October 1, 2022
North, to the Past: Flying the Douglas DC-6 across Alaska’s Final Frontier

North, to the Past: Flying the Douglas DC-6 across Alaska’s Final Frontier

DALLAS – It’s three o’clock in the morning, Central Daylight Time. Our shuttle bus bounces deliberately along the airport roadway, navigating a seemingly endless labyrinth of heavy machinery.

Bag tugs clatter noisily past my window towing long, brushed aluminum tails, their silver containers reflecting the glow of headlights, work lights, aircraft beacons, and, high above, the soft radiance of a full summer’s moon. This is Memphis on a weekday night, the in-between time at the world’s largest global freight hub. 

It is the beating heart at the center of global commerce, primed and ready to launch the next wave of goods, merchandise, and commodities, tens of thousands of tons worth, across the country and around the globe. Couched in the quiet darkness of our van, we are beset on all sides by hundreds of airplanes, most of which weigh well in excess of four hundred thousand pounds fully loaded, and all of which are painted in identical orange, white, and purple liveries. 

My ride tonight, however, is unique. For me, the gargantuan Boeing 777 poised intimidatingly on the ramp outside isn’t just “The World on Time.” For me, it is a time machine; a portage to a place where the echoes of the past reverberate across the snow-swept mountains, meandering glaciers, and boundless forests of America’s last frontier.

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Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

I still remember that feeling, sitting up in bed the night before school, absolutely despising the fact that I was a teenager. I was obsessed with aviation, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. In the morning, on my drive-in, I’d pause at the stop sign for an extra beat, gazing yearningly at the long, wispy tendrils filling the brilliant azure sky.

The AM rush was on, with airplanes of all shapes and sizes forming a radiant, sunlit conga line, a jet-powered pilgrimage from sea to shining sea… and I was going to math class.  In study hall I’d often lose myself in a book, usually one of Ernie Gann or Tom Wolf’s masterful works, and therein find myself transported back to a glorious time where airplanes weren’t flown so much as tamed. They were wild creatures plying a wild domain, and they called to me.

These days, pilots aren’t quite the superheroes they were in books like “Fate is the Hunter.” In modern airplanes like the triple seven, we find ourselves acting mostly as systems managers, reclining in great comfort in our orderly, almost antiseptic flight decks. Our workplace is the result of decades of study and refinement, designed for efficiency, simplicity, and safety. 

Whatever little environmental and engine noise was left to be heard is now completely eliminated by the noise-canceling feature of our headsets, and while I still adore the view from my place in the conga line, there just seems to be something…missing.

After nearly six hours of restless tossing and turning in a bunk fit for a U-Boat, I’m still catching my breath as I step onto the mesh steel air stairs and glimpse my first view of the morning sun, rising brilliantly over the eastern mountains. The crisp dawn air is immediately rejuvenating, and as I make my way across the cargo ramp and scope out a quiet place to relax and reflect, I find myself feeling increasingly exhilarated. 

I’ve come to visit Everts Air Cargo (5V) in Anchorage, Alaska, a place where the old birds of Ernie Gann’s time still live and work, serving as a vital lifeline to dozens of remote villages and native outposts. 

Alaska strikes me immediately as a serene and beautiful place, but one that is also distinctively idiosyncratic. It is a place where thoroughly ancient equipment represents the cutting edge of human progress, where timeless history meets a time that waits for no one. 

It’s a beautiful and thoroughly essential dichotomy, and I am enthralled. “Patrick?” A bearded man in a very dirty reflective vest has caught my attention and snapped me out of the daydream. It’s time. “Let’s go meet the DC-6!”

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Everts Air Cargo Douglas DC-6. Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

Walking out to a Douglas DC-6 feels very different from approaching a modern jet. While heading to a contemporary passenger liner feels neat, clean, and choreographed, stepping to the “Six” feels more like approaching a great, resting beast. While the airplanes I fly come off distinctly like machines, the DC-6 feels almost alive. 

It seethes oil and hydraulic fluid, the engines pop and crackle as they cool, and one finds himself immediately impressed by an air of sheer mechanical ferocity. “If you want to keep your clothes clean, don’t come any closer than thirty feet” jokes Travis, our flight engineer, with a laugh. 

