Downed plane gains new life as monument

Posted: Monday, May 08, 2000

Even though she's going to need a lot of work and may never fly again, local aviation enthusiasts can't wait until Dixie, a ditched Douglas DC-3, hops a barge from Petersburg and heads north to Juneau.

Almost 11 years ago, the plane became a part of Petersburg folklore when she crashed into the nearby Wrangell Narrows.

A group of Juneau aviators recently purchased the vintage World War II-era aircraft and plan to resurrect her as a monument to Alaska's aviation history.

``We want to make her a showpiece somewhere in Juneau. Hopefully at the airport as a `Welcome to Juneau' display,'' said Jeannie Johnson, co-chairwoman of the Southeast Alaska Regional Airshow.

Since being salvaged more than a decade ago, the DC-3 has been a squatter on state land in Petersburg. When the airshow committee heard that the state had finally set a date to auction Dixie, they went into action.

``We actually heard that she might go out of state only three days before the auction. Ten of us pitched in $500 apiece to meet the minimum bid,'' Johnson said.

Dixie's story might be coming to an end, but there has been much speculation and discussion to date.

``She's actually a C-47, not a DC-3, but the planes were used interchangeably so she's considered a DC-3,'' said Mike Orford, who informed the airshow committee about Dixie's imminent sale a month ago.

Built in either 1943 or 1944, the plane flew in the South Pacific with Col. ``Pappy'' Boyington of the Black Sheep Squadron during the war, according to Orford.

``Pappy had a reputation for being really unorthodox. He wore slippers during missions and drank quite a bit. But it worked,'' Orford said, with a laugh.

``From my understanding, the Black Sheep Squadron formed on the spot when we didn't have enough planes in the air when Japan dominated the sky in the South Pacific. They had a stellar record with their encounters with the Japanese.''

Although C-47s and DC-3s were designed to carry cargo and troops over ``the hump'' -- the Himalayas -- between India and China after the Japanese closed the Burma Road, Orford does not believe Dixie made that trip.

``This plane was babied. If it had done the trips over the hump, it would have been out of service before it ever came to Alaska. I heard it was a personal plane of a general,'' Orford said.

In 1979, after being decommissioned from military service, Ken Martin of Fairbanks brought the plane to Alaska. Dixie spent the better part of the next decade hauling freight and passengers throughout the Interior.

On June 25, 1988, Dixie was heading south to new owners, National Park Airways, in California. The company planned to restore the vintage plane to shuttle tourists over the Grand Canyon, according to newspaper reports at the time.

After refueling in Petersburg, the crew of two ran into trouble before reaching cruising altitude. Instead of turning back and risking a collision with the mountainous terrain that guards the Wrangell Narrows, the pilot decided to ditch the plane in the water.

Both men escaped unharmed, but Dixie sank to the bottom of Skow Bay.

``It turns out that the yoke chain broke on the plane, and they had no rudder control,'' said Fred Triem, who, along with Dave Berg, salvaged the plane.

``The irony of it all is that the plane has dual controls. All the pilot had to do was change seats,'' Triem added.

Upon learning of the crash, Triem, an attorney in Petersburg, created Petersburg Aircraft Salvors for the sole purpose of salvaging the plane with Berg.

``We both grew up in aviation families that had an affection for antique airplanes. We had hopes that we could make it fly again but we also thought we were doing a favor for the environment. The two fuels tanks were filled to the rim when the plane was ditched,'' Triem said.

The first problem for the salvagers was finding the plane.

``She traveled quite a distance under water. We eventually found her because of two little streamers of water in the Narrows that turned out to be escaping gasoline from the two fuel tanks,'' Triem said.

When Dixie was hauled out of the water soon after sinking, most of Petersburg turned out to watch and dubbed the event a second Fourth of July celebration, according to the Petersburg Pilot newspaper.

Once the plane was on land, Triem and Berg went to work. They flushed the engines, sprayed the plane with an anti-corrosive chemical and assessed the damage.

The nose of the plane was severely damaged and embedded with mud and clams from her encounter with the Narrows' floor. But the real obstacle to restoration was the deterioration of magnesium parts in the engines and landing gear as current flowed through the sunken plane, said Triem.

``The electrolysis was pretty extensive because the batteries were left on when the plane sank,'' said Berg, Triem's salvage partner and a travel agent in Petersburg. ``It was certainly a much bigger job that I ever dreamed of.''

As time went on, the duo realized that the project was too large to pursue while maintaining their full-time careers.

The plane remained on state property, where it stills sits today, as a local curiosity.

Now that the plane is owned by a sub-group of the Southeast Alaska Regional Airshow, plans are being solidified to transport the aircraft to Juneau by barge this summer.

``When they called up about redeeming the plane, we were essentially overjoyed,'' Berg said. ``This is an old historic plane that was too deserving to sit at the bottom of the Wrangell Narrows. I'll be real happy to see it on display, when I come through Juneau, as a fine addition to the history of Alaska's aviation.''

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