Now Departing

Two parts pragmatism and one part nostalgia keep Miami's last propeller-driven cargo planes skimming the skies

The predawn darkness of Opa-locka Airport teems with ghosts. This is the place where farm boys became fighter pilots in the face of Nazi menace, the site from which exiled Cubans flew out to reclaim their homeland from a bearded despot, and the departure point for covert arms shipments to Central American guerrillas in the 1980s.

This July morning, though, danger and history seem far away, and the 1800-acre airfield is quiet. Two dogs snooze on the concrete of runway 9-L, huddled together for company. And through the humid darkness come Scott Stuart and Arturo Freyre, captain and co-pilot of one of America's last propeller-driven cargo planes.

Jets have put to pasture most of the Convairs, Constellations, DC-3s and DC-6s that once served as the workhorses of the air freight business. But Miami's proximity to the Bahamas and the Caribbean allows a dozen or so of the World War II-era birds to still compete. It also keeps a special breed of pilot tickling the clouds.

Stuart and Freyre couldn't be more different, but they have a shared mission -- together they will expertly guide three tons of roofing tile, newspapers, box springs, and pickle relish to Nassau and Governor's Harbour in the Bahamas. The 32-year-old Stuart is husky and blond, a careful speaker with an English accent that blends his Bahamian birth, British schooling, and years spent in Hong Kong and Australia. Freyre is slim, dark, and talkative; he recently turned 60. The airplane waiting on the runway is a DC-3 built by Douglas Aircraft Co. in 1943, and in its 50-plus years in the air, it's been a troop transport for the Israeli and French air forces, a United Airlines passenger plane, and a cargo hauler for auto parts out of Detroit. These days it's owned by Florida Air Cargo, a three-and-a-half-year-old company that uses it and two other DC-3s on daily runs to the Bahamas and on intermittent freight charters to the Caribbean, Latin America, and a few U.S. destinations.

It's just before 5:00 a.m. when the pilots strap themselves into the utilitarian cockpit; check their life raft, crash ax, flotation vests, and first aid kit; and then fire up the twin 1200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines. The motors sound low-slung and feral, like overgrown Harley-Davidsons. The runway dogs jump to their feet and scatter.

"It's a little hot on the ground, but once we get in the air we'll turn on the a/c," Freyre says, swatting at a mosquito and winking. "By which I mean we'll open the windows."

The plane has no air conditioning, and the original de-icing equipment has been stripped out to reduce weight and maintenance costs. The cockpit isn't pressurized, but it doesn't need to be: The sporadic, unscheduled Caribbean cargo charters are generally flown between 5000 and 7000 feet -- low enough to see towns and jungles, ocean shipping lanes, and details on the faces of smaller mountains.

The loaded DC-3, about a half-ton short of the maximum legal cargo limit of 7500 pounds, takes on speed down a path of blue lights and becomes gently airborne. Rows of street lights yield to coastal condos. Then there is only the sea, dark for a short while before the first red glimmers of dawn. The radio traffic fades as Miami recedes in the distance. Stuart and Freyre watch the ground spread beneath them and the sky above, and talk with one another through their headsets about other pilots, the airline industry, and their beloved winged chariot.

"As you go up through the ranks you make more money and fly more sophisticated equipment, but somehow it becomes more and more routine," Stuart says. Like Freyre, he's flown everything from crop-dusters to turboprops but had never piloted a big cargo prop plane before signing on with Florida Air Cargo two years ago. "This plane started civilian aviation. It's a piece of history. I've talked to a lot of older pilots, and they all want to go back and fly the DC-3."

In a car, 150 mph would be twice too fast, but in the air the pace seems leisurely, and for a modern airplane it is -- cargo jets, like 727s, fly in excess of 500 mph. The DC-3 floats along; Bimini passes beneath, brightly lit. Forty minutes after takeoff Andros Island appears, and soon after that the runways of Nassau International Airport. Stuart's right hand reaches for a lever on the cockpit floor, the one that drops the landing gear. "Nothing in here is automatic," he notes. "It's a lot more work to fly than a jet, but also a lot more fun. It can be a real challenge to land in a crosswind, but up in the air the DC-3 is very forgiving. It's old, it's simple, and it works."

The landing is uneventful and smooth. Stuart and Freyre unload eleven boxes of window blinds and 30 bundles of newspapers (the London Financial Times) and stack them in the bed of a truck. Several gigantic rolls of carpet remain inside the fuselage. Unloading them will require the help of a forklift and several hired cargo handlers, who haven't yet awakened. The carpet's final destination is a large government office building in downtown Nassau.

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