November 1, 2005
There is no sound quite like that made by four Pratt & Whitney R-2800 two-row Wasp engines at full power on a minus-25-degree-Fahrenheit day in early February. Four big Hamilton Standard props slash the dense air, adding to the cacophony. In the cockpit of the Douglas DC-6B, though, the sound of the engines is muted. Over the intercom, Flight Engineer Lyle Whitmer calls, "They're drinking water," to let Capt. Barry Mortensen know that the engines are receiving water injection. First Officer Andy Lyon makes the standard speed call-outs, and soon 96,000 pounds of freight, bypass mail — mail shipped direct to the destination post office — and ancient airliner are airborne off Fairbanks for Kotzebue, Alaska. It's just another Saturday in the airline business for Everts Air Cargo.
The logo of Everts Air Cargo — one of three companies held by the Everts family in Fairbanks — says it all: "Legendary Aircraft. Extraordinary Service." The legendary aircraft are Curtiss C-46 Commando and Douglas DC-6 freighters and tankers, operated from Fairbanks and Anchorage bases. Today, the Evertses continue to operate old airplanes on missions far exceeding the original expectations of their designers.
The three companies owned by the Everts family are Everts Air Fuel, Everts Air Cargo, and Everts Air Alaska. All told, the Evertses own 40 large reciprocating-engine transport aircraft. That's right — 40, which makes them the largest owner of large piston-engine aircraft in this part of the world, and maybe the rest as well. Not all 40 aircraft are airworthy, of course. The status column on the roster of aircraft ranges from "In Service" or "Storage" to "Organ Donor," "Now a House," and finally, DC-6B N999SQ, which is currently listed as an "Ice Cream Parlor." That one lives just down the street from Everts' main base at Fairbanks International Airport. Never let it be said that the day of the piston-engine airliner will end soon.
Of that number, 13 aircraft — all Curtiss C-46 and Douglas DC-6 types — are on the line, working every day, moving freight, bypass mail, and fuel to remote Alaska villages and work sites. A significant seasonal activity for Everts in the past has been flying freshly caught salmon off the beaches of Bristol Bay to processors in several Alaska cities, making Everts one of the few airlines in the country that regularly operates large airliners in an off-airport environment.
Cliff Everts, the patriarch of the family, came to Alaska in 1943 to fly for Alaska Star Airlines. In 1945, Everts went to work for Wien Alaska Airlines (now Wien Air Alaska), and flew some 30,000 hours for the company before his retirement in 1980. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wien operated a number of Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft throughout Alaska, and Everts put in time at the controls of many of those aircraft.
Everts purchased a C-46 in 1960, and leased it out under the banner of Alaska Rental and Sales. After Everts' retirement from Wien, he purchased other C-46 aircraft from Wien, which was modernizing its fleet. Gradually, Everts' fleet of aircraft grew and the company eventually became Everts Air Fuel, flying several of the current collection of aircraft and specializing in fuel deliveries to the Alaska bush.
Rob Everts, Cliff's son, now serves as president of Everts Air Cargo, the second half of the current large piston-airliner operation. While Air Fuel operates under Part 125 (fuel carrier certificate), Air Cargo operates under Part 121 rules. Everts Air Alaska is a Part 135 air-taxi operator.
Owning 40 aircraft so that you can operate 13 may seem a bit over the top, but parts availability is a huge part of keeping these legendary aircraft flying. Since no manufacturer builds parts for these aircraft, it pays to have an extensive boneyard to ensure parts availability. And Cliff Everts is a master of the aircraft boneyard, as evidenced by a quick view of the lot across from Everts' headquarters.
The Evertses may operate old airplanes, but they are innovators in many ways — a functional requirement of a company operating a collection of aircraft generally considered to be antiques in other venues. For example, the relative rarity of these aircraft virtually ensures that there will be no simulators available for crew training. Every crewmember must train in the working aircraft themselves, which is expensive and takes valuable assets off the line. Cockpit familiarization prior to flying can significantly accelerate a pilot's learning curve, so the Evertses removed the entire nose section and cockpit from one of their boneyard DC-6s, hoisted it up to the second floor of their operations and maintenance facility in Fairbanks, and turned it into a procedures trainer. The cockpit of this aircraft has been fully restored, and everything functions as if it were a flying aircraft, although this is a procedures trainer, as opposed to a true simulator. An instructor operating the control panel can fail various systems, affording pilots in training the opportunity to practice procedures and develop a working knowledge of the cockpit prior to actual flight. The cockpit procedures trainer forms one end of the training room at the Everts facility.
The cockpit windows of the procedures trainer are covered, and pilots training in the device are flying through the perpetual fog of the engine and prop shop, which lies beyond and below the nose of the training device. The engine and prop shop is a vital part of the Everts operation. Care and feeding of these big 18-cylinder engines (both the C-46 and DC-6 use variants of the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine) are essential to keeping the fleet operational. The engine shop is run by Everts Air Fuel, but Air Cargo contracts with its sister company to maintain its engines.
