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Frozen in Time

Gloves? Check. Cockpit heater? Check. Engine insulator?

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He has spent more than half his life maintaining his brother’s DC-3s and -4s. California didn’t suit him. “It rained a lot in California,” he says. “We were wet. I missed the frickin’ snow and being dry.”

“Ronnie and the boys amazed everyone,” recalls Rod. “Those planes had been parked for 12 to 15 years. We paid $35,000 apiece and spent another $40,000 to get another DC-3 ready to ferry home.”

Rod explains that it takes another $250,000 or so to get such aircraft ready for continuous use. “We’ve looked at Convairs and Hawkers and Dash 8s,” he says, “but you’re talking five million bucks and you can’t put skis on them, eh?”

Ronnie and fellow mechanics Sorenson and Dyson can swap engines out of a DC-3 or -4 in a couple of hours. To keep the fleet ready, they often just pull an engine and replace it with a rebuilt one, giving themselves time to rebuild the down engine in the shop.

“We’ve got 200 Pratt & Whitneys in rotation,” Rod McBryan says. “Dad’s got more parts for these old planes than the African countries that still use them.”

Buffalo’s corps of winter pilots are about the age of the first pilots to fly the stout airplanes during World War II.

Pilot Kelsey Boll, 27, says the pay is only okay, but learning multi-engine airplanes is invaluable.

“The DC-3s and -4s don’t do much [of the work] for you,“ she says. “These are busy cockpits. We rack up hours sticking ourselves out there in some challenging weather and planes.”

As Boll and the other young pilots add hours to logbooks each week, they seem to be in denial about the decreasing supply of avgas in the high Arctic. Like Joe McBryan, they hope the fuel will still be available when the airplanes are 80 years old.

“The physical art of flying an airplane with your hands and feet is going away,” Joe McBryan says with a shrug. “Kids grow up now playing computer games and they don’t want to go back to pinball. These planes are pinballs.

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