In present day Alaska, World War II-era relics continue to fly the skies.
Now, instead of being used by the military, private companies operate aircraft models such as the twin-engine, propeller-driven Curtiss C-46 Commando (first produced in 1940), and the larger four-engine Douglas DC-6 (first produced in 1946) in order to transport fuel and cargo to all regions of the 49th state.
Although popular with the Alaska companies Everts Air Cargo and Everts Air Fuel, similar functioning planes are rarely found elsewhere in the world.
While navigating Alaska’s rugged terrain and climate is impressive in itself, the history of these plane models, from playing integral roles in World War II and CIA missions to transporting world leaders, is equally extraordinary.
‘Flying the Hump’
Originally designed for the civilian sector, the C-46 was drafted into military service with the United States’ participation in World War II.
During the war, many United States Army Air Force pilots participating in the China-Burma-India Theater, including former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, were given the task of flying supplies from India to China in order to help the Chinese stave off Japanese forces. To do this, military planes, including the C-46, had to fly over the eastern Himalayas. This became known as “Flying the Hump” due the mountainous nature of the route.
From 1942-1945, hundreds of planes and pilots were lost while flying the mountainous routes. In the early years of Hump missions, many pilots flew the Douglas C-47, but later the Curtiss C-46 was also used.
Bill McKarns, a 92-year-old World War II veteran, flew 90 round trips on the Hump route between September 1944 and May 1945. McKarns said the C-46s had benefits. It was the largest twin-engine airplane in the world at that time and the improved engines allowed the plane to fly at altitudes of 25,000 feet, whereas previous cargo planes couldn’t reach such heights.
“As it got perfected, it was a great airplane,” McKarns said. “I learned to believe in the dependability. It had better speed than the old (C-)47s.”
McKarns said his most interesting flight took place on Christmas Day in 1944. He said that after delivering items to Kunming, China, he was sent to another destination in China instead of being ordered back to India. However, when he approached his new destination, an air raid siren was in effect and all the lights were completely blacked out, in order to not give away the camp’s position.
Low on oxygen, McKarns was forced to land in complete darkness, except for one second when the airstrip flashed its lights.
“I was familiar with the field and made a nice blackout approach,” McKarns said. “There were no lights on inside or outside the plane.”
Despite the adversity, McKarns landed safely.
“I made a nice landing between two piles of dirt,” McKarns said.
However, Japanese forces bombed the airfield’s oxygen shed, so the next morning when returning to India, he had to navigate the Hump extra carefully and at lower altitude due to the lack of oxygen supplies. His plane could only fly 12,500 feet without him possibly losing consciousness, but some of the mountains were as high as 14,500 feet.
“I tell you, when you’re about 19 or 20 years old, you have a different view,” McKarns said. “It was fun. We almost broke out in song. We got a better view of the Hump. The sun was out and it was pleasant. We had to do a little zig-zagging to get through the mountains.”
Transition to civilian airliners
After the war ended, civilian airliners bought many of the leftover planes to accommodate the increase in demand for civilian and cargo air transportation. According to Everts Air Cargo website, famed airlines such as TWA, Lufthansa and Pan Am have used the C-46.
While some planes were used in the private sector, others were used in air forces around the world. Before being purchased by Everts Air Cargo, the C-46 aptly named Maid in Japan was transferred from the United States Army Air Force to the Japanese Air Self Defense Force, where, according the Everts Air Cargo website, it flew for nearly 20 years.
“(The C-46) is a hell of an airplane,” said Sam Copeland, a retired pilot who has flown C-46 and DC-6 planes for Everts Air Fuel.
Aside from civilian and cargo transport companies, governments and agencies around the world used the C-46 and DC-6 planes, including the CIA, which used them in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
The DC-6, on the other hand, was popular with world leaders. The former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito used a DC-6B as his personal plane, according to the website of The Flying Bulls, a group of aviation enthusiasts who currently own the plane.
Flying the Last Frontier
To this day, finding an operational C-46 or DC-6 in the Lower 48 is nearly impossible.
“Alaska, to my knowledge is the only place (in the USA) that uses these (planes),” Copeland said.
After transitioning to the civilian airline industry, the C-46 and DC-6 became popular in Alaska. Companies such as Alaska Airlines, Wien Air Alaska and Reeve Aleutian Airways have used either the C-46 or DC-6.
According to its website, Everts Air Cargo began accumulating these planes in the 1970s.
Paul Abad, sales manager for Everts Air Cargo, said they are popular in Alaska because many of the remote locations around the state don’t have runways capable of accommodating other types of planes.
“Those aircraft are most conducive to harsh landing conditions,” Abad said.
Abad said that he estimates that 80-90 percent of airports in the state still have unpaved gravel runways. He said that as long as the runway is at least 3,500 feet long, the DC-6 and C-46 can probably land on it.
“They’re rugged aircraft,” Abad said.
Copeland said that the old planes are safe and capable of doing what other planes can’t.
