The First Time – 40 Years Ago – Part 2

October 1980

By Graham Robson

Apart from discovering a strong interest in old round-engined propliners, my first USA trip, to Florida, 40 years ago also deepened my interest in another part of aviation that, too, has remained a strong interest all these years – that of derelict airplanes.

This interest can be attributed to a number of things, firstly, as a 9 year old, being brave enough to walk across the maintenance ramp at Newcastle airport one winter’s day for a close-up look at Dan-Air 4 Comet G-APDL, which sat derelict outside at after its wheels-up landing during crew training in October of that year. Having watched it fly around all day, it was amazing to see the TV report that evening of its accident and even more eerie to walk underneath it and look up at the damaged belly and the smell the kerosene. A defining moment. Since that time, I have always taken the opportunity to try and seek out any fire training or scrap area at an airport I’d visit, of which, back in the 1970s, there were many and would, eventually, lead to my first foray published work, with my first book GROUNDED – Forsaken and Deserted aeroplanes.

Anyway, back to Florida 1980. Prior to my trip, I’d purchased Nigel Tomkins’s book Air Transport Hulks, which added greatly to the anticipation and continued to feed this deep interest of derelict aircraft, particularly looking at the entries for the places I was likely to visit.

Sure enough, on that first morning as we made our way around the western end of runway 9R, towards the NW corner, there, to our left was the famed Miami Airport scrap compound with the Pan Am and Aeronorte DC-7s that I’d seen in Nigel Tomkins’s book, together with a line of anonymous C-46s and other assorted aviation junk. It was obvious that access was not so straightforward, for a start there were railroad tracks between it and the road we were driving on and we all agreed it was more important to start looking, logging and, perhaps (!) photographing what was active on the airfield, these hulks could wait until tomorrow.

The drive around the airfield that first day, as described in part 1, provided not only masses of quality propliners there was also a healthy crop of derelicts amongst the numerous inactive airframes. Some of these may have been a long way from flying, one or two even looking suspiciously abandoned, possibly a result of nefarious activities, but others were definitely destined for the scrap man.

Bellomy-Lawson Aviation, one of the main freight operators also had a busy aircraft and propeller maintenance base on NW57th Avenue (our favourite spotting location). Their ramp was always a hive of activity, servicing their own fleet of DC-6s as well as the occasional customers’ aircraft, in for maintenance. To ensure a good supply of spare parts, it seems they purchased aircraft with the sole intention of picking them apart for spares. Languishing alongside the fence was an unidentified DC-6, the identity of which remains elusive to this day. Next to this was the wonderful sight of a pair of Convair T-29s, N23024 and N87991, both still wore full USAF scheme with the Air Force markings crudely painted out. Retired from the military in 1974 they were acquired by Bellomy-Lawson in summer 1978 from the Davis -Monthan boneyard, no doubt for their valuable R-2800s as well as other airframe parts useful for their own locally based DC-6s and Convairs.
Not far away were two more ‘familiar’ airframes featured in Air Transport Hulks that I’d hope to see, the former Aeromar C-46s HI-163 and HI-171. Both aircraft had been present since 1976 and would remain so until at least 1989. One of these C-46s would eventually take flight one more time, albeit underslung a US Army CH-54, which airlifted it on 2nd June 1989 destined for a USAF base and restoration for display, however, the load became unstable during the air-lift and the C-46 was, sadly, jettisoned in open ground and destroyed. There has been confusion over exactly which airframe it was, however, Propliner magazine #39 (page 5) has a picture of the aircraft being lifted from Miami airport, clearly showing the full Aeromar tail marking, which confirms the airframe as having been HI-171.

At first sight, there were probably a lot of airframes that could be described as ‘inactive’, however, some were definitely better described as ‘derelict’, a valuable source of spares for others that out-lived them. It’s a point to remember that, back then, almost every airfield had its share of inactive aircraft and those that would never fly again did seem to hang-around for many years, or so it seemed. Many in this category were a result of law-enforcement confiscation, having been caught and seized for their participation in drug-running, some of which will feature in this and future instalments. This shady world of aircraft used in drug-smuggling is another ‘niche’ interest of mine that was spawned on this first trip.

All these years later, it is difficult for me to recall exactly which ramp area those aircraft I photographed were parked, as the few pictures I took give little clue as to where each was located, so follows a review of what I photographed from what was seen in the first week of October 1980.

