At least six days a week, history takes to the sky from Kenai Municipal Airport. A pair of World War II cargo planes defy time and age, not for fun or nostalgia, but to work.
Fairbanks-based air delivery company Everts Air Fuel flies two of its four vintage Curtiss C-46 "Commando" airplanes from Kenai to deliver fuel to roadless commercial operations and Bush communities as far away as the Alaska coast.
The first powered flights were made nearly 100 years ago, and Dec. 17 will mark the centennial anniversary. These iron clads have transcended the halfway mark of that milestone, flying for nearly 60 years each. They continue to chug along through the air as a legacy of the golden era of aviation.
And company owner Cliff Everts said they are invaluable to his business.
"It's an airplane that's hard to replace because it carries such a big load, he said. "It hauls twice the load of a DC-3, and a DC-3 and C-47 (smaller planes built by Douglas Aviations) were considered best cargo planes."
The locations Everts delivers to most frequently are villages and outposts on the west side of Cook Inlet like Iliamna or Port Alsworth. But the company also makes periodic runs to coastal villages like Shaktoolik or Unalakleet, where landing areas are short or nonexistent.
Bradley thumbs through one of the flight log books that document his many hours in the air.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Gary Cutsforth, an Everts pilot for more than four years, said the "46" was well suited for Alaska, because its large forward landing gear allows it to land where many heavy lifting airplanes can't. He estimated that the aircraft needs roughly only 3,800 feet to take off or land fully loaded.
"It can get into and out of short spots," Cutsforth said, likening it to smaller Bush planes. "It's like a super cub on steroids. There's nothing out there that can compete with this as far as payload and utility-wise."
Everts compared the Commando to other commercial freight liners.
"It's a tail dragger airplane, so you can land on beaches and sandbars and remote areas," he said. "They'll land on unimproved landing strips, but if you have a jet you'll have to land on asphalt or cement runways."
Les Bradley looks at a map of Alaska while discussing the many communities he has visited by plane.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
He said the planes also were very durable.
"She'll go with minimal work," Cutsforth said. "We run them for seven to 10 hours a day."
Everts Air Fuel is unique because, although smaller Bush planes may deliver fuel, they can't match the quantities the Commandos can haul, nor the distances they can travel.
The C-46 has a 108-foot wing span that holds aloft the 51,000-pound bird, along with up to seven tons of cargo and a crew of two. And it has a range of 1,200 miles. Whether it uses two 2,000-gallon fuel tanks clamped onto the floor of the cargo hold, or 70 160-pound propane tanks standing on pallets, the Everts C-46s can haul enough fuel to run a village for six months.
Ron Klemm flies Everts' C-46s out of Fairbanks and compares them to the current military muscle plane.
"Their closest brother would be the C-130 Hercules," Klemm said. "But the Herc wouldn't fulfill our needs."
During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force used 3,144 C-46s for hauling cargo and personnel and for towing gliders carrying troops. Cutsforth said this history has created some significant ties with veteran pilots during his time flying them.
"Last year I was delivering fuel to Port Alsworth, and when I landed I saw this guy walking around looking at the plane like he had some connection to it," Cutsforth said.
The gentleman Cutsforth encountered was a World War II fighter pilot who was stationed in North Africa where a group of Commandos were based. The veteran had had the chance to fly a C-46 during a duty and was reminiscing, Cutsforth said.
"I asked him if we was doing anything for a couple of hours and said, 'Want to go to Kenai?'"
Cutsforth said the man jumped at the opportunity, and left to grab some gear.
"He came back with an authentic bomber jacket on," Cutsforth continued. "When we were in the air he took the stick, and said, 'It's a little heavier than I remember.'"
Everts said he got the C-46s for good price, acquiring them for a little more than half of what some museums have valued them at.
"I paid $125,000 each for them," he said. "Back in the '50s, we paid $50,000 or $60,000. But they aren't worth anything to anybody unless you have the parts and the know how, and personnel."
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