Alexander Aeroplane DC-3
A Great Day for a Wanna-Be DC-3 Pilot
In June 1995 I had the opportunity to fly DC-3 N28AA 'Alexander Aeroplane', which at the time was owned by Ron Alexander. It was an experience of a lifetime and I wrote an article, which was published in Propliner #63. I recently came across the film negatives from that trip and have included them in the original text of the article. A number of things have changed since 1995 including the death of Ron Alexander in the November 1996 crash of a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny; the sale of his company, Alexander Aeroplane, to Aircraft Spruce and Specialty in January 1996; the tragic crash of Carvair N83FA at Griffin-Spalding County Airport on April 4, 1997; the move of DC-3 N130D and DST N133D to Shell Creek Airport near Punta Gorda, Florida where N133D is undergoing a long-term restoration; the loss of Carvair N103 during an emergency landing on a gravel bar near Venetie, Alaska on June 28, 1997 and multiple sales of N28AA. The aircraft is currently owned by the Shannon Air Museum and based at Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Its rudder was blown off during a violent thunderstorm on July 14, 2021 but was otherwise undamaged and will be repaired. Here's the article, which was my second to be published!
In May 1994 Ron had to make some hard choices regarding the future of the airplane when cracks were found in the center section spar resulting in the airplane being grounded. After much soul searching and analysis it was decided that the old girl was worth saving and the decision was made to ferry her to Canada for the necessary repair work. Six weeks later she was ferried back to Griffin just in time for her trip to the annual EAA Oshkosh Airshow. Ron is very fortunate to have Academy Airlines, a longtime operator of DC-3s, located on the same field in Griffin. Academy has, and continues to provide invaluable support in the restoration and operation of this airplane. All totaled, this lady has over 80,000 flight hours and is still going strong.
Alexander Promotions, a company owned by Ron Alexander of Alexander Aeroplane fame, bases DC-3 N28AA at the Griffin-Spalding County Airport in Griffin, GA. This airplane, a DC-3A (c/n 2239) was completed in December 1939 and delivered new, as part of a second batch of airplanes to Braniff Airways, as NC25666 in June 1940. In April 1953 she went to Trans Texas Airways with whom she worked until 1968. During the next ten years she served various small airlines including Tradewinds Airmotive, Air Mid Atlantic, Air New England, Cryderman Air Service and Century Airlines. In June 1978 she was sold to Province-Town Boston Airlines and re registered N139PB. She was based in Boston, MA and Naples, FL during her tenure with PBA. She later flew with Eastern Express, a commuter service for Eastern Airlines, until Eastern's demise in 1990. In 1991 she was advertised for sale in Trade-A-Plane and Ron Alexander, President of Alexander Aeorplane Company purchased her from Starflite of Miami, FL. On July 18, 1991 she was flown to her new home base at Griffin-Spalding Airport. Since then new instruments and avionics have been added along with new bathroom fixtures, curtains and carpets and she is currently outfitted with 16 seats. In 1992 she was painted with the current blue trim color scheme and, with the exception of the painting, all restoration work is being performed by the employees of Alexander Aeroplane.
Since her acquisition by Alexander she has been regular at US airshows such as the annual EAA Sun-And-Fun and Oshkosh. At the 1995 Sun-And-Fun show she ferried the Thunderbirds demonstration team between the show and McDill AFB. She has been flow by some famous pilots including Chuck Yeager who, for the past three years at Oshkosh, has flown youngsters as part of the EAA’s Young Eagles Program. She is also used quite regularly for the "Nostalgia Flight" program that I flew on. She currently flies about 100 hours per year and Ron plans on keeping her for many years to come.
I first became aware of Alexander Aeroplane’s "Nostalgia Flight" program while thumbing through their parts catalog. Seemed like a fun thing to do but the $1,295 price tag seemed a little high for my means. During the next year or so, I read more about the flights and decided that this would make a very nice birthday present for myself. I contacted Alexander Promotions, talked with Denise Mote and the date was set for June 17, 1995. Along with directions to Griffin , I was sent a copy of Alexander’s DC-3 operations manual for study prior to the flight.