So, what sorts of loads do these venerable machines move? Everts Air Fuel and its competitors have literally changed the face of fuel deliveries in bush Alaska. A significant portion of the home heating oil, automobile and snow-machine gas, and aviation fuel consumed in the Alaska bush is delivered by air now, as opposed to the more traditional deliveries by river barge. Barges still ply the Yukon and Tanana rivers, but some villages and many work sites such as the many mining operations found throughout Alaska are not accessible to barge traffic. Everts Air Fuel is a regular visitor to these sites. The C-46s carry the smaller loads of 2,000 gallons or so, while the DC-6s carry the big loads, at 5,000 to 6,000 gallons, depending on the distance to be flown.
Last year, during the winter oil-field exploration season, one of Everts' DC-6 tankers single-handedly moved more than a million gallons of diesel fuel on the north slope of Alaska, much of it to temporary ice and gravel runways built by the oil companies at their drill sites.
Everts Air Cargo moves whatever can't be poured into a tank. Everything from bypass mail to snow machines and groceries, from Pampers to canned goods and potato chips, is moved to remote villages on a regular basis with the DC-6 airplanes on scheduled runs. (Bypass mail is unique to Alaska — it is mail that bypasses the hub post offices and is shipped direct, at a substantial savings in shipping cost. Bypass mail encourages regular recurring service but covers much of the cost of the flight so, in turn, on some carriers, passenger seats can be less expensive.) Loads of hose, pipe, lumber, and other supplies are transported to work sites throughout the state by Air Cargo under charter.
The mining industry has vastly expanded operations in many remote areas of Alaska in recent years. With mining operations in remote sites comes a need for supplies and fuel. Everts Air Cargo and Everts Air Fuel routinely supply several mine sites with virtually all the supplies they need to stay functional. Most of these mine sites use locally constructed airstrips, some of which might be considered "interesting" by many small-airplane pilots. This is the natural habitat of the C-46, arguably the biggest tailwheel airplane still in common use.
When I built a cabin on a remote lake 100 miles southwest of Fairbanks, Rob Everts delivered 14,500 pounds of building materials, a boat, and other supplies to my cabin site in the C-46, N1822M, otherwise known as Salmon Ella. The load was dropped off on the frozen surface of Mucha Lake, where Everts landed the big twin in April on 40-plus inches of ice. The company still makes lake-ice deliveries, but is more particular about surface conditions now, since flap damage on the C-46s is common and difficult to repair. The C-46s have very large flaps that deploy behind the propeller arcs and main wheels. The wheel and prop blast can throw big chunks of snow at the flap assemblies and cause structural damage. Replacement flaps for the C-46s are hard to find. So nowadays, if you want a lake delivery, you'll probably have to plow the snow off the ice first — and have a foot or more of solid ice.
Salmon Ella has a long history in Alaska, having flown fuel and cargo for Reeve Aleutian Airways for many years, based out of Cold Bay, Alaska, where I first rode in the airplane. The airplane was sold to another company by Reeve and 22Mike suffered its apparent end southwest of Naknek, Alaska, having been landed in the tundra, gear up, and abandoned. In the late 1980s, Everts arranged to have the airplane dragged on a sled over the frozen tundra to King Salmon. The airplane was jacked up, overhauled engines were installed, and the old warrior was ferried to Fairbanks for new belly skins and other repairs. With its airworthiness certificate reissued, Rob Everts flew the big taildragger to Bristol Bay to fly sockeye salmon off the beaches. A few weeks later, the airplane was paid for and Salmon Ella had earned her name. A fish hauler for a number of years, it is now a fuel hauler exclusively, with large internal tanks mounted in the cabin.
As you may have guessed from the moniker for N1822M, many of Everts' airplanes are decorated with names and nose art. Besides Salmon Ella (which sports a curvaceous salmon on the nose), there's Dumbo (a C-46 whose nose bears the likeness of the famed Disney elephant), Maid in Japan (a C-46 purchased in Japan, and decorated with a geisha), and Spirit of America (a DC-6 with U.S. eagle and flag art on its nose). The nose art adds flair to the old airplanes and suggests a pride in the fleet, as well as a sense of humor. As was the case with much of the World War II nose art, the artwork on Everts' fleet of aircraft sometimes reflects a part of the aircraft's history.
What's it like to operate seasoned piston airliners on freight and fuel runs in the Arctic? Well, it's a lot of work, for one thing. Just getting one of these airplanes started on a cold day requires an effort of biblical proportion, with large fuel-fired Herman Nelson preheaters applied to each engine, and others to the cabin. On the early February day I flew with Everts Air Cargo to Kotzebue, the temperature in Fairbanks was minus 40 degrees F at the time of engine start for the earlier morning flight to Barrow. The engines were heated for approximately three hours prior to the 7:30 a.m. launch, since they'd been run the day before and covered with insulated blankets overnight. A fully cold-soaked R-2800 at those temperatures would have to be heated for up to six hours prior to start. Forklifts hoist pallet after pallet of goods and materials into the huge cargo doors of the airplanes, where they are moved into position with pallet jacks in the cabin, then secured in place for the flight.
