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World’s secondhand fleet still soars

Most travelers are accustomed to the comforts and confines of modern air travel, but a patchwork collection of secondhand aircraft continues to carry passengers and deliver freight around the world every day. MSNBC’s Jon Bonne reports.
Copilot Kelsey Ball braves the cold while passengers board a daily Buffalo Airways DC-3 flight.
Copilot Kelsey Ball braves the cold while passengers board a daily Buffalo Airways DC-3 flight.Jim Seida /
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It is not especially cold — by Arctic standards — but the wind is kicking up again, whipping ribbons of snow across the tarmac. Yellowknife Airport’s sodium lights stave off the darkness as the crew of Buffalo Airways Flight 168 taxi up for their nightly 5 p.m. shuttle flight. There, in front of the terminal, they preflight their DC-3 and prepare to board a handful of passengers. Sixty years after it was delivered to the 8th Air Force in the middle of World War II, this aircraft still carries passengers every day across 100 miles of Far North wilderness.

Buffalo's daily scheduled flight — the “sked,” they call it — accounts for just a fraction of their overall business. Aside from their six DC-3s, the airline — founded over 30 years ago by longtime DC-3 pilot Joe McBryan — owns 10 DC-4s and three big Curtiss C-46s, along with newer fire bombers and turboprops.

Yet the staff there pride themselves as champions of the radial engine, even if their sizable maintenance crew works six days a week to keep 1940s technology operating at peak standards. The big old planes sitting in their hangars show the dings and scratches of over five decades on the job, but the engines gleam with new valves and cylinders. McBryan and his staff steadfastly argue that these aircraft — heavy but durable, their huge tires and tailwheels able to bring a 48,000-pound cargo plane into a 3,000-foot gravel landing strip — are unbeatable for their work flying into the continent’s remotest corners.

“I got ‘em ‘cause I like ‘em. And if you like it, it’ll serve you well,” McBryan says. “The basics of flying haven’t changed a bit.”

Last service left
By all accounts, Buffalo’s daily flights between Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories’ capital, and the small town of Hay River comprise the last scheduled DC-3 passenger service in North America.

The DC-3 is no mere airplane: It defined the airline business and set a standard for decades of commercial flight. On the 100th anniversary of powered flight, the DC-3 has the honor of having regularly flown passengers and cargo for more than two-thirds of that time. But it is hardly the only old airplane to grace a fleet.

Most travelers are accustomed to the comforts and confines of modern air travel, its turbine engines and sleek jetways, but a patchwork collection of secondhand aircraft continues to carry passengers and deliver freight around the world every day. More than 6,000 commercial aircraft built over 25 years ago remain in service around the world, according to consulting firm Airclaims.

Few are as old as the DC-3. Some are earlier models of planes you might still find at your local airport; Northwest Airlines still flies DC-9s and a trip to Yellowknife might place you on Canadian North’s Fokker F28 jet from the early 1970s.

Others are castoffs of mainstream commercial airlines — old 707s, 727s, DC-10s or early 737s — drafted into service for cargo or to ferry passengers in countries where it can be difficult to buy newer equipment. Hundreds more are remnants of the old Soviet passenger fleet; civil aviation throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics is replete with Antonov An-24s and Tupolev Tu-134s, predecessors of today’s commuter props and regional jets.

Certain lesser-known models are quietly extending their service lives; the NAMC YS-11, one of the few Japanese commercial aircraft ever produced, still flies commuter routes in Japan, cargo in the Philippines and tourists in Thailand. It ended production in 1973.

Offbeat routes
Many are found on routes rarely traveled by newer planes. Passengers in Cambodia often find themselves boarding an An-24 for flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap; the same for travelers from Minsk to Kaliningrad or from Lima, Peru, to the regional capital of Ayacucho. A trip across Russia’s eastern fringe from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk would put you on the Yakovlev Yak-40, a Soviet-era regional jet that began flying in 1968 and ended production a decade later. Flight itineraries across West Africa include 727s, DC-9s and other jets that have largely vanished from first-world passenger service.

The An-24 was the Russian equivalent of Western commuter turboprops. It remains in service with airlines everywhere from Peru to Phuket.Clintondale Aviation

For millions of travelers, especially those living in the world’s emptier corners, these aircraft are often the only alternative to difficult, if not impossible, overland trips.

But increased expectations of safety and a desire among many developed nations to keep older — which often translates to dirtier and noisier — aircraft out of their skies mean that the world’s secondhand fleet is beginning to lose favor.

A glut of newer aircraft, prompted by a downturn among airlines and more jets rolling off assembly lines, has accelerated the trend. With as many as 2,000 aircraft estimated to be in storage, mainline carriers are no longer waiting 20 years to sell or lease their planes to a willing buyer.

“The Western fleets have quite a big surplus inventory,” says says Eddy Pieniazek, a director at Airclaims. “They want to get some revenue rather than leaving them in the desert.”