Replaced most everywhere by computers decades ago, engineers are still very much an integral part of the flight crew here in Alaska. For would-be cargo pilots, it’s often the first step in making a career of flying airplanes like the DC-6.  Flight engineers become intimately familiar with the mechanical intricacies of the aircraft, and today I would truly come to appreciate just how much systems management used to be accomplished by human hands.

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Everts Air Cargo Douglas DC-6. Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

John and Andrew, my pilots today, have decades of combined experience flying in Alaska. At first, I’m treated wearily, as an outsider, particularly when I announce that I’ll be writing a story on my experiences with them. 

Pilots here simply aren’t used to sharing their space with jump seaters like we are in the lower forty-eight. Once they’ve done their due diligence, however, and have satisfied themselves that I’m not a total weirdo, they open up and let me in. 

Today we’ll be flying to Togiak, a remote Inuit fishing village about four hundred miles west of Anchorage. Cruising at an average airspeed of around one hundred seventy knots, the trip will take just under two hours each way.

Strapped into the fold-down jumpseat at the rear of the cabin, I take a moment to absorb my surroundings. The DC-6 definitely smells like a museum plane, or perhaps that derelict Cessna 150 that we’ve all poked our heads into at some point on the flight line. 

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Douglas DC-6 controls (detail). Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

In this cockpit, though, it’s mixed with a myriad of other smells: avgas, oil, residual exhaust, coffee, sweat; scents that distinguish this old bird from the relics left idle in halls and hangars across the country. This is a working airplane, and it has been for nearly seventy years. The hardware, from the big metal door handle to the absolutely ancient cable connectors on the radio stack, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s positively steampunk. 

Everything feels solid, carefully crafted, and deliberate. It’s built to last. The door closed, Travis folds his seat down and takes his place at the rear of the cockpit, just behind the power levers.  

“Three! Six! Nine!” John calls out propellor rotations as oil is circulated through each of the engine’s eighteen massive cylinders.  I feel the airplane wiggle a little at first, and as the engine catches and coughs, the entire airframe begins to resonate. The process is completed three more times in succession: magnetos on, mixtures full rich, ignitors set, boost pump on and pressures checked. “Four’s clear!” 

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Douglas DC-6 Propellors. Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

As Andrew presses the starter switches together, John again calls out blade rotations. On nine, Andrew flips the boost, and primer switches on, and the engine coughs to life. A billow of white smoke pours from the exhaust pipes and swirls over the wing and past my window. At first, the engine rumbles and shakes, out of phase with its wing-bound sister, but after a few seconds, it seems to find a steady and harmonious rhythm. 

With all four engines running, the DC-6 is a minor cacophony, and the sights and sounds from both inside and out are unlike anything else you’ll ever experience in an airliner.

Laden with thousands of pounds of cargo, the DC-6 is Togiak’s lifeblood. A village of roughly eight hundred mostly native Alaskans, Togiak depends on Everts not only for its supplies but also for its trade. Remotely located on the shores of Togiak Bay and the Bering Sea, this tiny town continues the Inuit fishing traditions that have been a staple of the Alaskan seaside for centuries. 

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Everts crews at work. Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

The irony of this old bird flying Vitamin Water, Dunkin Donuts Iced Coffee, and Coca-Cola into this place is not lost on me, and I wish I’d had more time to learn about the area and its residents. For Everts crews, these people are family.  Pilots and engineers alike deeply appreciate the integral role they play in communities such as Togiak, and they feel a sincere connection to the town and its people. 

I am envious of the bonds they are able to form with their customers; it is something that flying hundreds of strangers a day to dozens of cities simply doesn’t afford me.

Takeoff in a DC-6, for a first-timer, is both a fascinating and disconcerting experience. The airplane doesn’t climb so much as slowly extricate itself from the surface of the planet. When Andrews calls “gear up!” I am confident we’re still on the ground, but as the twelve propellor blades bite hungrily into the cool northern air, sure enough, the Six pulls us skyward. 

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Mount Redoubt. Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

On climb out, engineer Travis is busy adjusting a myriad of switches and levers, from propellor speeds to fuel flows to, of all things, spark plug frequency. Mounted at his right shoulder is an archaic scope, about four inches in diameter, with a green background. On it is displayed an electrical sine wave, much like you’d see on a hospital heart monitor, except much, much older. 

With this, Travis can observe and adjust the frequency of each of the engine’s dozens of spark plugs. Rotating the chunky metal dial, he works his way through each one, ensuring all four engines are optimally tuned. The things we take for granted in our jetliners.

