Caribbean Mail Run

From doughnuts to dolphins, every day is an adventure

December 1, 2000

It was 4:30 in the morning, and from the rattling cockpit all that was visible of the world outside was a sliver of the moon as the ghostly white Douglas DC–3 streaked down a Caribbean runway, its radial engines roaring like demons.

Copilot Vince Proffitt cupped his hands over the throttle handles to keep them from vibrating backward as Capt. Jay Carlo pushed them forward. Red exhaust flames lit up the engine cowlings. The fat tires hummed on the pavement.

And then slowly, gracefully, the DC–3 lowered its nose and the world slipped into view. The lights of San Juan, Puerto Rico, glittered in the night like stars on a still pond, and suddenly the DC–3 was off.

Whether it's hauling doughnuts to St. Maarten or deceased tourists to San Juan, when you're flying the 3 a.m. cargo run in a classic DC–3, every day's an adventure, Proffitt and Carlo will tell you. You may be hauling car parts one day, live dolphins and zebras the next—and you'll be doing it in style, in one of the world's greatest airplanes.

The Caribbean is one of the last great habitats for these big birds, a place where fine weather and uncluttered skies mean an airplane doesn't have to be state-of-the-art, just rugged and cheap to fly. DC–3s excel on the short runs, and they do it at a price no other airplane can match. You can buy one for about the price of a new Cessna 172.

"It's the best truck going," said Curtis White, president of Four Star Air Cargo in San Juan. "If you put a Shorts 360 on the line or some CASAs, you're going to spend a couple million and maybe go a little faster. But for $1.5 million I can buy 10 DC–3s, and they haul as well as anything out there."

For his employees Proffitt and Carlo, the day began by the light of a flashlight at 3 a.m. on the tarmac of San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport.

Proffitt bounded up onto the wing of N136FS, actually a C–47 military version built in 1946, and poked a long wooden fuel stick into the airplane's four 200-gallon fuel tanks.

"Check out that aileron," he said. "It's fabric. All of the control surfaces are fabric."

Those control surfaces are operated by cables instead of hydraulics. Bust a hydraulic pipe? You keep on flying. Take some antiaircraft fire in your fabric rudder? Slap on a patch and keep moving. No wonder they built 10,000 of these.

Inside, there is more elegant simplicity. The cabin's "smoke detector" is a perforated tube that runs from the tail to the cockpit, then through a fan that blows air into the copilot's face. If you smell smoke, you've got a fire. "If you light a cigarette in the back, I'll know within 10 seconds," Carlo said.

The hydraulic pressure gauge is a simple glass tube with red hydraulic fluid that rises and falls like a thermometer. The right and left elevators—trim tabs and all—are interchangeable just by flipping them over. The compass is perfectly protected from vibration, hung from a system of bungee cords, and the windshield wipers are hydraulic, not electric. Rev the engines, and they go faster.

If you can't lower the landing gear, there are no worries. The wheels never retract completely anyway, meaning you can still bring the big bird in.

That's not to say there aren't some design flaws, the most chilling being the "hamburger door," an escape hatch behind the captain that opens directly into the arc of a massive three-blade prop. Jump out while that 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial is at work and you're instant shark chum. A better option is the hatch in the cockpit roof, which comes with a rope ladder that you toss out and climb down to safety.

The rickety jump seat is another dubious addition. It's a narrow bench that sits in the cockpit aisle supported only by an unlatched bar.

"Don't brace your feet too hard or you'll end up on the floor still buckled in, flopping like a fish," Carlo warned as he and Proffitt fired up the engines.

Flying in the Caribbean always conjures up images of Grumman Albatrosses and other venerable ships, piloted by Jimmy Buffett types who fly by the seat of their Bermuda shorts.

But the truth is, Caribbean aviation is big business. In the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, Boeing 757s and Airbus 300s have replaced flocks of rum-running Grumman amphibians, if they ever existed. ATRs carry American Airlines passengers from San Juan all over the Caribbean, and smaller air taxis use Britten-Norman Islanders, Cessna Caravans, or de Havilland Twin Otters.

This all makes it doubly remarkable that DC–3s are still hard at work in the Caribbean. Still, there are only about a dozen in Puerto Rico and three companies flying them—Four Star, Tol Air, and Borinquen Air. Accidents have claimed three DC–3s since 1986.

As Gooney Birds become scarcer, interest in them is rising. A film crew recently shot a documentary using some of Four Star's ships, and employees still recall a visit by a Japanese husband and wife who travel the world visiting DC–3s. "They knew more about them than I did," Carlo said. "These guys were hard-core fans." Airline pilots sometimes wander over from their 767s and ask, like kids, if they can see the cockpit.

Even the airlines are getting nostalgic about the old birds. A few years ago, Delta Air Lines decided to restore its first DC–3 airliner to carry passengers and found the 1940-vintage airplane—and one of its Delta sister ships—still faithfully hauling cargo for Borinquen Air in San Juan.

Borinquen Air's owner, Sixto Diaz, agreed to sell the 78,000-hour airplane but refused to part with its Wright engines. "I knew my engines—I rebuilt them myself, and I didn't want to give them up," he explained. So Delta swapped engines before flying its acquisition to Atlanta.

