Now Departing

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

With the day turning hot, the pilots repair to their favorite restaurant: an outdoor picnic table in front of the passenger terminal where two women sell food from the back of a van. The breakfast is their usual. Stuart gets a cup of conch stew and Freye has chicken souse. Each costs five dollars. There's not a lot of money in prop-plane piloting.

Later, after a short flight to Governor's Harbour on the island of Eleuthera, the pickle relish and roofing tiles get dropped off, along with a dozen heavy steel automobile springs, several mattresses, a clutch of UPS packages, and a sack of mail. The cargo handlers don't show up, so Stuart and Freyre do the heavy lifting themselves, grunting at times but generally cheerful and resigned to the task. On takeoff from Governor's Harbour, their faces are covered with sweat, but the breeze through the cockpit is cool and fresh. Stuart eats a plum and drops the pit out the window, careful to look down 3500 feet before doing so.

Back in Opa-locka shortly after 1:00 p.m., the pilots present their passports and quickly clear U.S. Customs, park the plane, and head for the Florida Air office, uncertain whether their day's work has ended or whether the company, with its tiny fleet of three DC-3s, has other things in mind. In the air cargo business, Friday is traditionally the most unpredictable day, since weekend flights are rare and cargo must often arrive at its destination by Monday morning. This can result in panicked afternoons, as desperate freight forwarders clog the phone lines with last-minute requests for planes. "There's a mad rush," Stuart explains. "As soon as the cargo hits Miami, it's on a truck up to us, and as soon as it hits us it's loaded and we're gone. There's not a minute spared. We don't mess around."

And so, inside of an hour, Freyre and Stuart might be on their way to Puerto Rico to drop off a race horse or a pair of concert pianos or 400 boxes of live baby chickens or thousands of pounds of construction blueprints. Or they might head for Texas or Kentucky with a load of crane parts or cut flowers or lobsters or tropical fish or photo equipment. Things both larger and smaller than a bread box, including animals, vegetables, and minerals, need to get from one place to another. When other forms of transport prove too slow or costly, people turn to the tramp freighters of the sky.

"Pigs," says Bill Winn, director of quality control for Trans-Air-Link Corp. "Chickens. And monkeys. Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. Cage after cage of monkeys. Anything that'll fit through the door, we've hauled it. Once we came in from Suriname or Guyana with a load of snakes. My God, they were some of the most deadly snakes in the world, a whole load of them, and it drove the agriculture inspectors nuts."

Also lizards from Haiti, a gorilla needing transport from Louisiana to Miami's Metrozoo, and tanks of live swordfish. Of course, the cargo is typically more mundane: raw materials or electronics going south, manufactured products or seafood coming north.

"I would like to convey my personal gratitude to the entire crew of the infamous 'fish flight,'" wrote Ron Davis, a Jamaican freight forwarder, in a letter hanging on the wall of Trans-Air-Link's headquarters. "Without their persistence in taking care of the freight, the losses would have been staggering." The "infamous fish flight"? It seems that the ice that was cooling the load of fish kept melting, so the pilot made stops along the way to replenish the supply. It's all in a day's work.

Trans-Air-Link is the last of several cargo companies that composed Corrosion Corner, a ramshackle patch of hangars at the the northwestern verge of Miami International Airport. As recently as the early 1980s, Corrosion Corner was home to as many as 40 propeller cargo planes and a collection of wild and woolly birdmen, many of them World War II combat vets.

Over the years competition from jets grew more fierce, and government regulation more exasperating. The phenomenal growth of the airport increased the cost of renting space. One by one planes were sold to African or South American carriers. Companies shut down. Pilots died or retired.

A decade ago Trans-Air-Link had a dozen DC-6s -- bigger than DC-3s, with four engines instead of two -- and maintained a twice-weekly run to the Virgin Islands. Since then the company has sold or scrapped all but three of its aircraft. In 1994 it dropped all scheduled flights out of Miami and now survives on occasional cargo charters to the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Central America. In between jobs, the company is beset by busloads of European airplane buffs and high-heeled swimsuit models whose photographers want the DC-6s for photo backdrops. One time, Winn says, a Belgian on a bicycle showed up with a backpack full of microphones and spent a week recording engine and propeller noise. He later produced a CD medley of aviation sounds.

"Parts and support are readily available, but we do have a problem with fuel," says Winn, explaining why some of his pals predict complete extinction of this niche industry sometime in the next decade. "Hundred-octane avgas is not available just anywhere, and when it is available it might be in small quantities and be cost-prohibitive. There's a fuel farm across the airfield, but there's only one vendor who deals in avgas. We're the only large operator in the area that uses it."

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