Aging DC-6 gets new skin, new nose, new job in Bush

Posted: Monday, May 20, 2002

FAIRBANKS - A middle-age makeover, complete with a nose job, is giving a lift to an aging workhorse with a new role.

The 44-year-old Douglas DC-6 airplane has been carefully reconfigured by a team of 40 workers so it can take on a new role - carrying fuel to Bush Alaska.

Mechanics spent the last 14 months restoring and refitting the four-engine veteran to Federal Aviation Administration specifications.

The plane's captain, Ron Klemm, added patriotic nose art and rechristened the flying ship The Spirit of America.

"It's a sign of the times," said Klemm, saying the Sept. 11 attacks inspired the name.

The plane was built Jan. 1, 1958, the last year the DC-6 was made, and quickly departed for foreign shores.

For the first two decades, the plane ferried passengers in Western Europe and Africa. Then it came back across the Atlantic to Canada in 1975.

The plane was brought north in the late 1990s from Abbotsford, British Columbia, where it spent a couple decades fighting Canadian forest fires. Then it spend a few years malingered among a dozen other derelicts in an aviation boneyard at Fairbanks International Airport.

"We configured it for our operation," said Charles Hood, director of maintenance for Air Cargo Express, who has been an aircraft mechanic since 1955.

The windows were removed and replaced with a metal skin, saving about 20 pounds a window, Hood said. Three heaters were added for deicing and a fourth for cockpit warmth. Then the plane got a fuel dump system required by FAA, said Klemm, Everts Air Fuel's director of operations.

Hood isn't worried about running low on parts for the DC-6. There are half a dozen of the same vintage in the boneyard, sitting in the company of a C-46, a C-119 and three Convairs.

Delivery of two more DC-6s from Quebec City is expected soon, he said.

"It's a unique plane that fits a niche in Alaska that no other plane can fill in its price range," Hood said. "It carries a payload that takes quite an expensive plane in the jet market to match."

Only a few DC-6s are left, say Hood and Klemm. As a result the local aviation boneyard has developed a museum-like magnetism drawing curious tourists.

"In the summer, there's a whole string of Europeans standing at the fence taking pictures," Klemm said.

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