(August 2011) As I rolled through the security gate at the GA side of the Key West Airport, I glanced toward the ramp area reserved for corporate jets and larger equipment. I caught a glimpse of the tail and upper fuselage of a hulking airplane as it taxied to a parking spot. Even with my windows closed, there was no mistaking the throaty rumble of four round engines. A Harley couldn’t compete.
The airplane was a DC-6. Nope … wait … wrong. It was a DC-7B. And it was painted with the 1950s logo of Eastern Air Lines. Way cool. The airliner had flown in from Miami’s Opa-locka Airport. Its passengers had paid for a vintage airplane ride and a day in Key West. Very classy.
As much as I wanted to climb on board, my Cherokee Six was craving attention. The Six had been towed to the unofficial wash and wax hangar away from the tie-down ramp. I unloaded the appropriate cleaning paraphernalia from my truck and then gazed at the DC-7. The airplane was having the same magnetic effect that a girl in a bikini elicited when I was a teenager. Pathetic, I know.
I had logged all of 100 hours in a DC-6 simulator at my alma mater. Perhaps that was the source of my affection.
Oh, what the hell. The Six could wait. I drove over to the DC-7 and introduced myself to the crew. They were gracious enough to allow me a self-guided tour. I was awed by the crispness of the immaculately restored cabin. Even the aft circular lounge had been meticulously renovated to its original design. My grin grew wider with a view of the cockpit. With very few modifications, the almost dizzying array of instrumentation was the same.
Airplane N836D was delivered to Eastern Air Lines in 1958. It retired from service in 1965, when the jet age began to infiltrate the industry. Slightly more than 100 DC-7Bs were manufactured. In generic terms, the DC-7 has higher horsepower engines then the DC-6 — Wright Cyclones in the DC-7 and Pratt & Whitney engines in the DC-6. The DC-7 fuselage is three feet longer. And the props of a DC-7 have four blades as opposed to the three on the DC-6.
A Detroit travel club purchased N836D from Eastern, eventually replacing it with a Lockheed Electra. In 1972, the airplane was then sold to a gentleman in St. Paul who had the intention of operating a local travel club. It never happened. Although the engines were periodically run, the airplane became an airport monument, permanently affixed to the ramp at Holman Field, the downtown St. Paul airport (STP), for the next 32 years.