High Mileage

Just how many hours can you wring from an airplane? As the operators, mechanics, and parts suppliers who keep DC-3s in the air.

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At 24, Miami Valley Aviation pilot Chris Price flies an airplane more than twice his age. He wanted to fly DC-3s so bad that he made three trips to Ohio from his native California on his own dime and basically badgered Kevin Uppstrom into hiring him. In the cockpit of tail number N36AP, Price notices a grass-skirted hula doll atop the instrument panel, a fellow pilot's lucky talisman. He carefully removes it before throwing the sequence of switches on the overhead panel to start the engine. "It's a lot like playing a guitar," he says of cranking the giant, 1,200-horsepower radials. "Starter, count nine blades of rotation, mixture forward, boost pumps, magnetos. Works nine times out of ten.

"My friends are all going to work for the commuters" on their way to careers with the major airlines, says Price. "Before I did that, I had to be here. This sets you apart from the rest of the crowd."

A few weeks later at a Delta hangar in Atlanta, John Mitas, 78, who first turned a wrench on a DC-3 in 1948 for Delta Airlines, reflects on the restoration project he's just participated in. Toward the end of the four-year project, the team couldn't find a key for the aircraft's cabin door. Mitas remembered he had held on to his DC-3 cabin door key from 50 years ago. In fact, he still carried it on his key chain. But number 3278 had run through 11 different owners since Delta sold it in 1958. Surely someone had rekeyed that lock. On a lark, Mitas tried his DC-3 key in the door. It worked perfectly.

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