Where past meets present
Back in Yellowknife, watching a DC-3 or C-46 slowly spin up its props on the Buffalo ramp, you can easily be transported back a few decades, somehow feeling the scene should be in grainy black and white. Walking through the airline’s hangar or storage yard feels like a stroll through an air museum — until you remember that every airplane you see is meant to fly in regular service.

In the predawn hours, Buffalo Airways employees load a crate of windows destined for settlements up the MacKenzie River valley. The airline regularly flies these \"food mail\" runs, so known because the cost of shipping food and supplies is offset by the postal service.Jim Seida

Yet their fleet is a perfect match for the Arctic terrain. With twice the landmass of Texas, the Northwest Territories has a population of just 42,000 — about the same as Grand Forks, N.D — giving it a population density less than one-tenth of Alaska’s. Many residents, half of them members of the aboriginal Dene, Métis or Inuit peoples, live in tiny settlements reached only by air or an occasional ice road. Buffalo’s daily mail run in a Curtiss C-46 — originally built to ferry troops during World War II — hauls pallets of groceries up to remote communities along the Mackenzie River valley: Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope, Deline.

With mining companies now hunting diamonds in the tundra, Buffalo regularly hauls a DC-4 worth of fuel or parts into far-flung exploration camps. Landing strips may be nothing more than a smooth run of lake ice. Buffalo has staked its business on a belief that old and durable can win the game.

Its pilots know their role is a bit different from their modern counterparts. There’s no question all the old planes are versatile, but Far North flying remains a challenge. Crews take a hulking workhorse like a C-46 or DC-4 into tiny, remote strips that would be impossible for many other, smaller planes. At minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit in the midst of an Arctic winter, those radial engines — their dual rings of seven cylinders shielded with a thermal blanket — can still ingest aviation gasoline while Jet A kerosene gels up and can ruin a turboprop.

Easy on the engines
The old technology requires a tender touch. While nearby jets’ turbine engines are left exposed out on the tarmac, Buffalo’s flight scrambles to pump oil in and out of the engines, to insert insulated “donuts” into the circular opening in the engine cowl, to cautiously circle the plane, making sure everything is well-tended.

And then there’s the grunt work, for pilots, co-pilots and everyone else: Hauling cargo on and off, helping passengers with baggage, jiggering pallets of soup and potato chips and Twizzlers. There are no tailored blue uniforms here, only coarse green-grey flight suits.

“I’ve got a lot of guys who want to fly these aircraft,” says Jim Smith, Buffalo’s chief pilot. “But there’s very few people who want to do the kind of work that’s associated with these aircraft.”

The work in the cockpit is a bit less strenuous, but not much. The DC-3s’ worn panels are augmented with new instruments and GPS receivers, but many original systems — like the alcohol tank used to de-ice the windshield — remain in place. There’s no autopilot to take care of level flight. “We hand-fly everything,” Smith says.

Flying the old planes remains practical for Buffalo because they know how to repair them and, over thirty years, have developed a knack for digging up spare parts and collecting old airframes. Most of their fleet was recovered from disuse or brought back to life after a crash. They manage it because their flight and maintenance standards are fastidious.

Aging planes, rising costs
But for most operators of older planes, upkeep is a growing burden. The aging engines are less fuel efficient, and maintenance needs skyrocket as a plane ages. A modern 737-700 can be operated for $1,677 per hour, according to Airclaims, while an older 737-200 costs nearly $2,500. An F28 is more than one-third more expensive to operate than a newer regional jet. Operators must often choose between spiraling repair costs and grounding their planes.

As such, the traditional path for many older airplanes as recently as a decade ago — a second life in Latin America, Africa or Asia — has often been supplanted by leases of new aircraft, says Stan Kaplan, president of aviation consulting firm Rom Associates.

International Lease Finance Corporation, one of the largest aircraft lessors, has customers in at least eight African nations, and dozens more in Asia and Latin America. And Nigeria Airways, Kaplan notes, caputred lease deals despite several bankruptcies.

“The leasing companies can put brand new airplanes in the hands of these airlines,” he says.

On the other hand, airlines that fly infrequently — a handful of flights each week — don’t need the same of economies of scale provided by newer planes. Thus Hewa Bora Airways, the Congolese airline, can operate a sole Lockheed L-1011, which flew under Delta colors before TriStars were largely retired from passenger service, on its once-a-week route between Brussels and Kinshasa.

“If you have an operation where you have very, very few flight hours, you can operate a very inefficient airplane and it can make economic sense,” Kaplan says.

There is increasing pressure, though, to close that loophole. Less developed nations often lack the resources to force their civil aviation authorities to match first-world expectations. But airworthiness standards keep rising, placing secondhand fleet operators in a bind.

Perhaps nowhere is this dilemma as evident as in Russia and the former Soviet states, where many carriers continue to fly remnants of the aging Soviet fleet.

