Airports of Call
The choicest sites for airplane watching.
- By Russell Munson
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 3 of 4)
Paul Kupke runs Florida Air Cargo. He has been through a tornado, blown engines from fraudulent overhauls, and endured a host of other Aviation Economics 101 realities. Kupke started flying freight to the Bahamas in 1994 with one DC-3. “You have to do everything yourself,” he says, “all your own maintenance, flying, and freight forwarding. Otherwise, you’re not going to make any money.” Kupke gives his DC-3s five years or less of profitable life. “Insurance premiums on a Shorts 360, for example, are half what they are for a DC-3, even though the Douglas hull value is $175,000, compared to $1.4 million for the Shorts,” he says. “Mechanics for radial engine airplanes are getting very difficult to find. Overhauling a Pratt & Whitney 1830 on the DC-3 used to cost $18,000; now it’s $45,000. And the maintenance time per flight hour for a DC-3 is much higher than for the Shorts. You could operate two Shorts with one mechanic. Two DC-3s require three mechanics. Used to be DC-3s were so cheap you could have them sitting around to be used when needed. No more. Finance payments are higher on the more expensive Shorts, but you can fly those PT-6 engines all day long, every day, with very little maintenance.” But doesn’t he just flat out love the DC-3? “Oh yeah,” he says. “It is a great airplane. It’s fun to fly, and when it’s running good, I love it. When it’s broken and I have a load of freight on the ramp, I hate it.” This day, as a matter of fact, Kupke was leasing a Shorts 360 as a trial.
Martin Gomez and his sons started flying their DC-7 about two years ago as Florida Air Transport. The airplane was a derelict at Opa Locka when they bought it. Gomez knows old transports and round engines. He began his career as a mechanic with Avianca in Colombia, moved to the United States in 1964, and has worked on the old beasts most of the time since. His children have grown up with aviation. Son Carlos runs the office, and son Walter is chief of maintenance. One or the other also flies as flight engineer on weekly freight trips to the Bahamas.
The DC-7 and a recently acquired DC-6A freighter were parked on a ramp leased from the county when I visited. Sitting between the two stately airplanes was the Gomezes’ parts van. All maintenance is performed outdoors by Walter, his father, his uncle, and the rest of the ground crew. Hangar space would be prohibitively expensive. This DC-7B, serial number 44921, still carries the same registration, N381AA, it did when delivered new to American Airlines in 1956.
“That’s a beautiful airplane,” I said to Carlos while we were standing by the DC-7. “You want to buy it?” he asked, laughing. Like Paul Kupke, Carlos and Walter have an intimate knowledge of piston-engine airplane economics. “Everyone laughed when we bought the airplane,” he said. “It’s not easy, but we make it work by doing everything ourselves. When we’re not flying it, we’re working on it.”
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“We’ve been in aviation since we were kids,” Carlos said. “We know the airplane’s special niche. The DC-7 can carry 35,000 pounds of freight into a 5,000-foot strip in the islands. The runways aren’t going to get any longer in most of the places we fly, because they end at the water. Right now, and probably for another few years, these airplanes are the most economical way for us to serve that market. Time’s running out, though. Then it’s on to the next gig. I’d love to just restore old transport aircraft, but I’ve got to make a living.”
On Tuesday morning, the day before the scheduled run, Walter was in the cockpit cranking the uncowled number-two engine for a ground check. The prop was turning so slowly it seemed like it could never catch, but it did, chugging, one cylinder after another exploding, belching smoke, shaking, and then settling into a smooth idle. After the oil had warmed up, Walter increased the power. The 18-cylinder Wright R-3350 Cyclone wrapped into a serious roar unlike the sound of any other airplane at the airport, and the airplane rocked back and forth in its chocks.
It was still dark Wednesday morning when the DC-7 took off for the Bahamas, all four full-throated engines turning as smoothly as the day they were born. George Riley, about the same age as the airplane, was in the left seat today. “I gave up flying a DC-8 and an apartment in Paris to come fly this thing,” he told me.