The First Time – 40 Years Ago – Part 1

October 1980

By Graham Robson

I find it hard to believe it is now 40 years since my first trip to the USA. It was a slightly unexpected event, considering I was planning on a very ‘ordinary’ vacation in Spain in 1980, when 3 friends and I discovered Laker Skytrain !

Back then, a more simple lifestyle meant vacations were made via travel agencies, face-to-face contact with a person arranging your holiday plans – no internet and on-line price comparisons in those days ! Such was the demand for the new-fangled idea of cheap holidays in the USA that our names went on a list and, when availability was confirmed, so we had to confirm our reservations.

None of us had much idea of what to expect, least of all the stifling heat when we walked off the DC-10 at Miami International at 10.30 pm, it was unbelievable how hot and humid it still was, that late in the evening, as we made our way to Miami Beach and the hotel that would be home for the next 2 weeks. Even more un-expected, next morning, was the sight that greeted us, which can only be described as over-whelming.

As a 19-year-old, I had very little ‘disposable income’, less so having paid the exorbitant price of the flight ticket, hotel and my share of the car rental and it grieves me, to this day, that I could afford no more than 5 rolls of Kodachrome K-64, staggering ! Can you imagine that first morning at Miami International, being confronted with 33 DC-6s; 4 DC-7s; 13 C-46s and 11 DC-3s…. and so, so much more and having to be choosy about what to take a picture of, in order to try and make 5 rolls of film last the next 2 weeks. This sad fact is the reason I have so few images from that time.

Everything was new to me and there was, at the time, as much enthusiasm to log every registration as there was to photograph, what little I was able to. My introduction to this wonderful place, teased almost, was thanks to the first 2 editions of Propliner magazine, which tantalized with a rich variety of old piston transports. Miami International in October 1980 was a defining moment for my life-time passion of the subject, that has continued ever since.

With only a basic knowledge of the layout of the airport, we simply started at the infamous ‘corrosion corner’ of NW 36th Street and systematically drove around the perimeter, from ramp to ramp, utterly staggered at the quantity and quality of what was there. I hope the following will bring a flavour of what it was like, in the heady days of, what was, probably, South Florida’s last great hurrah, for old propliners.

NW 36th Street was a far cry from today’s concrete jungle. A simple chain-link fence was all that separated you from dozens of propliners and open gates were easily accessed for a better view of what was around any corner. I have a vivid memory of my first view of this area. The closest parking spot to the fence was occupied by Super Constellation N6922C, in her fake-Iberia scheme, having recently starred in a tv commercial. This was only the second Connie I’d ever seen, the first being the L-749 preserved at Paris-Le Bourget. My very poor picture is the only view I have of this famous ‘corner’, its poor quality a sad reflection of my novice photography ‘skills’, such as they were at that time. Further along the fence line, hidden away amongst a collection of old jets, was yet another Super Constellation, the infamous ‘Clipper Dick’ N1880, which had come to grief in a ground incident some years earlier rendering it only fit for airport fire rescue training in later years.

Moving further eastwards, along NW36th and venturing up each side-road provided an even greater selection of eclectic air freighters, both US registered and from Central and South American countries, full ramps of old propliners, seemingly, squeezed into much too small an area for their size.