Russia's fleet woes
When the Soviet Union broke up and its massive aviation authority broken apart, airplanes often ended up in one republic, left to crumble, with maintenance facilities in another. Even when airframes were solid, interiors were often ratty and left foreign visitors wary of stepping on board.

“Russian aircraft, they’re pretty rugged. They’re very much adapted to the local conditions,” says Yuri Konovalov, president of Clintondale Aviation, which manages charters and private air service in Russia and Kazakhstan for many Western companies. “But pretty soon we discovered these aircraft, they needed to be upgraded and refitted inside to give comfort and confidence to the customer.”

Entrepreneurs there who wanted planes back in the air faced a challenge to find replacement parts and get repair shops up to acceptable standards. And Clintondale, which operates both older Russian planes — An-24s, Tu-134s and Tu-154s — and newer Western jets, discovered a nasty catch-22 in modern Russian aviation: By last year, a European Union crackdown on aircraft noise effectively barred most Russian jets from Western European skies. Any Russian aircraft more than a few years old was limited to domestic service. At the same time, the Russian government had steep tariffs on imported Western planes.

The Tu-134 was designed in the 1960s as a Soviet-era short-haul jet. Modern noise and pollution restrictions have limted where it can still operate.Clintondale Aviation

While operators like Aeroflot and Belarus’ Belavia bought new Boeing and Airbus models — even a few Bombardier regional jets — smaller operators face huge upgrade costs. Even with a robust lease market, many Western banks shy away from investment in the region. It is more expensive to import planes, Konovalov argues, than to keep new jets in Western Europe and eat the cost to fly them into Russia for each charter request. At the same time, his older planes in his fleet grow less useful.

“For the next 10 years, what am I left with? With the Tu-134, which will be fine to fly within the country but not outside,” says Konovalov. “If you want to go internationally, you have to go to Western aircraft.”

Asia's expectations
By contrast, Asian nations — long a dumping ground for old aircraft — have largely avoided the Russian dilemma. Within the past five years, China has taken major strides to weed out its secondhand fleet. In 2000, it made clear it wanted many Russian-made Tupolevs (and their Chinese-built knockoffs) out of its airspace, including those flown by Chinese airlines. Government pressure, plus a desire to compete internationally, prompted Chinese regional carriers to overhaul their fleets, replacing rickety planes with new Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s. With an economic boom in Southeast Asia bringing in more Western passengers, many carriers there have similarly spent big. Vietnam Airlines, for example, largely revamped its fleet with shining new 777s and 320s.

“These airlines are actually being transformed very rapidly,” says Peter Harbison, managing director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation in Sydney. “Most of these aircraft have been outgrown, and in some cases you’re almost seeing this generation jump” — straight from 1960s-era props and early jets to brand-new models.

Elsewhere in Asia, several Pacific island nations want to form a joint aviation authority to apply rigorous standards that meet international expectations. And while old An-24s still ply Cambodia’s domestic routes, they’re often parked next to a newer 737. Passengers who once shrugged at the type of equipment being flown are beginning to expect the same service out of Bangkok they might find in Boston.

“They’re just not going to tolerate going on an An-24 anymore,” says Harbison.

'I chose to stay with the airplane'
Yet for air carriers like Buffalo, and the communities they serve, those hand-me-down planes continue to serve a vital role. On Buffalo’s ramp, Jim Smith stands in the cockpit of one of their DC-4s, the “Arctic Distributor.” Once a flagship for American Airlines and Qantas, it could fly 70 passengers at 185 knots from Amsterdam to New York to Los Angeles to Honolulu, circling the world in 14-day cycles. “The 747 of the air was this airplane,” he says. Now it supplies mining camps and tiny villages in the back of beyond.

A C-46 sits in Buffalo Airways' enormous hangar. Walking through the building is like walking through an air museum, except all the planes still fly in regular service.Jim Seida

There’s no hint that the Arctic Distributor or any other plane in Buffalo’s fleet is headed for the junk heap. If anything signals an end, it’s the coming drought of aviation gasoline, which has become harder to buy as shrinking profits drive refineries to stop production. “We’ve got enough parts to keep these things going for another 50 years,” Smith says, “but we’re going to run out of fuel.”

Even that might not ground the DC-3. A Wisconsin company, Basler Turbo Conversions, has been stripping the beloved Gooney Birds down to their skeletons, replacing old radial engines with new jet-fuel turboprops and overhauling the interiors. Customers include everyone from the U.S. Forest Service to Antarctic tour operators.

Buffalo, meantime, has its daily sked to fly. It competes for passengers with airlines that use newer, faster planes. With a quiet nonchalance, its crews keep the DC-3 in the air, flying in the face of modern aviation with each round trip.

“I chose to stay with the airplane, and I’m very happy I did,” McBryan offers, reflectively. “I hope to fly them for another 35 years.”