Now Departing

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

To make matters worse for cargo carriers, health and environmental concerns have forced the octane level in aviation gasoline lower and lower during the past two decades. This means a decrease in engine power on takeoff and a loss in maximum cargo capacity and cruising speed for the DC-6.

Despite a glut of young pilots in the aviation industry, cargo carriers like Trans-Air-Link have a hard time finding any willing to sign up for duty. The reasons? Some young flyers consider prop planes a step backward. And then there's the complexity of flying what cargo carriers call their "sky trucks." "The difference between a DC-6 or a DC-7 and a jet is it takes one switch to start the engines on a jet," Winn says. "I think the last I counted it takes 32 controls to start the engine on a DC-6. We found out a long time ago if a fellow's never flown a cargo prop plane and he gets started in jets, which a lot of young fellows do now, the transition is nearly impossible."

On the other hand, some of the best pilots can't fly because they're too old. The last World War II veteran at Trans-Air-Link is Larry Martineau, the company's chief pilot. At age 71, he can fly on engine-test runs and pilot-training sorties or help evacuate the fleet when a hurricane threatens, but federal regulations for DC-6 operation ban pilots over 60 from actual cargo hauling.

Still, Miami's surviving prop-plane cargo carriers have a few advantages. For example, the price tag on a DC-3 can be as low as $150,000 versus more than $1,000,000 for a reasonably shipshape 727 jet. Parts and repairs are much cheaper, and the prop planes use far less fuel. They're also more durable. "These things were built like Mack trucks," says Paul Kupke, owner of Florida Air Cargo. "You've got three main spars running down the center of the plane that are absolutely massive. It's overkill. But back then they didn't have computers, so materials weren't cut to the bare minimum. They just knew they had to build 'em strong. I've seen films of how they used to test the wing strength. You know how they did it? By running over the wing with a bulldozer until it broke." And then there's the issue of a prop plane's longevity. Because the age of a jet is measured partly by "cycles" -- the number of takeoffs and landings it has made -- many modern carriers avoid short hops such as Florida Air Cargo's daily Bahamas run. Maintenance on a piston-driven propeller plane, on the other hand, is based solely on engine hours, since prop planes don't have to contend with steel fatigue that results from the pressurization of a jet's fuselage.

Prop plane pilots, mechanics, and owners know their industry is living on borrowed time, yet there's an unmistakable vein of optimism running through their resignation. "When will it end?" asks Gary Balnicki, Trans-Air-Link's general manager. "Probably not for another twenty years, if at all. We still serve a purpose in certain niche markets, and the markets seem to shift and pop up all the time. And the planes themselves just won't die. They're built like tanks." Balnicki points to the success of Northern Air Cargo in Anchorage, Alaska, which now operates fourteen DC-6s.

Kupke believes in the future too, even while he calls prop-plane freight hauling "a very tough racket." Three and a half years ago the hard-charging 33-year-old started his cargo company at Opa-locka Airport, where rents are comparatively cheap and the airways less congested. In addition to the economic edge his DC-3s have over jets in certain circumstances, Kupke thinks he has an additional advantage in his pilots. Some of the crews include cantankerous renegades, but all the men, like Stuart and Freye, are in it for love as well as money.

Kupke's optimism may also come from the fact that he's watched over by a friendly presence -- next door to Florida Air, tucked away in an old barracks building, sits the almost legendary Dave Robinson. Until he got fed up with Miami International Airport and moved to Opa-locka, Robinson was the crusty dean of Corrosion Corner. Now, at age 69, he sells a few airplane parts, tinkers with engines, and keeps a squinty eye on Kupke's fledgling operation. He isn't actually involved in the company, but in emotional terms he may be its biggest investor. The slow demise of Corrosion Corner broke Robinson's heart, but every time one of Kupke's planes takes off it heals a little.

Flying isn't what it used to be, Robinson says, sitting in an office filled with photos and memorabilia of the glory days of American aviation. "It's just become so structured and disciplined and strict that it's not any fun," he laments. "It's not that once upon a time we were uncontrolled and dangerous, it's just that there was more of a brotherhood and more of a sense that aviation was a great thing to be involved in. Me, I mostly just hang around and watch the clock and kick the dog and talk to people about what used to be. I'm a used-to-be kind of guy."

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