The crew for this flight, Mortensen, Lyon, and Whitmer, had already made the five-hour round trip to Barrow, Alaska's northernmost city, by the time I arrived at the Everts facility in Fairbanks. Now the crew readied for the trip to Kotzebue, some 400 miles to the west of Fairbanks, with a load of mail and freight.
As we board N151, a 1958 DC-6B, I'm given a preflight briefing by Whitmer, as Mortensen and Lyon ready the cockpit for engine start. Uniform of the day is heavy insulated work clothing, and footgear is uniformly military surplus vapor-barrier boots, commonly known in these parts as "bunny boots." Where these fellows work, serious shoes are a necessity, and ties and epaulets are for the passenger-carrying crowd.
Whitmer cranks all four engines and gets them settled into a smooth idle, and as we prepare to depart Fairbanks, the crew works in concert to avoid any mis-haps that could accrue from maneuvering such a large airplane within a congested and icy ramp area, with calls of "clear right" and "clear left" prior to turns.
We line up on Runway 19 Right for departure from Fairbanks, and the throttles on the four Pratts are pushed up to takeoff power. Even on this minus-25-degree-F day, Whitmer applies water injection to boost takeoff power. By adding cooling to the induction, water injection permits higher horsepower settings without the risk of detonation. Our takeoff weight is fairly light today, at about 96,000 pounds, and the water injection is secured shortly after a positive climb rate is established.
As we head west, we're handed off from tower to departure control, then to Anchorage Center for the IFR flight. Since the weather is severe clear all the way to the coast, the crew requests and receives clearance for VFR on top at 6,500 feet. Departing the Fairbanks area, we hear a mechanical "Traffic, Traffic" repeated over the intercom. The crew studies the quadrant indicated by the traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS), looking for the inbound Piper Navajo. Yes, even 1950s' airliners have TCAS and terrain awareness these days, and this crew does not consider that to be a bad thing at all.
We work our way west at about 200 knots indicated, with Whitmer fine-tuning the engines, working to synchronize the four big engines for the smoothest ride, and monitoring them for problems. A graphic engine analyzer that portrays a waveform for each spark plug (all 144 of them) helps in this process, and assists in detecting any anomalies before they become troublesome. To my inquiry about how frequently they shutdown engines in flight, the crew responds that it rarely experiences catastrophic failures on these engines, but that occasionally an ignition anomaly will cause the crew to perform a precautionary shut down, to avoid potential damage to the engine. Mortensen notes that the big Douglas flies just fine on three, particularly when lightweight.
The flight west proceeds over a scenic winter landscape. At about the halfway point, the crew points out the Hog River Mine strip, near the Hogatza River. This strip is frequented by Everts' crews, delivering loads of fuel and supplies during the long summer days when the gold mine is active. The strip lies along a hillside, with an apparent slope up to the north, and of course a gravel surface.
A straight-in approach to Ralph Wien Memorial Airport's Runway 26 in Kotzebue culminates in a smooth touchdown, and full reverse on all four of the big radials. A short taxi, and the crew commences unloading the airplane. A seasoned Everts C-46 pilot once told me that during a hiring interview, right after the chief pilot asks the applicant about his piloting qualifications, he asks him how much he can bench press. This is physical work, but easier in the DC-6, where the crew uses pallet jacks to move the freight to the large cargo door, where a forklift moves it to a warehouse. C-46 crews have a sloping floor to move cargo over, and often no equipment to help. In that airplane, unloading can be just plain hard work.
One pallet of cargo is loaded for the backhaul, and in just more than half an hour, we're headed back to Fairbanks. Arriving just after 6:30 p.m., the crew has completed a 12-hour day, with about nine hours of that in the air.
Everts is no longer an all-piston-engine operation. A few years ago, the Evertses purchased an air-taxi operation, Tatonduk Outfitters, now renamed Everts Air Alaska. Tatonduk brought with it one Cessna Caravan and a few low-wing Pipers. More recently, Everts Air Cargo has acquired two Embraer 120 twin turboprops for use in its burgeoning mail business. While the Embraers will never replace the load capability of the DC-6 and C-46, their load capability better fits many of the destinations the Everts fleet serves, and they can move the mail at greater speeds than the piston fleet.
While some historians and curators may be aghast at this harsh treatment of airplanes that might otherwise qualify as museum pieces, I have a feeling that if Donald Douglas or Glenn Curtiss were alive today, he'd be delighted to see these old workhorses still doing the task they were designed to do best, on a daily basis.
Michael Vivion is a wildlife biologist/pilot based in Fairbanks, Alaska.
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