THE FIRST TIME - 40 YEARS AGO
The First Time – 40 Years Ago – Part 3
Miami’s other Propliner airports – OPF and FLL
By Graham Robson
As could be expected, the first time in Miami, with such a glut of exotic and classic propliners, we were like kids in a candy-store! The desire to see everything as quickly as possible was too easy to pass by, so on our first day, after circumnavigating Miami International and all seeking out all of its treasures, we had enough time in the day to head north and look for Opa-Locka airport, of which we knew very little. Certainly, it was known to have yet more old propliners, though its layout and accessibility was unknown, at the time.
Then, as now, the most interesting part of Opa Locka airport were the large hardstanding areas on the eastern side of the field, the that were, a long time ago, runways. Here, a bountiful supply of old propliners and other interesting types could be found. I photographed ex-USAF T-29 N8041T, which appealed to my interests on two levels - ex military transports still in their old markings with civvie identity applied and seized or impounded drug-runners! This Convair had obviously been up to no good since it was bought at a surplus sale in Arizona, back in 1976. It was reported as seized by the Sherriff of Highland County in May 1979, a strong clue to it having been used for illegal activities, notably drug smuggling. There is a Highland County in central Florida, which encompasses Okeechobee airport as well as many ‘off-airport ranches and grass runways suitable for Convair size operations and, presumably, flown down to Opa Locka for disposal. Other things of interest were numerous DC-3s, DC-4s, a collection of ex Chilean DC-6s and a Chilean C-46, an HU-16 Albatross and, the ‘stars’ on the field, prototype Convair 240 N240BN and Super Constellation N1007C.
A sprawling and slightly disorganised airport at first sight, with many roads leading to many individual ramp areas, all with so many things of interest! For reasons already mentioned, my photographic'haul'from the visit was minimal, with shots of only two types – Convairs and a Constellation! (Oh..to face such a situation today!). Why, oh why, did I not take a picture of the derelict DC-7C sitting forlorn in the SW corner, with its original BOAC markings showing through the faded and scorched paintwork, from many years in use as a fire department training airframe……
First stop was the US Coast Guard base, which occupied the south-western end of the main ramp area. Outside, no less than six HC-131As were lined up, with a further two in the hangar, what a start. We had taken the opportunity to visit the Coast Guard first, in order to 'establish credibility', should we be challenged about walking the ramps, figuring that if the Coast Guard had been happy for us to walk around, surely no one else could complain. In the end, from memory, we didn’t see anyone else during our time there. Subsequent years’ visits, a call to the Airport Manager’s office always secured permission to wander, in fact even drive, around the ramps!
Opa Locka was visited a few more times during the coming two weeks. With hindsight, our naivety probably had us thinking it was a fairly active propliner location requiring to be checked on as often as possible, in reality future visits got not much more than a few different biz-jets, though knowing what it was capable of, it’s value to an old airplane enthusiast was recognised for all future trips
Continuing our relentless coverage of airports of south-Florida, the next stop was Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International, another ‘known’ propliner haven, thanks to the pages of my book Air Transport Hulks, which depicted numerous Mackey Airlines’ DC-6s and Convairs we were not disappointed, this airport was the epitome of propliner nirvana.
Navigating the perimeter of the field, a far cry from what it is like today, the roads alongside the northern edge had nothing more than a simple chain-link fence with numerous open gates to various hangars and ramp areas. Likewise, trying to recall which aircraft were parked on which ramps, when all I have is a fading memory and a few pictures, has been difficult. The backgrounds of some pictures have given some clues to where they were taken, but from memory, it was a simple task of driving into each hangar/ramp area and finding someone to ask for access to look around.
It is difficult to recall the situation, 40 years ago, when the airport was a far cry from today. Now, the northern boundary has a massive elevated multi-lane Interstate, back in 1980 this was a rather quiet ‘city street’, albeit with little suburbia close beside. Without question, the further we moved around the perimeter, the greater the number of propliners presented themselves, with the spectacle of yet more tail-fins and noses protruding from the aircraft at the front of the ramps, giving a never-ending tease of what else was there. To give a feeling of the place, 40 years ago, the 'haul' for day one from all the various ramps was a staggering - 18 x DC-3s; 6 x DC-4s; 11 x DC-6s; 2 x C-46; 1 x L-749, 2 x L-1049 and one L-1649, 3 x Martin 404s and 11 Convairs of various marques!