“There’s nothing out there anywhere near the initial acquisition cost that will do the job,” Copeland said. “Go in and out of (remote places) hauling the same kind of payload that the ’46 would haul and deal with the stuff that the ’46 deals with and do it safely.”
Copeland said a modern plane capable of doing what the C-46 does would cost around $35 million.
Because the planes are rare, finding pilots with experience operating them isn’t easy.
“The typical aviator doesn’t exist anymore,” Copeland said. “They’re going away. There are a few out there that have aviation at heart, and those guys can be trained.”
Copeland said that because modern planes are piloted with help from up-to-date electronics, pilots today are more computer engineers than aviators. He said the C-46 and DC-6 are different.
“These airplanes — you have to fly them,” Copeland said. “There is no automatic system.”
Les Bradley, a retired pilot, said many young pilots are eager to fly these planes, but aren’t aware of how different they are from modern aircraft.
“You’re 16 years old and you’re driving a car,” Bradley said. “You think you’re king of the world because you’re 16 and have a driver’s license, but tomorrow we’re going to put you in the Indianapolis 500. How’s that going to work? You’d probably be ‘Oh, great,’ but you’re going to kill yourself or someone else. It’s the same way (with these planes).”
Abad said that pilots new to these aircraft take some time to adjust to them.
“They definitely have to get used to it,” Abad said. “It’s like driving a Ferrari and going back and driving a Model-T. They can still drive it but they have to get used to it.”
Despite the lack of modern technology inside the aircraft, Everts Air Cargo values its planes.
“(These planes) are the backbone of our operation and our competitive advantage,” Abad said.
Combined, Everts Air Cargo and Everts Air Fuel use several C-46s and at least eight DC-6s.
While the specific history of each Everts Air Cargo and Everts Air Fuel plane is unknown, many are given colorful names, including Hot Stuff, Maid of Money, Maid in Japan, Salmon Ella and Dumbo. Copeland said the names of the planes have a specific meaning. Salmon Ella, for example, got the name because it had previously transported fish in Alaska.
Popular all over the globe
Due to the scarcity of the DC-6 and C-46, aviation enthusiasts from all corners of the globe make treks to Alaska, particularly Anchorage, Fairbanks and Kenai, with the sole purpose of seeing and taking pictures of these flying pieces of history.
“Almost every year, especially in the summer time, tourists from all over the world come to take pictures with those aircraft,” Abad said. “We can accommodate tour groups in our facility. We just need a prior arrangement.”
Abad said that fans of propliners and other aviation aficionados hear about Everts planes on the internet.
“It’s a small community all over the world,” Abad said. “The internet made it smaller. They can go online and find pictures and photographers.”
Rainer Bexten, an aviation enthusiast from Germany, has been to Alaska twice — once in 2009 and again in 2014. He has seen and photographed Everts Air Fuel and Everts Air Cargo propliners.
Bexten wrote in an email that when he saw the C-46 last summer at the Kenai Municipal Airport, he was very happy to see a plane of that model still in service and flying. Bexten wrote that seeing the operational planes was seeing history.
“Compared to the types nowadays, they are simple, strong, tough and maybe easier to work on,” Bexten wrote. “Especially the radial engines are great, nice to see when they are starting with all that smoke and the distinctive sound, it gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
Wim Callaert of Belgium has been plane spotting for about 25 years.
Callaert wrote in an email that he came to Alaska because it’s one of the few places where people can still see the old propliners flying.
“It’s just great to see them close by on the apron,” Callaert wrote. “And that is not possible in other countries. Also the sound is great of these birds.”
Copeland said he isn’t surprised that people are interested in the planes.
“These (aviation enthusiasts) — they hear about this stuff and they read about it,” Copeland said. “Here is an opportunity to see one that’s still working.”
People coming to Alaska from all over the world just to see the planes isn’t their only international exposure. The British aviation magazine “Propliner” has featured several of the C-46 planes, including Hot Stuff and Maid in Japan, in various issues.
What flies ahead
While it’s unusual that World War II-era propliners continue to fly in Alaska, let alone anywhere, Everts Air Cargo and Everts Air Fuel don’t plan on retiring the planes any time soon.
Because many spare parts specific to the C-46 and DC-6 aren’t produced anymore, Paul Abad said that Everts Air Cargo has a team of people who travel all over the world in search of old parts. The old planes that possess useful parts are called donors.
“We’ve been lucky enough to find parts in Canada and the Lower 48,” Abad said.
Copeland said that many of the world’s old C-46 parts are now in Alaska.
“I think Everts probably has most of all of them,” Copeland said.
When searches for needed parts prove unsuccessful, Abad said that Everts Air Cargo can manufacture whatever can’t be found.
As for what happens when these planes finally stop flying?
“We don’t think of that,” Abad said. “A lot of people said that 2000 was the death date. When that date passed they said 2005, and then it was 2010. Guess what? We’re still here.”