DC-7C N74175 was definitely inactive, though whether permanently was difficult to really know. Last flown in 1976 by Fleming International, the remnants of whose titles can still be seen, the cheatline is an adaptation of its previous owner, Saturn Airways. It had been parked up since that time and was being worked on, however, it was eventually broken up in 1981 without ever taking flight again. One aircraft that would make one last flight out of Miami, was the mysterious Convair T-29 marked with a totally spurious registration. The T-29 had, evidently, arrived late in the evening of April 3rd 1979 wearing the hand-painted ‘identity’ VYLLA. It taxied to the NW corner and was abandoned, along with its cabin full of marijuana, the crew having ran across the ramp, climbed the perimeter fence and disappeared. It lingered on until, subsequently, auctioned by Miami-Dade County in March 1981 and sold to Florida Aircraft Corporation, who re-applied its last ‘genuine’ registration N91704 and flew it Fort Lauderdale International where, after giving up all its valuables – engines, instruments, doors etc., was finally broken up for scrap in July 1981.

The background to my picture of DC-6 N90710 suggests it may have been on the edge of ‘the corner’, its condition clearly showing its days were also numbered. Previously flown by Pegasus Travel Club, a picture of this airframe also featured in Air Transport Hulks and, according to later sources, it was also finally broken up in 1981. I also found the remains of another former Pegasus DC-6 and, as we didn’t access any of the ramps, this picture was taken through the fence, so must have been close to the perimeter.
In those days, aircraft and aircraft parts could be found in some unlikely places, including ‘off airport’. One distinctive example was C-46 N5528A, which was parked in a gas station on NW57th Avenue (Red Road) immediately south of the Dolphin Expressway (State Road 836). Disappointingly, I didn’t take a picture of it, even though we drove past it many times during those two weeks, though it did make for an amazing sight on the side of a busy town street, less than ¼ mile south of the airfield perimeter fence !

Probably the most notable ‘off airport’ airframes at Miami at the time were those in F .A. Conner’s scrapyard, located, from memory, to the west of NW68th Avenue, between the thresholds of 9R and 9L. The yard, on the west side of the railroad tracks, in an area that is now completely re-developed, was clearly visible as you drove north up 68th Ave towards the NW ‘corner’ area. We parked the car and set off walking to get our pictures of DC-7B HK-1300, late of Aeronorte Colombia, and DC-7CF N7554, still in her old Pan-Am livery. Both DC-7s were missing their outer wings and tail sections and easily photographed from outside, with the last mortal remains of DC-7CF N7398A close by. This had, at one time, been Trans Meridian’s G-AVXH, something I hadn’t realised until decades later ! To see the rest of the yard’s contents, however, we had to find a gap in the fence and sneak inside, where we tried, without success, to identify the four derelict C-46s, three in a line with one more close by, next to similarly derelict A-26 Invader N9424Z. Again, the DC-7s had been featured in Air Transport Hulks, so was happy to finally see them myself.
Lastly, for ‘non-airworthy’ propliners at Miami International 40 years ago, we can’t forget the well-known Geo T Baker Aviation School. Once again, ‘off airport’, the campus situated on the eastern side of NW42nd Avenue (Le Jeune Road), on the eastern perimeter of the airport across the street from the maintenance area. Being across a busy road from the airport perimeter meant making sure you were northbound on 42nd Ave to avoid a very long wait to cross the on-coming traffic. With a patriotically painted RF-84K on the grass outside, the DC-6 and assorted DC-3/C-47s were of far more interest to me. Star of the ground-training fleet was DC-6B N6540C had last been operated by the Flying Research Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Commerce Weather Bureau, later re-named National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It stood proud at the side of the administration block, with a treasure-trove of other things behind. A polite request to the receptionist inside for a look around was greeted with a quick yes, we were (clearly) not the first to have asked the same thing ! My logbook records DC-3s N52935 in a red/white/blue scheme, as seen in the picture; former USAF example 0-50889 and a third which I recorded as F-OGDZ, however, modern internet resources show this as reportedly being withdrawn and stored at Fort Lauderdale International in May 1979, before being sold to Guadeloupe Air Cargo in 1982 and then variously reported as stored at Opa-Locka and again at Fort Lauderdale. Much of this could be nothing more than ‘paper transfers’ between different owners located at the different airports, and not unlikely to have been towed on city streets from FLL to Miami in 1979. It was later reported as sold to Basler for conversion to BT-67 for Fuerza Aerea Salvadorenais.
It is surprising to me that, 40 years on, I am still looking into the history and disposition of many of the old propliners I saw on my momentous first trip to the USA. The trip was a cornerstone in my love of old aircraft and propliners in particular and, in part 3, I hope to show yet more of the cherished memories from that time.

©Graham Robson
September 2020

Photo Credits: Graham Robson

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----Created 27 September 2020----