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.

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."

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."

Outside his office door, an old sofa offers a nice smoking spot. From there Robinson can see Florida Air Cargo employees loading the DC-3s and preparing them for takeoff. He watches in the way another man might watch his child playing, his face bright with a mix of pleasure and pride. "Say, did you ever chase a roadrunner across the desert in a car? You ain't gonna catch him, but it's fun. That's what flying's supposed to be about.

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