On this morning, Proffitt and Carlo's assignment was the morning U.S. Mail run to the Virgin Islands, one of Four Star's bread-and-butter contracts. As the engines spun to life, the pilots bear-hugged the yoke to keep the big airplane's tail down, then taxied to the U.S. Postal Service dock as a 707, a 727, and another DC–3 fell in line behind them. San Juan is the biggest cargo hub in the Caribbean, meaning mail is big business here. Come Christmastime, it's hard to find a place to park your cargo plane at 4 a.m.

Within minutes Four Star's loaders were packing boxes of letters into blue cargo nets. Four Star has carried flamingo chicks to Anegada for a breeding program, zebras to Virgin Gorda for a man who bought them as pets, and dolphins from Florida to St. Thomas for the filming of a commercial, White said. (The dolphins escaped from their pen, turned up in St. Maarten, and made their return flight by Learjet. "I guess the owners wanted them back really fast after that," he recalled with a chuckle.) One wealthy woman hired the company to fly her 63 dogs, two rabbits, and a duck to her new home in the Caribbean.

Four Star's "bread runs," with racks full of fresh loaves and doughnuts, are pure torture, crews say. The company also transports corpses from the U.S. Virgin Islands—a job that requires pilots to review death certificates and police reports before they take off. "Biggest killer: cirrhosis of the liver," Carlo confided.

As he hurried off to get a manifest, Proffitt stopped by the fuel tank sumps and drained them for the third time that morning. Water condensation in fuel tanks is one of the main hazards of flying in the tropics, and with an airplane this old, water can hide in dents and only pop up in your engines after a turn or two sends it rolling into the machinery.

This morning, Puerto Rico's propensity for drizzle slowed things. By law, the U.S. mail cannot get wet, so the loaders stopped as a light sprinkle began.

By 4:30 it had stopped, and the Gooney Bird was lifting off right on schedule. Soon it was over the ocean and climbing above an inbound cruiseliner that glittered in the night like a floating casino. The stars were brilliant, and Carlo recalled that one of Four Star's DC–3s used to carry a clear plastic dome that navigators would climb into with sextants, finding their way by the stars like the sailors of old.

"This time of night, the feds are out here flying antidrug patrols," Carlo said. "They like to paint us with IR [infrared light] and chase us for practice."

By 5 a.m. the outlines of Culebra, halfway between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, were vaguely visible in the moonshine, and Carlo set up for a landing in St. Thomas.

It was tricky stuff, with Proffitt working a huge flap lever on the floor while Carlo pulled back the throttle in two-minute intervals to prevent shock cooling of the big engines. A 727 carrying a charter flight full of golfers followed them in as the DC–3 settled in on its portly main tires.

For all its bulk, the DC–3 is still a finicky taildragger on landings. A few years ago, one of Four Star's ships nosed over on landing when empty. The NTSB's explanation was that the weight of two loaders and a jump seat passenger, all sitting in the front of an empty cabin, caused the big bird to tip over. White blames the pilot for braking too hard while the tail was still in the air.

The DC–3 can land in 500 feet and take off in a thousand, though not fully loaded, Carlo said. It's one of the few freighters that can handle the 3,600-foot runway in nearby Tortola. It can make St. Kitts, some 240 miles away, in a little over an hour and be in Curacao (30 miles north of Venezuela, and a favorite place to escape hurricanes) in less than three hours. After hurricanes, Four Star does a brisk business flying relief supplies to islands that have been hit.

Within minutes of landing, loaders were already passing boxes to a U.S. Mail truck. The postal service keeps careful records of on-time performance. By the time the plane was empty, it was 6 a.m. and the sky was lighting up over Crown Mountain.

N136FS roared off the ground with Proffitt at the controls, rising over reefs that glowed turquoise and green, then dodging a few clouds at 4,500 feet. When this airplane was younger, it had a two-stage supercharger that allowed it to get into the lower flight levels. Now its Part 135 certificate specifies it can only fly at 10,000 feet or less—still more than enough for island-hopping.

By the time San Juan unfolded under the nose, one of the loaders was asleep in the navigator's chair and the airwaves were beginning to fill up with early morning commuter flights. Proffitt dropped to 1,000 feet for a precise downwind and base while Carlo checked his watch. Even though St. Thomas and Puerto Rico are both on U.S. soil, special tax laws in the U.S. Virgin Islands mean flight crews have to clear Customs, which opens at 7 a.m.

The airplane made a slow turn onto final on those sculpted, 95-foot-wide wings—the kind of maneuver that looks absolutely majestic in a DC–3. Proffitt flared, the wheels kissed asphalt, and as the big bird slowed down, it raised its nose to peer into a golden sunrise.

Links to additional information about DC–3s may be found on AOPA Online ( Chris Hawley, AOPA 1286179 , is a pilot and news reporter living in San Juan. Since this writing, Vince Proffitt has gone on to a job flying Brasilias for Comair, a Delta Air Lines feeder. Jay Carlo recently left Four Star to fly for Emery Worldwide—Ed.