Denise had given me instructions to meet my instructor pilot, Bill Mercure at the airplane at the Griffin-Spalding County Airport at 9am. Not wanting to be late, I arrived at the airport a few minutes early and was surprised by the number of propliners populating this small airport. This single runway (3,300 x 75 foot) airport was host to no fewer than two ATL-98 Carvairs, two Beech 18s and eight DC-3s of various vintage and color schemes. More about this fascinating little airport later on in the article.
Bill arrived precisely at 9am and we introduced ourselves. Bill is a captain for Delta Airlines where he has worked for 27 years and flies B757's and B767's. Prior to joining Delta, he flew DC-3s and Martins for two years with Southern Airways in the mid-sixties. He told me that, at the ripe old age of twenty and Southern paying him $375/mo, he had thought he had died and gone to heaven. Couldn’t get into a bar but was intrusted with the lives of twenty or more paying passengers! Bill’s dad, at the age of 89 is still flying and his son, who’s 21st birthday was the day of our flight, is primed and ready to follow in Bill’s footsteps.
The first chore of the day involved the pre-flight inspection of the airplane. In her polished aluminum finish she is truly an impressive sight. Removing gust-locks, checking engine oil (20 gallons per engine) and fuel levels, and checking the overall airworthiness of the airplane consumes much more time than the Bonanzas and Aztecs I'm used to flying. Once this had been completed we moved into the cockpit. Since N28AA is a true DC-3 airliner, she doesn’t have a cargo door and we entered via the left side airstairs. The instrument panel, for the most part, has been updated with contemporary radios and instruments and I was familiar with most of the items. The overhead switches, cowl flap controls, flap and landing gear actuator handles were 1940's vintage with the flap and landing gear actuator handles looking like something out of a steam locomotive. Engine startup involved turning the master, ignition, and booster switches on, setting the mixture controls to idle cut-off and cracking open the throttles. With the right hand, the rocker switch was positioned to the right engine and the starter switch was engaged. After counting nine blades the mixture control was set to auto-rich with the left hand and the engine came to life. Oil pressure was carefully monitored after startup and the procedure was repeated with the left engine. Needless to say each engine startup resulted in much white smoke and strange engine noises. Once the engines were warmed up we started on the adventure.
Taxiing a DC-3 was quite a challenge and was hopefully something I would get better at. Griffin’s taxiways are narrow for a DC-3 and Bill reminded me on numerous occasions not to knock down any signs or run over any lights. We made it to the end of runway 14 and completed a standard runup including prop and magneto checks. Everything checked out fine and it was time to go flying. This involved lining the airplane up on the runway, locking the tailwheel, setting the friction locks on the throttles, and increasing power to 2700 rpm and 48" of manifold pressure. After that, my job was to keep her pointed straight down the runway until we reached 84 knots (V1/V2). At that point I relaxed forward control pressure and she flew off the runway. From my vantage point in the cockpit, it seemed like the nose was pointed straight down into the runway but Bill assured me that this was necessary to keep the airplane on the ground until we reached V1/V2 and it was time to fly.
We headed for Callaway Airport in LaGrange, GA which has two large runways, the longest being 5600 feet long. On the way to LaGrange I did some steep turns, slow flight, gear and flap extensions and retractions, and a stall. Other than the “big airplane” feel, it flew just like every other general aviation airplane I had ever flown. It was definitely not as “heavy” on the controls as the Martin 404 I had flown in 1992. At LaGrange, which is a wide open airport with little traffic, we shot five or six touch-and-go’s and two full stop landings. After the second full stop landing we taxied to the parking apron and shut down. You would figure we would cause quite a stir but, with the exception of a few corporate pilots who wanted to see the inside of the airplane, everyone pretty much took our presence in stride. Parked on the far side of the airport was Carvair N103 being worked on. This airplane is reportedly being prepared for cargo work in Alaska and appeared to be close to making that trip. Interesting to note that with probably less than a half a dozen Carvairs remaining in the world today, three viable examples exist less than 50 miles apart.
