Friday, November 30, 2007

Aging birds in the north

Don't let anyone say Canada has no Commandos up there--talk about adventure tourism (this post's for Dave, sixth comment here):
The ambience aboard Buffalo Airways' 1942 Douglas DC-3 is somewhere between Disneyland and chicken bus.

From the outside, the plane's pug nose and bulbous fins look like a cartoon come to life. Inside, stacks of frozen fish and auto parts jut into the narrow centre aisle, their odours mingling with propellor exhaust and motor oil.

A flight attendant - or "biscuit shooter," as the position is known at Buffalo - dressed in greasy jeans and an oversized sweatshirt passes out homemade cookies.

The regulars - most of them northerners making the morning hop from Hay River, NWT, to Yellowknife for work or for family - have learned to tolerate day trippers. In the nearly 40 years that Buffalo Airways has been flying to all points north of 60, its antique birds have become increasingly irresistible to history buffs and aeronautical nerds...

Ask aviation enthusiasts around the world and they'll rattle off specs for Buffalo's vintage fleet and its distinction as the last airline in North America to fly scheduled DC-3 passenger routes.

Search Buffalo Airways online and you'll come up with hundreds of photos and several YouTube clips of a hardworking airline whose reputation for keeping history aloft attracts aviation nuts from all over the world to the Northwest Territories...

Among Buffalo's main attractions are several snub-nosed DC-3s, the revolutionary planes whose 21-seat configuration [spot the joke in the link] first made commercial passenger flights financially viable in the late 1930s; two Curtiss C-46s, or Whales, whose cavernous bellies hauled Allied troops and cargo over the Himalayas during the Second World War; and nearly a dozen temperamental DC-4s, which clocked a million miles a month over the Atlantic when German U-boats were posing a menace to marine convoys [C-54s actually, and I don't think their flights were terribly relelevant, one way or another to U-boats, more like expedited personnel and special cargo movement]...

A few weeks ago, for instance, two German fellows showed up unannounced on the Buffalo tarmac wanting a ride in a Curtiss C-46.

"They didn't know a thing about northern Canada," says Mikey McBryan, the founder's son, "but they knew they wanted aboard a C-46. They waited around for a week and a half, but we couldn't get them aboard."

They settled on flying aboard a DC-3...

Last year, Buffalo updated the fleet with the purchase of two Lockheed Electras, four-engine long-haulers [not really] rolled out the year John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister [I flew on the rival Vickers Vanguard several times, along with DC-3s; no C-46s for me though I'm pretty sure my father was a passenger on them over the hump to China in WW II - MC]...
Nice piece of journalism.

Update: The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Hamilton, has a flying Dakota (via Jack MacLeod--Commonwealth services' name for the C-47, military version of the DC-3). More on the origins of the DC-3, and RCAF service here (pdf).

And a charming letter in the Globe and Mail, Dec. 1:
What a great aircraft.


Ottawa -- At the end of the Second World War, the RCAF bought a large number of DC-3s, many of which were veterans of flying supplies over the Hump in Burma (Welcome To Prophead Heaven - Life, Nov. 30).

In the Canadian service, these DC-3s were called Dakotas, or Daks. I recall one Dak so stitched with patched bullet holes it was known as Whistling Willie, because it whistled when it flew. The Hump resupply operations used DC-3s and some DC-2s, the earlier model of that workhorse aircraft. One DC-3 was repaired by using a wing - slightly shorter - from a DC-2. They called it a DC-2½, and it flew right to the end of the war.

What a great aircraft.


Blogger Dave in Pa. said...

Well, I probably won't be around to see it but I bet that DC-3 built in '42 is still flying on it's 100th birthday!

If it isn't, I'd bet even money that somewhere, there's at least one flying DC-3 that'll be still flying on it's 100th.

And the DC-4, in it's military livery as the C-54, was the workhorse of the Berlin Airlift in 1947. Temperamental, prone to overheating engines, somewhat fragile nosegear and all, it saved the people of West Berlin from Stalin's boot on their necks!

Here's another of my Fred Flintstone moments: I can remember flying on a Lockheed Constellation once, as a four year old boy. East Coast to England! Quite an adventure for a little boy; I can remember keeping my nose plastered against the window for most of the flight. Way cool! :-)

11:51 p.m., November 30, 2007  
Blogger Dave in Pa. said...

So your Dad flew the hump, eh? I bet he can tell some stories! The best story about DC-3s and Flying the Hump I ever read was this one told by the co-pilot of the flight.

They took off from their base in India into immediate low cloud layer. There was a long, clear stretch of land at that end of the runway, it was wartime and they needed the material badly that their squadron was flying that day. So, they flew, hair-raising takeoff and all.

The problem was IMMEDIATELY the pilot detected from the controls that the DC-3 was EXTREMELY heavy and barely responsive to the controls. They couldn't even take it around for an immediate landing, because of the cloud layer. They were committed to Flying the Hump.

The co-pilot yells "J___ C___! What the F___ do we have onboard?!" "PAP", says the pilot (Perforated Aluminum Planking-what you see in WW2 newsreels, long rectangular sheets that are hooked together over flattened dirt for an instant runway.)

The co-pilot checked the flight documents: X number of pallets, X tons of PAP, just under the max. rated cargo weight. He went back to check-the numbers of pallets and crates matched up. Nothing else aboard.

Meanwhile they had a helluva time manhandling the bird over the Himalayas, not knowing what the problem was. The proverbial pucker-factor mission!

The mystery was solved after they made their landing in China. Someone had screwed up and not loaded pallets of PAP but loaded pallets of PSP, Perforated STEEL Planking! Just a slight weight difference!

That flight supposedly set the unofficial WW2 record for weight of cargo on one DC-3 mission, way over what Douglas Aircraft said it could carry. DC-3s-their crews trusted 'em!

(Think I'm monopolizing the conversation tonight, so I'm going to STFU. :-)

12:29 a.m., December 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great story, makes me smile ++

Having spent some time up north and having loaded/unloaded more than a few DC 3's, it is great to read that people from around the world will travel there just for a flight.

The Curtis is a great plane, never got to fly in one but if you get up close to those engines when they throttle up, the vibration goes right through you.

10:06 a.m., December 01, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Dave: Sadly my dad has died, so can't ask. As for Super Connies, I flew with my parents from London to Montreal in 1956 on a TCA one. The pilot let me stand in the cockpit, holding on to a bulkhead, as we approached Dorval and right through the landing. The good old days indeed.

Also in those days, when embarking I used to charge the cabin stairs (no jetways then) firing off my (very realistic) toy burp-gun. Indeed times have changed.


10:19 a.m., December 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just looked up some old 35mm slides . . there was a slightly pranged Commando on ramp at one of teh old DEW line sites - I think it was at PIN 3. We flew in a crew trying to retrieve the plane and because my team got stuck there for a couple of days waiting for the Lateral to come back, I hung around with these guys a bit as a tool passer while they worked on the engines.

We had to leave for other parts before they finished and I always wondered if they got it going well enough to fly it away.

I never got back to PIN sector to see if it was gone.

2:04 p.m., December 01, 2007  

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