From memory, we exited the I-95, at the western end of the airport, and headed eastwards along the northern perimeter road, which brought us towards a ramp area full of numerous DC-6s and Convairs, the area which, in future years, would become National Jets’ ramp and synonymous with old propliner scrapping. Here we discovered old Convair 240 N555SL awaiting its fate alongside an ex Air Force T-29 N99654, looking like it was set for a life of crime, anonymous and ‘vanilla’ looking, together with a selection of old DC-6s, most of which were not long for this world. This included the interesting N11VX of Vortex, a name that meant nothing then but would, ultimately, create some waves in the propliner world in years to come.
Returning westwards along the northern perimeter road and around the western end of the main runway brought us to a sight that was an assault on the senses, to a young aircraft enthusiast, an almost endless collection of old piston engine airliners laid out on end-to-end parking ramps, that spanned the south-western edge of the main runway. The vast parking area then continued around the central business area, where the tower is located, and back towards the north-western edge of the shorter, southerly runway. My memories of exact parking locations of so many interesting aircraft on this first visit to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood are blurred, by the sheer scale and variety of choice old and interesting types.
In no particularly accurate recollection of order, a pair of former Eastern Airlines L-1049B Super Connies N6206C and N6207C, latterly with Eastern and used on their NY – Miami shuttle service, with all paint removed although traces of their old liveries still able to be picked out on the bare metal. These old beauties had been laid-up since at least 1976 looking for a buyer, though, sadly, they would survive no longer than another month, both being reported as scrapped by November 1980. The exotic ramp contents continued with an interesting Aviateca DC-6 TG-APA, parked next to a former Mackey Convair 440 N442JM, both hemmed in at the back of the ramp by countless GA types. Enquiries with one of mechanics working on an aircraft nearby brought forth the fact that the DC-6 had been impounded for drug running and Aviateca were highly embarrassed when it turned up, still in the airline’s full livery! It had arrived at Miami International in April 1979 and later that month departed un-expectedly, the crew advising ATC they were conducting a ‘local test flight’, but it failed to return. In reality, it was headed to Colombia on a drug run. Former Air America C-123 pilot, Captain Neil Graham Hansen, was the pilot on that flight out and its fateful return the following day and relates the episode very well in his 2018 autobiography FLIGHT – An Air America Pilot’s Story of Adventure, Descent and Redemption. In it, he describes the flight south to a location called Will’s strip, a 5,000’ long dirt landing site on the north coast of Colombia, near Riohacha.
There was very little fuel available at the airstrip, and certainly not enough to make it safely back to Florida with the heavy load they were expected to uplift. They loaded up with all the fuel that was available and, in a bid to lighten the load as much as possible, all the seats were removed and left behind, together with barrels of oil that were on board. In the end, another aircraft ahead of them at the strip crashed on take-off and the 'locals' became very 'unfriendly', so the DC-6 crew made a hasty get-away without any load at all. There was not enough fuel to allow a zig-zag route to evade radar, so they headed direct and, when abeam of the Bahamas, began a rapid descent to keep as low as possible on a track that made it look like it was making an approach to Fort Lauderdale International. When within a few miles, the DC-6 turned onto a parallel track towards the airport and made a night landing in the intended landing site, a farmer’s field almost on the approach to runway 9L at Fort Lauderdale.
Upon discovery by locals the next morning, the DC-6 in a field was the big news on every TV channel and became a thing of folk-legend, landing so close to the airport and within a mile or two of the Broward County Correctional Institute (the jailhouse!) with no sign of the crew! Subsequently, it was flown out of the field for the short hop into Fort Lauderdale International, where it was parked up impounded by the County Sherriff.
Further down the ramp, we came upon the remnants of Mackey Airlines on the abandoned ramp area of the former airline. Two reasonably intact Convair 580s, in the airline’s revised red scheme were parked up, but alongside were a sad collection of Convair 440s, two in a deep state of destruction, consisting of the only fuselage and wings, one with a missing cockpit, sitting on pallets with all undercarriage missing, as well as a pair of derelict DC-6, all in the airline’s earlier, attractive turquoise blue scheme. Next was L-049 Constellation N90816, a long-time, inactive, resident parked with a motley few ageing first-generation jets, DC-8s and B.707, as well as yet more propliners. Early model DC-6 N10405 shared ramp space ex USAF C-118B N2949F, Martin 404 N40436, former ScanBee Convair 340 N14CD, still in full markings, which I had last seen at Newcastle only a year or two earlier as SE-GTE and C-46 N611Z, full of crates of baby chicks, the high-pitched cheeping able to be heard hundreds of yards away ! The only other pictures taken amongst this eclectic collection were a couple of Convairs, a model 240 N7761, in an anonymous blue/green scheme and a 440, N1179, operated by International Field Studies, whoever they were.
