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Vintage military aircraft flies over Kodiak again

Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2002

KODIAK (AP) -- Sitting in the familiar cockpit, Roger Bartels flicked switches and checked gauges. With a grin on his face he said, ''You know I was nicknamed the The Ghost after I landed this thing.

''We weren't supposed to walk away alive but for some reason we did.'' And he smiled again.

He turned on the engines, sped down the dirt runway, took-off toward Kodiak and, once again, like an apparition in the sky from a long time ago, flew the antique warplane out from its 1989 crash landing site in Port Lions. He came back to finish the trip, 13 years and four months later.

The plane is a 1953 C-119 military aircraft, a predecessor to the modern C-130s. In the 1940s and 50s, more than 1,100 C-119s were made. They are affectionately called Flying Boxcars because of their odd shape -- they look like they swallowed a 40-foot container. But that's what they were designed for: to haul cargo and hold up to 70 paratroopers at a time.

During the Korean and Vietnam wars they were used extensively. In 1966, the Flying Boxcar rose to stardom amongst aviation enthusiasts with the Jimmy Stewart movie, ''Flight of the Phoenix.'' The movie is similar to the story at Port Lions: the C-119 is forced to crash land in a remote location and the crew must fix up the plane to fly it out and save themselves.

Today, the remaining Flying Boxcars are in airport graveyards or aviation museums. Nobody knows how many can still fly, but even the highest estimates say there are less than six, most of them outside the U.S. where the C-119s were left after their overseas use.

When the Port Lions C-119 took off it made aviation history. It is, most likely, the second C-119 still working in this country. Little is known about the history of the plane except it was auctioned by the military for private sale in the 1980s. Shortly thereafter, it made its way north.

''This airplane is tailor-made for Alaska,'' said owner John Reffett. ''There are a number of airports around the state where you can't bring bigger planes but where you still need to get large, heavy cargo.''

The plane functioned well throughout the 1980s, hauling up to 74,000 pounds of cars, trucks, and household building materials to remote villages in Alaska. It was especially useful to interior villages that can't ship in goods.

But in the summer of 1989, Bartels, Reffett and three others were transporting 20,000 pounds of red salmon from Egegik Beach to Kodiak when something went wrong. At 11,000 feet, they lost control of the plane.

''The weather turned really ugly. We didnt know where we were,'' said Bartels. ''When we came out of the clouds, the terrain was higher than where we were. All we saw were mountain peaks, and that's dangerous.''

The plane was flying close to the village of Port Lions, population 256, and headed toward its tiny dirt airstrip, which looks more like a long driveway.

The plane landed successfully, albeit with minor damage. Nobody was injured and a boat picked up the fish. That seemed to be the end of the story for this Flying Boxcar. The Port Lions airstrip looked like the final resting-place for the converted Alaska Bush plane.

Except for one thing: its tenacious and dedicated Anchorage owner Reffett.

Reffett came back to Port Lions at every opportunity to fix and maintain his parked plane. A professional certified inspector, Reffett is a plane mechanic capable of major alternations and repairs. But in remote Port Lions, repairs and maintenance on the plane had to be done by hand; the largest piece of equipment he had to work with was a stepladder.

He spent months at a time in Port Lions often during the winter when he wasn't working sleeping in the body of the airplane in a makeshift campsite with a sleeping bag and stove. Soon the village adopted the antique plane and its devoted owner.

''The town kind of paid attention to it and kept people from messing with it. It was kind of an exciting thing for them here. How many places have something like this?'' said pilot Bartels.

In the absence of any airport, residents would take shelter under its massive wings while waiting for their friends, relatives or groceries to fly in on two and four-seater Cessnas. Some people in town talked about making the plane into a cafe. Others envisioned it as a mini-museum, never really believing that someday it would leave.

But Reffett was determined. He had the plane fixed, well maintained and ready to take-off a couple of years ago. The only problem was he couldn't find a pilot. He had already obtained what is called a ''ferry permit'' to transfer the plane to a proper airport. But the Federal Aviation Administration required a pilot with extensive experience on C-119s for the job.

The best person for the job was Bartels. But he was nowhere near Alaska. He was flying commercial planes in Kenya, then piloting helicopters over tuna boats in the Western Pacific.

Last week, after waiting 13 years, all the pieces finally were in place. Bartels came from Texas and a German co-pilot was given sign-off from the FAA. And with a support team on hand, including people in Port Lions who came out to the airstrip with cameras, coffee and smoked salmon, the Flying Boxcar made aviation history. The antique airplane successfully flew from Port Lions to Kodiak, where it will rest on the tarmac at the airport and continue maintenance work until the next leg of its journey.

So any day now, you could look up and see the Flying Boxcar overhead, blurring the line between past and present. Seeing it fly it looks like a Phoenix that has risen from the ashes. Or, like a ghost.



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