Florida Air Cargo DC-3s

DC-3s Into the 21th Century – Florida Air Cargo

June 2022

When the DC-3 made its first flight back on December 17, 1935, I’m fairly certain that Donald Douglas never imagined that examples would still be in commercial service almost 87 years later. Florida Air Cargo operates three DC-3s on regular cargo flights and I recently visited the company’s home base at Opa-locka Airport (OPF) in Miami, where I spoke to company president Sergio Alen. Sergio purchased Florida Air Cargo in 2012 and it is the second airline operating out of OPF with that name.

Sergio has an extensive aviation background, which has been critical to the success of the operation. His first aviation job was in 1978 with Caribbean Aircraft Development Industries (CADI). The company was involved in converting four engine D.H. Herons to IO520 power for the Puerto Rican airline Prinair. His next job was with Eastern Airlines before he moved on to M&M Aircraft Services, which specialized in JT3D and JT8D jet engine overhauls.

In 1987 he earned his private pilots license and instrument rating but flying jobs were hard to come by and it was five years before he landed his first flying job as a DC-6 flight engineer for Miami based Regal Cargo. The job kept him away from home quite a bit and, with three young daughters at home, Sergio decided to cut short his flying career.

In 1993 he and partner Rodolfo Campo opened Alca Avionics, which was an OPF based FAA repair station specializing in avionics and general aircraft maintenance. The company did very well for at OPF but, after losing its lease in 2011, Rodolfo moved the company to Tamiami Airport, where it’s still in business.

In addition to being a co-owner of Alca Avionics, Sergio had been Florida Air Cargo’s Director of Maintenance for many years and acquired the company and its Part 135 certificate when it ceased operations in 2012. He leased one of the company’s former Cessna Caravans and began operations under the same name.
Florida Air Cargo currently has twelve full-time employees and operates three DC-3s and two Cessna 208 Caravans on regular Tuesday through Friday cargo flights to Nassau. While Nassau is the destination of most flights, the Part 135 certificate allows flight operations throughout the Caribbean, Central America, South America and the United States. Unlike most Part 135 operators, Florida Air Cargo doesn’t consolidate loads but specializes in providing full-airplane charter services to regular customers. The customer typically delivers the cargo to OPF; Florida Air Cargo crews load it on the airplane; and the customer offloads it at the destination under the supervision of the flightcrew. Maximum load for the DC-3 is 7,000 pounds and 3,000 pounds for the Caravan. Sergio decided to focus on this niche market because it allows the company to avoid the cost of maintaining a warehouse, delivery trucks and the associated expenses.
The COVID lockdown in the Bahamas led to a boom in ecommerce with Bahamians ordering large amounts of consumer goods that needed to be transported expeditiously from Miami to Nassau. Business continues to be very good with the company averaging 20+ roundtrips a week to Nassau.
Florida Air Cargo’s current fleet consists of former Missionary Air Group DC-3 N271SE; former IFL Group DC-3 N15MA; former Four Star Cargo DC-3 N138FS “Snoopy”; and Caravans N701SE and N702SE. N15MA was operated by the original Florida Air Cargo from 1997 to 2009, when it was sold to Monarch Air Group and based at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. It also spent some time in Cape Cod, Massachusetts with a private owner before returning to Florida.
Sergio confirmed that DC-3 parts are becoming harder to find, with generators, brushes and engine cylinders being of particular concern. Realizing that the DC-3 can’t go on forever, I asked him what he sees as a replacement in the OPF to Nassau niche market. While there are a number of aircraft that could fill the need, none are an affordable replacement for the venerable DC-3. The turbine DC-3 would be a perfect replacement but its multi-million dollar price tag makes it a non-starter.

Over the years Sergio has accumulated a number of aviation related credentials including Commercial Pilot SMEL; Instrument Rating; Airline Transport Pilot; DC-3 type rating, A&P mechanic, Inspection Authorization (IA); and certified sheet metal specialist. This allows him to fill in when the need arises thus avoiding grounded flights and unhappy customers.
OPF has changed dramatically from the 1990’s when it was home to many Propliners, both active and stored. In addition to Florida Air Cargo, Conquest Air Cargo operates three CV340s and a leased CV580 with Atlantic Air Cargo operating a single DC-3 at the airport. Over the past ten years, the airport has been transformed from a Propliner haven to an executive airport full of business jets. While there are no derelict Propliners on the field, there are a number of stored jet airliners that are probably not long for this world. The remaining Propliners are tolerated at OPF because they consume a considerable amount of avgas but, with the burgeoning business jet populations, it’s anyone’s guess how much longer there’ll be room for them.

I’d like to thank Sergio Alen for taking the time out of his busy day for our interview and to Roland Little for assisting in making the interview happen.

Ralph M. Pettersen
August 2022

Photo Credits: Florida Air Cargo, Ralph M. Pettersen

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----Created 24 August 2022----