Old Alaska by Paul Filmer
Alaska is referred to as the "last frontier" due to its harsh weather, the difficulties of traveling outside of the major cities, and its wilderness. But the state is also the last frontier of sorts for radial engines. Alaska has probably the largest concentration of operational "round-engined" aircraft remaining anywhere in the world, and a disproportionate number of propeller-driven types.
At Anchorage IAP, streams of MD-11 and Boeing 747 freighters plying their way to or from the Far East will suddenly be interspersed with the growl of a piston aircraft crawling its way into the cold air. Each air transport company and each major airfield offers surprises and hidden gems. I’ll attempt to give an overview of the most important operators below.
Everts is certainly the current propliner kings in Alaska. It operates DC-6s and C-46 Commandos along with an experiment with newer equipment in the guise of Embraer EMB-120FC Brasilias. (An aircraft that first entered service in 1988 isn’t very new, but compared to the other types the Brasilia is positively a baby!)
On my visit to Alaska I saw all three C-46s currently in service: "Dumbo," "Maid in Japan," and "Salmon Ella," all with distinctive nose art. A fourth, "Hot Stuff," sits patiently in Fairbanks awaiting its call to service.
Everts operates three distinct services. Everts Air Alaska deals with "self-loading freight" (meaning passengers) and operates Cessna Grand Caravan and Piper Lance aircraft. Everts Air Cargo, as the name suggests, operates DC-6s, C-46s, and EMB-120s on scheduled freight services. Air Alaska and Air Cargo operate under the name of Tatonduk Outfitters Limited.
Everts Air Fuel uses DC-6 and C-46 aircraft equipped with multiple fuselage tanks. Avgas, gaoline, and heating oil are just some of the products carried to the furthest outreaches of Alaska, where ground transport is simply not possible or not econmically viable. Emanating mainly from Fairbanks and Kenai, flights can carry anything from 2000-5000 gallons of fuels, often with several types of fuel on the same flight.
The main Everts facility at Fairbanks also sports a huge array of stored "toys" that Cliff Everts has acquired for spares, for future use, or simply to save!
Just outside of Fairbanks a former DC-6B forward fuselage from Everts Air Fuel has been embedded in the Pikes Aviator Greenhouse and Sweets store, and is looking good.
Northern Air Cargo
Northern Air Cargo used to be the largest DC-6 operator in the region, but this dynasty is quickly coming to an end. Only two Northern Air "Sixes" are now operational out of Anchorage. Seven are sitting in Fairbanks apparently out of hours, while another grounded example sitting in Anchorage appears to be used as an engine test bed.
The facility at Fairbanks has all but closed to daily operations, with activity now being concentrated out of Anchorage. The company is moving into the jet age: three ex-Delta Boeing 737-200s have apparently sealed the fate of the remaining DC-6s, which I was told would be retired next year. One 737 has been fitted with a gravel kit, in an attempt at least to emulate the DC-6’s rough-surface capabilities, but this modification has yet to be "used in anger."
Of the seven DC-6s at Fairbanks, one (N434TA) is a now-rare DC-6B swing-tail version.
Since 1986, Roger Brooks has run, as the company’s name suggests, a fuel-hauling operation out of Fairbanks. The name belies the fact that Brooks also carries freight on contract to Bettles Lodge, which is 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle and very popular with Japanese tourists.
Brooks’ fleet is based around the Douglas C-54/DC-4. I saw one aircraft (N96358) fly during my visit, while a further two (N51802 and N8054V) were being worked on and looked close to being, if not, airworthy.
As with Everts, Brooks’ facility is dotted with "donor" and future projects. The airframes include a DC-7C (N90251), which is very rare these days, and a C-47A (N95460) still showing Air North titles. Elsewhere, C-119 N9027K has been stored for a number of years at Anchorage, and if you know where to look you can find various DC-4s belonging to Roger in Arizona, biding their time before being ferried to the harsher environment of Alaska.
I never got to meet Roger (unfortunate for us), as he was out flying (good for him).
TransNorthern Aviation is another niche operator, based in Anchorage and specializing in the C-117 "Super Dak." In addition, the airline uses a Metroliner and a Beech 99 for work that doesn’t involve short-field landings or unprepared runways.
Of the three Super Daks, N30TN never saw military service; it was the second DC-3S converted by Douglas, and the first to be civilianized. As well as carrying passengers in a VIP role, the airframe was used as a mosquito sprayer before being purchased by TransNorthern in 2004.
N851M originally saw service with the US Navy as a VC-117D and again was use for mosquito control in its previous life. Another Navy veteran, N28TN, still sports a beautiful orange color-scheme from when she worked for Kenn Borek Air in Antarctica.
The C-117s are used to carry both passengers and freight to remote tourist lodges. (Imagine being transported in one of these babies!) As it was early in the season we only saw one aircraft fly and unfortunately missed any flying shots.
Lynden Air Cargo specializes in outsized cargo transport. At any time, its fleet will be dispersed around the world on contracts, both civilian and military. Lynden also has scheduled flights each day from Anchorage to outlying Alaskan airfields, so its ramp is often empty of aircraft.
