c; she was once employed with Trans Northern based in Anchorage, Alaska. Due to internal problems with the company Trans Northern sold her off to TMF and now N32TN enjoys the South Florida tropical weather. According to Tito this C117D (ex US Navy R4D8) has a very low airframe hour with plenty of life left. In addition he mentioned that TMF will expand the fleet to 4 operational a/c with the acquisition of Canadian airframes which he hopes to get next year in the spring.
Fresh Air – Jet One Express
While talking to the Atlantic Air Cargo crew I was introduced to the owner and Captain of Fresh Air (Jet One Express), Mr. Uriel Bristol. His aircraft was parked next to the DC-3s. He told me that Fresh Air operates a fleet of 3 Convair 440s and during our visit both N153JR and N323CF were based at OPF. N323CF was undergoing extensive maintenance, while the 3rd member of the fleet N155JR, located at St-Thomas, VI, was in the process of being parted out. All 3 a/c were previously owned and operated by Rhoades Aircraft out of Columbus, Indiana. Fresh Air started its operation in 1997 at St Thomas, VI with 4 Convair 440s. At the time Mr. Curtiss White (manager of Four Star Air Cargo) was the key person in getting things started. As a Part-125 operator Fresh Air is only able to carry private cargo. In 2005 Fresh Air moved it base to Opa Locka airport. Captain Uriel invited me to inspect the N153JR cockpit and cabin. He had just finished replacing a fuel pump on the number #1 engine. I was very surprised by the cleanliness and exceedingly smart interior of this Convair. His flying career started in 1965 in a J-3 Piper Cub. He graduated from the American Flyers and Spartan School in 1968 and began flying Beech 18s and DC-3s. During October 1972 and 1976 he owned a B-25 (N9621C) which was based at St.Croix (VI) which he later sold to Seagull Enterprises. Between 1970 and up to 1989 he flew C-46s and Convair 440s for American Inter Island.
Then between 1989 and 1993 he flew for AMSA on C-46s, DC-6/7, then with Aerochago DC-7, and also with Trado C-46, CV-440 and DC-7C, from Las Americas Santo Domingo. Several years back he ferried the JP Aviation Investment C-123 Provider N681DG to Opa Locka. At the moment he and his son Alejandro Bristol are in charge of running the company. Fresh Air is hoping to add a 3rd airworthy Convair in the near future.
Florida Air Transport Inc
Our stay at Opa Locka would not have been possible, without the full corporation of Florida Air Transport (FAT). I have met the owners Carlos Gomez and Reynaldo Blanco several times before and Carlos kindly agreed to offer us unlimited access on his ramps and facility. During our daily visits we were kindly greeted by foreman Douglas Castillo and his team of mechanics who were a tremendous help in obtaining the precise photo moments for my article. FAT is located on the former
Trans Airlink ramp at which the Legendary Airlines DC-7B N836D is currently receiving a great deal of attention. During our stay a group of 7-8 sheet metal workers were busy replacing skin panels on the a/c fuselage; I would guess that the DC-7 is still two years away from being finished. Across the ramp we were greeted to a unique sight nowhere to be seen in the world. Where else can one observe a line up of three active, four engine, Douglas propliners!?! First in line was the smart looking (ex water-bomber) Douglas ‘super’DC-4 N406MA, next the FAT flagship Douglas DC-7B N381AA, and last the Douglas DC-6 (C-118B) Lift-master N70BF. We were hoping to see the DC-7B in action but it was not in the cards. Four cylinders on engine number #3 were being replaced and engine #4 was being inspected and tuned up. This work consumed almost the full part of the week. FAT operates a weekly flight to the Turks and Caicos Islands and normally the DC-6 takes care of this run. Due to large amount of cargo which needed to be airlifted out, FAT switched over to the DC-4 and made two flights instead. Piloted by Captain George Riley and Captain Frank Moss the N406MA made a very early Wednesday morning departure (06.30 hours) for its 2.5 hour flight to Grand Turks Island. This was repeated on Thursday and we awaited its arrival to get some action pictures and hang out with the crew. During the day we met up with Captain Reynaldo Blanco (FAT Partner & General Manager and Captain of the DC-6/7). He took us on a tour of his ex Navy C-118B Lift-master N70BF which had received a new paint job. After our inspection, Douglas Castillo entered the cockpit and test ran all four R2800 Double Wasp engines.
The Gomez family is well known in the South Florida round engine community. Father Martin Gomez used to work on Avianca L-749 Constellations at Bogotá Airport, Colombia. He and his family moved to Miami during 1964 and Martin set up his own a/c maintenance company called ‘Martin Gomez Aircraft Service.’ Most of his sons ended up in the aviation business as F/Es or pilots. Juan Carlos Gomez graduated from Florida International University as an Industrial Engineer. Spending lots of time at Miami North West corner, Carlos grew up surrounded with the big round engines. At an early age he got involved with the Douglas DC-7s. During the late 80s he and Bill Waara started their own company Gomez & Waara Aircraft Corporation, which specialised in DC-7 restorations. During the heyday of the DC-7 cargo operations at Miami Corrosion Corner, Gomez & Waara got involved with several aircraft restorations: such as the DC-7B XA-ROW and DC-7C HR-AKP. In addition they restored DC-7B N1097 and under took cargo flights from Miami to the Dominican Republic. In the early 1990s the ex La Macha Aire DC-7B (N101LM) restoration project got underway and this a/c has become FATs most famous DC-7.
Some years later Carlos decided to enter the cargo business and hired a DC-6 to carry freight from Miami to the Turks and Caicos Islands. At present the company flies under the name Florida Air Transports certificate and operates regular and ad-hock cargo flights with in the US mainland and the whole Caribbean basin.
Miami Air Lease
One of the oldest freight companies based at Opa Locka is Miami Air Lease (MAL). They operate currently a single Convair 340 (C-131) a/c registered N41527 (ex Geo Air). Since the ditching incident of its previous Convair 340 N41626 into Maule Lake Marine near Miami (Dec 2004), MAL has been grounded.
While watching the weekly ground run of the N41527, I introduced myself to the crew and met the owner Mr. Evelio Alpizar, a Cuban national. He explained that MAL was grounded and normally they would operate ad-hoc charters throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Miami Air Lease was founded during the early 70s at Miami International and at that time he started with a Cessna 195 and Beech 18. When business started picking up he moved to heavier piston types such as the DC-3, C-46 and DC-6. MAL has a less then colourful fleet history.
During September 1979 they lost a Curtiss C-46A (N10624) during a ditching near San Andros Island Bahamas with no fatalities. Then a year later, November 1980, 4 crew members died, when his DC-6A (N844TA) struck water near Bimini Island (Bahamas) and broke up at impact, while making a clandestine flight! Not sure when MAL will be airborne again, hopefully this time it will keeps its airplane safe and sound.
I would like to thank, Carlos Gomez (FAT), Uriel Bristol (Fresh Air), and Robert Castrillo (AAC) for their help and assistance on this article.
Additional I would like to thanks Hugo Cortes, Miami Executive Aviation, for an excellent ramp tour and Opa Locka – Miami-Dade Aviation Department.