Airports of Call

The choicest sites for airplane watching.

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Aviation history is alive in every corner. Over at the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation—the hangar with the C-123 transport parked out front—you’ll likely run across Joe Krzeminski and coworkers, restoring and maintaining rare aircraft. Krzeminski forms a strong allegiance to the particular history of each aircraft he restores. He’s currently working on a Douglas A-20 Havoc.

A few steps east of the C-123, Tony Ritzman is running up a Douglas A-26, which is flanked by three North American B-25s. Aero Traders, owned by Ritzman and his partner, Carl Scholl, specializes in the restoration of military aircraft from World War II and the period immediately after, primarily piston engine types. The company will also train you to fly them, or rent you a B-25 camera ship and crew for your next air-to-air photography session.

Sam Stewart was sitting in his Martin 404 when I hollered up the rear stairs to see if anyone was home. Stewart has owned ten 404s, but never more than three at once. He and his son, Ted, flew the Doobie Brothers band on this ex-Eastern Air Lines aircraft, serial number 14235, for seven years, through 1985.

You’ve probably heard of the Planes of Fame Air Museum at Chino, and its branch site at Valle Airport in Grand Canyon, Arizona. Planes of Fame, on the north side of Chino airport, started in 1957 as a dream of Edward Maloney. Housed in several buildings, one of which is an original Cal-Aero hangar, Planes of Fame has amassed some 150 aircraft, 30 of them flyable. The collection includes several one-of-a-kind treasures: the only flyable Northrop N9M 60-foot flying wing, the only flyable Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero model 52, the only flyable Boeing P-26 and P-12E, the last surviving Seversky AT-12, and Charles Nungesser’s Hanriot HD-1 Scout. Fighter Rebuilders, the museum’s on-site restoration facility, is also open to the public.

On the last afternoon of my Chino visit, I walked among the rows of T-hangars at the northeast corner. “Hangarminiums” would be more descriptive—some have kitchenettes, bathrooms, couches, and shops, as well as space for both winged and wheeled machines. In his hangar, paleontologist Michael Stokes has his office as well as his Cessna 140, his 1942 Dodge WC54 military ambulance, and his hangarmate’s Luscombe. Archie Lane’s head was in the wheel well of his Beech D-17S Staggerwing when I passed by—the airplane will be back in the air very soon, he said. One hangar row away, Robin Scott had parked his 1957 Ford Thunderbird and was cranking up his bright red Yak-52 for some aerobatic practice. A Fouga jet trainer, with its unique butterfly tail, taxied by Dave Hansen’s hangar party. Friends had parked their airplanes nearby, and an excellent band played Glenn Miller favorites.

FROM THE SUNNY SOUTHWEST I TRAVELED to the sunny southeast and Opa Locka Airport in Florida, a scant eight miles north of Miami International. I came here for three reasons, and they all begin with DC: DC-3, DC-6, and DC-7. Florida Air Cargo has four DC-3s and two Beech 18s. On the adjacent ramp, Florida Air Transport flies the sole DC-7 in commercial service. Its DC-6 is almost ready to go on the line. Both companies fly the old radial engine airplanes for profit, not nostalgia. But the thundering relics are unlikely to remain economically viable much longer when pitted against the costlier but far less maintenance-intensive turboprops like the Shorts 360.

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.”

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