The two L-100-30 Hercules aircraft we saw were both built as civilian Herks and operated at some point by Safair in South Africa. In fact, all of Lynden’s fleet is from civilian stock, having never operated with the military and therefore having no questionable or unknown history.
Desert Air seems to operate just one DC-3 at present, with a second and a Convair 240 stored remotely at Anchorage IAP. The active DC-3 (N44587) started life as a C-47A in 1944 and is currently registered as a DC-3C. It seemed to be pretty busy during my time at Anchorage.
The inactive DC-3 has the appropriate construction number of 4747 (N19906) and was again a C-47A in 1942. This particular aircraft served for more than 20 years with Reeve Aleutian Airways from 1946 and still sports basic RAA colors.
The immaculate CV-240 (N153PA) was awaiting work, parked by the spare C-47 and the airport’s resident C-133 Cargomaster.
Two C-119 Flying Boxcars sit on the old fire tanker ramp at Palmer Airport, where they are slowly being restored to airworthy condition by John Reffett and Dave Ciocchi. They are hoping to get the first aircraft back in operation by next year, to start hauling building materials into the Alaskan interior.
John used to be the flight engineer on N1394N when it was originally operated by Stebbins-Ambler Air Transport to keep the towns of Stebbins and Ambler supplied with essentials from the outside world. N1394N performed a successful off-airport forced landing at Port Lions in 1989 after engine trouble. As the company could not afford to buy a new engine, the aircraft was stranded there for 13 years, during which time the aircraft was vandalized and parts were robbed.
The new owner, John, recovered the aircraft after a decade of hard work, taking an engine and other parts from the second C-119, N8501W, then parked at Anchorage. The final stage in the process was to refuel N1349N. As the C-119 was not at an airport, John used a Cessna 185 to ferry fuel from Kodiak Airport and hand-pumped the fuel from the Cessna. Making several trips, he managed to complete the fueling in a single day! In 2002, N1394N came home to Palmer to join N8501W, which had made the flight from Anchorage in 2001 after 6 years of work.
Three DC-3s also sit stored at Palmer awaiting either buyers or work.
Peninsular Airways was founded in 1955 by 19-year old Orin Seybert, with a single Taylorcraft to his name. The following year, he tripled his airline’s capacity with the addition of a Piper Tri-Pacer.
In 1967, Peninsular became a full time subcontractor to the famous, but now defunct, Reeve Aleutian Airways and was based in King Salmon. The Anchorage base was set up in 1983, using at first Cessna 441 and a couple of years later Fairchild Metroliners. The name was changed to the catchier PenAir in 1991.
PenAir is currently Alaska’s largest commuter airline with a diverse fleet of Metroliner, Saab 340, Grumman Goose, Cessna Grand Caravan, and Piper PA-31 aircraft, plus a couple of smaller airframes. The Anchorage base sees only the larger Metroliner and SF340 aircraft, each painted with a different, distinctive animal motif. The rest of the fleet is dispersed to smaller hubs and outlying villages around Alaska.
PenAir has recently built a new, temperature-controlled hangar in Anchorage, and at the end of each day you will see the aircraft being taxied on one engine from the main terminal ramp to PenAir’s facility on the north side to be overnighted in a less harsh environment. The new hanger can hold up to eleven of the larger aircraft.
Early in the 2000's, Orin Seybert's children located the very Talorcraft that started it all. They had it secretly restored back to flying condition and gave it to him as a present on the airline’s 50th anniversary. She now sits proudly inside the new hangar as a reminder of simpler times, and is flown by his children and grandchildren.
Although the C-133A belonging to Cargomaster Corporation is often described in publications and by Anchorage IAP staff as stored, the aircraft is still very much alive. N199AB flies extremely infrequently, as it is restricted to flying within Alaska and only on government contracts. I’m sure that when this does happen the C-133 is quite the showstopper. Its last flight was in 2006 as far as I can tell.
Looking great on skis, C-47A N777YA is operated by Bush Air Cargo on freight-hauling duties. It still sports a racy Woods Air Service color scheme from the days when it operated out of Palmer.
Even the prop fire trainers are being superseded by jets. Lockheed L-188AF Electra N281F, still in a basic Zantop scheme, has been moved from the firehouse to a remote part of the airfield at Anchorage, apparently having served its purpose.
Arctic Air Cargo operate a small fleet of two Short SD.330s plus a Short SC.7 Skyvan, and although we didn't see the Skyvan their was an example from North Star Air Cargo parked up at nearby lake Hood.
One other odity was a one of a kind Grumman G-21G Turbo Goose designed and used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and used for marine wildlife surveys.
Moving to newer props, ACE (Alaska Central Express) operates a fleet of Beech 1900C aircraft with scheduled cargo and charter passenger/cargo operations. We only saw the cargo aircraft at Anchorage, but ACE is scattered all over Alaska and uses these aircraft routinely on unpaved runways.