The flight back to Griffin was uneventful but the landing on its 3300 foot runway was somewhat exciting for this fledgling DC-3 pilot. With Bill’s expert guidance I kept the airspeed at 85 knots, the power up, and aimed for the runway's numbers. When it was all over, we had landed and stopped well short of the runway end and I was starting to feel like I was getting the hang of flying the old lady. As we were taxiing back to our parking spot, I reflected on what a great day it had been and how lucky I had been to be able to fly such an historic airliner. It is a day I will remember for a long time.
Griffin-Spalding Airport is located about 35 miles southeast of Atlanta and, for a small airport, has many interesting aircraft. An aircraft salvage yard is located at the northwest corner of the airport with many contemporary aircraft stored in various states of disassembly. On the south side of the airport sit a row of British Aerospace T5A jet trainers ready for restoration and delivery to new civilian owners. As mentioned earlier, of real interest to me was the large number of propliners located on the field. In addition to the Alexander DC-3, there were seven DC-3s parked at the airport along with the two ATL-98 Carvairs and two Beech 18s.
The two ATL-98 Carvairs, N83FA and N89FA, are owned by Academy Airlines and were parked on their ramp located at the southeast part of the airport. N89FA is painted in a white and yellow color scheme and N83FA is painted in a rather faded silver and blue color scheme. Both were essentially complete and Bill reported that N83FA is flow on a somewhat regular basis. Due to the short 3300 foot runway at Griffin, flight operations involve taxiing the airplanes to the very end of the runway to assure that every foot of precious runway is available for use during the takeoff run. I was told that watching the Carvairs take off provides quite a show for the locals.
The seven DC-3s include a number of interesting aircraft. N173RD is ex C-FGXW which was involved in the Odyssey 86 around the world flight reported in Propliner issue 28. In addition to its Odyssey markings, it has small Lance Toland Associates markings on the nose. Lance Toland is an insurance and aircraft broker and is selling the British Aerospace trainers located on the field.
Across the field from this airplane a group of six DC-3s and two Beech 18s are parked. The Beech 18s are complete with one being registered N2AP and the other unmarked. The first DC-3, painted in Academy Airlines colors, is N133D and she is the sixth DC-3/DST built, having been delivered to American Airlines as NC16005 in July 1936. She is engineless but otherwise complete. N143D is parked with only one engine and also seems to be otherwise complete.
Parked next is N130D which has a very interesting paint scheme. Instead of having a traditional cheat line, her cheat line consists of a mural of animals including a gorilla, kangaroo, camel, giraffe and others. This airplane flies regularly, is named animal crackers and is used as a backup by Alexander if their DC-3 is not available. N232GB is the next airplane and it looks to be in basic ex-military colors. It is complete and appears airworthy.
N99FS presents a very handsome image in her olive drab paint scheme with what appears to be WWII D-Day invasion markings. Something looked very familiar about this airplane and I realized that she was the support airplane used by the Greenland Expedition Society to recover the P-38 from the Greenland icecap in 1992. I had photographed her during the 1992 Oshkosh Airshow when she sported a very smart red and yellow color scheme and skis. The last DC-3 was a derelict ex-FAA airplane registered N47. She was essentially stripped and seems to be destined to become someone's beer can.
Southern hospitality being was it is, Denise invited us to the Alexander Aeroplane annual picnic at a private airstrip called Brook Bridge located a few miles from Griffin. In addition to much fine food and drink, free rides in vintage airplanes were for the asking and I had the pleasure of riding in a 1928 Stearman airmail biplane. What a finish to a great day! The flight back to Washington, DC by ValuJet DC-9-30 was truly anticlimactic and an hour late to boot.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Ralph M. Pettersen, Dee Dee Pettersen, Alexander Promotions
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