The bewildering array of airframes included suspiciously anonymous DC-6 AN-BFM that, although complete and potentially airworthy, looked very inactive. Not far away, Miami Air Lease’s DC-6 N844TA was also parked up, wearing an equally understated scheme. Sadly, only 6 weeks later this aircraft was destroyed when it hit the sea close to Bimini, most likely on its way back from South America with an illegal cargo.
It seemed that the freight business didn’t ever stop. Activity on the cargo ramps continued, often, well after sunset, quite possibly to allow things to happen that were better unseen. We caught L-100 N7984S of Southern Air Transport, at that time still part of the CIA’s clandestine air operations, departing on the evening of the first day there. This was closely followed by F.A. Conner’s DC-6 N55CA returning from a freight run to the islands while the beautiful DC-7C N74303 remained dormant on the ramp alongside, still wearing the distinctive and colourful scheme of its previous owner Club International. This classic propliner would also end its days the victim of illegal activity, being reported as impounded at Freeport, Bahamas, sometime after Mar 1981.
It took some time for us to realise the US Customs ramp, at the end of the first side-road westwards from ‘The Corner’, often had some of the most exotic visitors. All inbound foreign and US freighters would park here first to clear customs, before re-positioning to the various ramps nearby. Such gems as DC-3 HC-AOP, with after-market undercarriage fairings and prop spinners, was a nice find on that first morning, as was Guatemalan Air Force DC-6 FAG-926 as well as at least two Air Haiti C-46s, which seemed quite frequent visitors on subsequent days. Later in the week Bolivian Air Force C-130H CP-1376 was seen, having arrived over-night or early that morning.
Even though most of the ramps were the territory for jobbing freight consolidation operators, bustling with cargo, the area was also home to some interesting maintenance companies, such as American Jet Industries where, that first morning, two Lockheed Electras were receiving attention. Honduran operator TAN’s HR-TNL looked to be undergoing some routing work between its freight service schedule, while alongside was parked a much more unusual, corporate, example N8LG owned by the TV evangelist Rex Humbard, undergoing slightly deeper maintenance.
We quickly came to identify each area, by our own local nick-names - The Corner; Equatoriana hangar; Bellomy Lawson; Conner etc.. and we would repeat the circuit of all these viewing spots at the start and end of each day, as we ventured out all over the State during the 2 weeks’ vacation. On days with more time to spare, once we’d completed ‘the circuit’ to be sure that nothing ‘new’ had been missed, we settled at a favourite location at the dead-end of NW57 th Avenue. This was the access road to the Bellomy-Lawson area, looking directly onto the northerly runway (9L/27R) that gave good views across the entire airfield and the best opportunity to be close to the old freighters operating from the ramps alongside the north runway. The staple diet of these ramps were the numerous locally based operators, many of which flew commercial, non-scheduled operations on FAA Part 135 certificates. This meant many of the old freighters, working for freight consolidators, could not display any company colours, hence the proliferation of bare metal scheme and, often, lack of any company titles.

Such anonymous freighters included Seagreen Air Transport’s DC-6 N1037F with a green cheat line, F A Conner’s DC-6s, N614CA that wore a simple blue cheat line together with their other active examples N55CA and N43866 that were both bare metal, as was Turks Air’s C-54 N88939 and Inter Air’s C-46 N355M. Some freight companies, such as Rich International and Challenge Air Transport, were part 121 operators and, as such, displayed their full airline colour scheme and titles, as seen on Rich C-46 N5370N.
Spotting from the fence at the end of NW57 th Avenue denied the chance to soak up the atmosphere of the bustling cargo ramps, but did provide the best opportunities for active shots, shown by Air Haiti C-46 lumbering out from 9L on another of her regular trips to Port au Prince. Occasionally, something slightly unusual would appear and during the first couple of days two CL-44s were seen, HC-AZH a former Canadair CC-106 of Equadorian operator Andes and stretched ‘J’ model N4998S, being operated at the time by Cargosur.
This favourite spotting location also garnered reasonably good shots of the TAN Electra taxying for departure from 27R and, later in the week, LACSA Carguero example TI-LRM landing in the opposite direction, inbound from San José, and beautiful Convair 580 N55H, at that time owned and operated by the oil and fuel filter company Fram Corporation.
Thus was my introduction to America and its impact on my aviation hobby. The memories are still ingrained in my mind and can recall many with great accuracy, such was the impact of this airport and my chance to experience ‘the American way of life’. This was only the first chapter of what was an exceptional trip. We covered all of lower Florida, Key West up to Tampa and Orlando, travelling every day from and back to our Miami Beach hotel, with the final 4 days a flight ‘up north’ to Pensacola to visit all the military bases from there right across to Jacksonville, before a flight back to Miami and home to the UK.

Part 2 will cover some of the ‘non-operational’ airframes that littered the Miami International airport locale, with further instalments covering other propliner activity I saw elsewhere in the State.

©Graham Robson
August 2020

Photo Credits: Graham Robson

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----Created 19 August 2020----