As we make our way down the coast, John and Andrew, taking turns hand-flying the airplane, are kind enough to point out local landmarks, as if they could possibly go unnoticed. Cruising over the Alaskan range, I am captivated by the soaring peaks of Mount Redoubt with its top blown to pieces by multiple volcanic eruptions; its jagged granite face dusted white against the deep cerulean sky. 

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Glaciers below. Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

Far below, rivers of glacial ice meander through the valleys; I count five distinct flows, meeting in a great confluence of power that I can’t even begin to fathom. This is the stuff that makes continents, and it is all so wonderfully beguiling.

Topping out at eleven thousand feet, we clear the range and begin our descent into a cloudy Togiak. The runway is just four thousand feet of dirt and gravel, and it’s the reason airplanes like the DC-6 remain a staple of Alaskan commerce.  On the ground, all three crewmembers help to unload the airplane, unstrapping pallets and shuffling them to the rear cargo door for unloading by forklift. As they do this, I have a wonderful opportunity to really explore the Six. 

From the tops of the slick, oil-soaked wings to the captain’s chair itself, I just can’t get enough of the old Douglas. The control wheel feels cold and solid in my hand, its ergonomics practically nonexistent. Everything in the cockpit seems to be made of steel; rivets abound.

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Douglas DC-6 cockpit (detail). Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

A clunky magnetic compass is suspended by ropes above the massive metal wheel used for adjusting rudder trim. Everything here is true to the original build, with dozens of round, glass-covered instruments housing hundreds of twitching luminescent needles. The paint is peeling off of every surface.

Iced coffee and soda gone, the airplane is re-stocked with tons and tons of frozen Coho salmon, bound for markets back east. Barreling down the bumpy runway, the prop discs are laced with beautiful, wispy rings of condensation. 

We lift off just before the end of the strip and blast out over the bay, seemingly skimming the tops of the icy waves as we depart. I wonder what would happen if one of our engines decided it had had enough for the day and called it quits; apparently, it is not an uncommon occurrence. Despite how lucky I am to have so much to see on this trip, easy days like this one are rare. 

These crews work hard, and they do so in an absolutely unforgiving environment. It takes a unique soul to do this job, and I can sense that my companions are a rare and special breed of pilots.

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Douglas DC-6 window. Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

On the return trip, I find my face glued to the small glass portal at the top of the main cabin door, steadying myself with an elbow pressed firmly against the wall. Alaska’s colors are enchanting; the palette of whites, blues, greens, and browns mixing together as oceans, lakes, and mountains pass by below. 

The rhythm of the engines translates across the entire airplane, down the wings, up the fuselage, and across the tip of my nose. At the business end, the pilots and the engineer are ready to put an end to their long day, but for me, four hours have never passed by so quickly. Landing back in Anchorage is a return to civilization and the twenty-first century, and it tickles me to hear a brand-new 737 read back “give way to the DC-6” on the tower control frequency.  

Ground crews again descend upon the airplane as we block in, installing big aluminum oil pans beneath the engines and pushing propellors through in great, slow rotations. There is still much to be done here and, as I return myself to earth, I snap my last few pictures of the airplane’s oil-streaked belly. 

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Photo: Patrick W. Smith/Airways

To the west the sun sinks low, bathing the grey and blue DC-6 in a sublimely golden hue. Tomorrow, when I’ve flown south and returned to my modern reality, this airplane will be flying again, plying the vast, untamed wilderness once more, undaunted by the relentless march of time. Here in Alaska, that’s just the way things are, and it is my earnest hope that some things will never change.

Having the opportunity to do this kind of flying in the year 2021 is absolutely wonderful, but it’s the place and the people that made this experience truly special. I want to sincerely thank Andrew, John, and Travis for sharing their airplane with me. I’d also like to thank the pilots, dispatchers, and employees of Everts Air Cargo for their help in making this trip possible. 

The next time I’m relaxing in my faux sheepskin seat, surrounded by the warm glow of modern displays and a grade-A environmental control system, I’ll think of my brothers and sisters in Alaska, carrying the torch, proving every day that real pilots and real airplanes still exist in this world full of posers like me.  

Featured image: Douglas DC-6 cockpit. Photo: Patrick Smith/Airways

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