Jumpseat: Airliner Aficionados

A story of restoration: Bringing an old DC-7 back to life.

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** N836D was originally delivered to Eastern
Airlines in January 1958.**

(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.

Meanwhile, back at Opa-locka Airport, Carlos Gomez — an owner of Florida Air Transport — had a vision. He shared that vision with Roger Jarman, the owner of Atlantic-Models, a high-end scale-model manufacturer of airplane replicas. The vision was to restore an original passenger DC-6 or DC-7 to flying status. Carlos not only had the dream but he had the means. His company has been operating round-engine freight machines in the form of DC-7s, DC-6s and DC-4s for years.

Carlos is the director of maintenance and president for Florida Air Transport. He is an A&P and a flight engineer with a bona fide rating on reciprocating engines. And he has the appropriate experience to match. Carlos is also qualified as a check engineer. The fact that his T-shirts bear the honorable brown stains of perspiring round engines makes him the absolute epitome of a real “oiler.” Even as a former 727 oiler, I can’t hold a candle to Carlos.

When I inquired as to the availability of flight engineers in the area with DC-6 experience, he shrugged his shoulders, saying, “I’m one of six brothers. They all have FE tickets.”

Carlos’ father was in the aircraft maintenance business back in the days when Miami International’s (MIA) “corrosion corner” still had more oil on the ramp than did the surrounding gas stations on Le Jeune Road. The brothers grew up in the business, some becoming professional pilots.

As for Roger Jarman, his childhood roots were anchored in the days of the big prop transports. Although he once considered the airline pilot profession, the boredom of nonstop hours locked in straight and level flight wasn’t appealing. Instead, he operated a cargo loading company at MIA, where he provided his service to Carlos and his fleet. Roger became interested in a local, custom airplane scale-modeling business and eventually bought the company after selling his cargo operation. Notwithstanding Roger’s uncontained enthusiasm, his contacts with celebrities, VIPs and high-level executives have been a tremendous asset.

Through the tight circle of old airplane operators, Carlos was familiar with the status of N836D. With the help of colleague Marc Wolff, he strategized to purchase the airplane. Competitive bidders were in the market, one of them being a representative of former Eastern employees. The $50,000 deal was closed with a handshake in November 2003. When Minnesota’s snow melted, an intensive three months of preparation began. Carlos and Marc worked tirelessly together. The derelict airplane had been a regular sight for so long that the local community had assumed that the latest activity was to disassemble it into scrap.

With ferry permit in hand, the airplane departed Holman Field in August 2004 en route to Opa-locka. Carlos was N836D’s first flight engineer after 32 years of hibernation. Not wanting to risk undue stress on the wings, the airplane was fueled only enough to reach Atlanta with appropriate reserves. It was met by an enthusiastic crowd of former Eastern employees. The airplane then continued to Opa-locka, where the restoration began in earnest. In addition to the restoration, an equally important part of the process began. Under what FAR was the airplane going to operate in order to fly revenue passengers?

Carlos was relentless in his research. He reviewed the certificates of operators with similar historic aircraft. Although the FAA was cooperative, it found itself in uncharted territory. In the end, the decision was made to utilize both Part 91 with an appropriate exemption and Part 125 for flights beyond a 50-mile radius.

Once FAR Part 125 became part of the equation, the Historical Flight Foundation Inc. (HFF) was formed as a nonprofit organization. Carlos and Marc made the first donation: airplane N836D.

A week after making the airplane’s acquaintance in Key West, I had the honor of being invited to ride along on the day of a local scenic flight in Miami. Call me insane, but if you give me the choice of taking a ride in an F-22 or a vintage airliner, I’d choose the airliner every time. This flight held a sentimental importance for its passengers. The passengers were associated with the Eastern Air Lines Retirees Association. Needless to say, grins were not hard to find. Some expressions were pensive, perhaps reflecting on better days. Former pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, ticket agents, etc., were all part of the mix.

As with most volunteer organizations, the Historic Flight Foundation has a character defined by the main circle of people who are devoted to the cause.

Our bubbly “stewardess,” Karyle Rodenbeck Martin, a former Eastern flight attendant, kept the atmosphere both entertaining and orderly. She had taken on the laborious task of writing the cabin safety manual. She is also an A&P, a private pilot and a cabin training consultant for many types of airplane operations.

The captain of our scenic flight, Irving Silva, probably has more uniforms in his closet than I have socks. His resume reads like a who’s who of airlines. He has been employed by everybody from freight operators to passenger airlines to an Arabian sheik. His pilot certificate has just enough space to list his type ratings. A smile never leaves Irving’s face.

Glen Moss, our tall, lanky, soft-spoken copilot, had experience on a DC-3, DC-4, DC-6 and the DC-7. He had just passed his ATP check ride. Here’s the kicker: Glen is 23 years old. Granted, his father is a well-known operator of the airplanes I listed, but you have to admit that not every aviation kid would have the desire or the dedication to tackle airplanes of such complicated magnitude. Glen is the future in keeping these vintage airplanes flying.

The DC-7 is a story in and of itself. But more importantly, the personalities that had the passion and vision to resurrect this piece of aviation history are an even better story. These people are true airliner aficionados. Without them, airline heritage would be preserved only through the stale display of a museum or, worse, as decaying scraps of aluminum in a desert boneyard.

If you have an interest in preserving vintage airplanes like N836D or would consider arranging a memorable charter flight, please visit the Historic Flight Foundation website, n836d.com. Check the schedule for a possible visit to an airport near you.