At the very south-western end of these ramps was, probably, the most interesting area, if one could make such a distinction. The famed Hill Aircraft Company was a long-time resident of the airport and well known for its busy and very packed ramp, full of active, semi-active/under restoration and derelict frames, of all sizes and types. Photography of much of what was there was difficult, as things were parked so closely together, a situation that never seemed to change whenever one visited. Specialising in anything with big round engines, the ramp contained numerous DC-3, DC-4s, DC-6s and especially Lockheed Lodestar and its derivatives….I am sure many on this ramp had previously or would in the near future make an illegal journey to Central or South America.
Two former USAF C-54s were photographable, on the main ramp looking airworthy, N51819 was painted with red stripe and tail, with N4989K behind it still wearing its USAF scheme, both with clear evidence of their former military markings visible. Sitting on the very rear edge of the ramp was a real beauty, an L-1649 Starliner devoid of any registration or markings other than what appeared to be ‘74’ on one nose wheel door. In my ignorance at the time, I had noted this as a Super Constellation and, in those days of 40 years ago, information on such things as surviving Super Constellations was not easy to find. The only reference I could discover for a ‘Super Connie’ with ‘74’ in the registration that could have, possibly, ended up in South Florida was N74CA, but this had been destroyed in a crash some years earlier. Only later did I discover this was N974R, which gained notoriety in future years.
Amongst the assortment of airframes on the Hill Air ramp was a big twin-engined aircraft, in a semi derelict condition with bright two-tone red/orange scheme, but I was totally unable to identify the type. Both engines were missing, as was the tail fin and tailplanes and was sitting on its tail, but what really confused me was the strange nose section. The cockpit glazing consisted of deeply raked windshield panes, which looked odd on what appeared to be an Invader fuselage, and the nose section was completely flat immediately ahead of the windshield glazing, the nose cone was obviously missing and no registration markings were visible.
In preparing this feature and revisiting my pictures from then, the scanning and 'cleaning' process of preparing the scanned pictures has allowed me to see things not easily noticed by a simple glance at the original colour slide. Indeed, most of the shots that accompany this and my previous two ‘episodes’ have not seen the light of day in over 30 years.
So, it was with particular delight that, after scanning a slide of a bare metal DC-3 on the Hill Air ramp that I saw something in the background that completed a ‘circle of doubt’ in my mind, which had lingered for 40 years! There, in plain sight, in the background of the picture was my 'mystery' plane!
Now, of course, I realise this was a very rare On-Mark Marksman C, fully pressurised version of the A-26 Invader conversion – a real beauty in its time. Knowing I had seen this, but failed to photograph it, my research into finding an identity was continually confused by the fact that another, identical aircraft in very similar scheme had arrived at Opa-Locka in 1981. This second example was a former drug running Marksman, which had been operated by the US Customs after confiscation and had retired for many years at Homestead before flying to Opa-Locka for storage pending a re-build. The timeline of this second aircraft was well known and it could not have been the derelict airframe I had seen in 1980. By sheer co-incidence some years ago, in conversation with a close friend in Miami, I related this tale and he answered immediately….it was N60XX, a beautiful example of the type which was flown privately, not under any nefarious circumstances, but a privately owned and operated example which had suffered serious damage from a hurricane sometime in the very late ‘70s, whilst parked at Fort Lauderdale, its operating base. The airframe was saved, in the hope of restoration, but the extent of the damage made repairs difficult. As there were only ever 6 examples of this ‘tall-fuselage’ version of the Marksman ever built – of which two were CIA operated in the ‘60s and both scrapped, one was derelict in South Africa, one was the example with the USCS and one operated by Garrett at Phoenix as an engine test-bed, donor aircraft were non-existent. Consequently, the aircraft lingered for another year before finally being broken up and removed.
If anyone reading this has any pictures of N60XX in its derelict condition, I would love to see them!
Photo Credits: Graham Robson
----Created 10 February 2021----