Bird of War – Enjoying Peaceful Flying
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Turn the clock back to the Post War years, specifically the immediate few years after the Second World War and as nations heaved with relief that finally peace had returned. As governments and industry began to take stock of the economic situation they found themselves plunged into, one beacon of light shining brighter than others was aviation.
The war effort resulted in a surplus of aircraft some of which were ripe for picking. Picking by private industry and entrepreneurs who spotted an opportunity, hence many fledgling airlines sprang up using converted former military aircraft. One of the most popular aircraft to transition from front line service to commercial use must be the Douglas Commercial 3 (DC-3). Both the troop transport variant DC-3 and the cargo C-47 type with its inbuilt freighter fuselage door flooded onto the pre-owned market.
Many established airlines also sought the type as new acquisitions to add capacity on passenger services, including Aer Lingus, Swissair, Air France. The US though was by far the largest market for DC-3 use. Delta Air Lines, Braniff Airways, Hawaiian, Eastern Air Lines, Pan Am & United, all satisfied operators of the DC-3.
Fast forward 80 years and to recent times, the skies over the North of England have become a playground for one of the classics just discussed. C-GEAJ, a 1943 C-47B has been flying regularly along the northeast from Humberside Airport where it’s been temporarily based. Leeds Bradford and Doncaster Sheffield Airport have been two destinations C-GEAJ has visited while on sorties from HUY.
Strictly speaking no longer a C-47B, having been converted to a Basler BT-67 equipped with twin turbofan engines by Basler Turbo Conversions at Oshkosh in the US, in 1998. This particular example being conversion No.35 at the time, the route taken has proved popular with DC-3 operators to extend the already lengthy life of the airliner well beyond the original designer’s expectations.
The sound may be slightly different with the replacement power plants, gone is the distinctive piston ‘whine’ of before and signature smoke plume has lessened but the iconic silhouette remains identifiable, visible against the cloudy backdrop. There’s no mistaking this aircraft for the classic it is.
The C-47, different from it’s close relation the DC-3 in several main areas. The ‘47’ was equipped with cargo door, a hoist attachment and the floor was engineered to take account of bulk cargo. The tail cone was modified slightly by being shorter to allow for glider towing and another obvious visual difference was the inclusion of an astrodome set into the roof. It is reported that of the 172 registered DC-3’s still operational worldwide, only four are UK based. C-GEAJ currently wears an unusual livery, which suits the character of the aircraft. With many of its charter operations performed in Canada and Antarctica, the blue and red painted fuselage helps identify the plane during periods of poor visibility due to snow conditions.
It’s current owner, ALCI Aviation, based in Oshawa, Ontario are something of a specialist when it comes to these old “war-birds”. Like it’s previous operator, Kenn Borek Air, both aviation firms are best in business when it comes to DC-3 operations and ownership. C-GEAJs ‘twin’ wears registration C-GEAI and is a 1944 model year C-47, now also a converted Basler BT-67 with similar livery and it too remains active.
It’s true, both aircraft have seen their share of ‘activity’ during their flying career. C-GEAJ was flown by the US Air Force from September 1944. It moved on to operations with the French Air Force-Armee de Air from 1954 to 1964 after which it served for four years with the South Vietnam Air Force. It took on a more sedate role in the US between 1968 and 1993 when it was in long term storage before Basler & Basler Inc. acquired the aircraft.
Having survived the rough & tumble of military service, C-GEAJ came a cropper in its twilight years, when in 2009 it experienced a coming together with the ground at Tony Camp, Antarctica. While transporting cargo for a British expedition, attempting to land in poor visibility, suffered a hard landing, resulting in substantial damage to both propellers, both engines, flaps and landing gear. Not the ideal location to encounter a flying accident!
The Basler BT-67 was repaired and was back operating once more. However, disaster struck again, this time in 2016, having landed at Pickle Lake Airport, Ontario, while taxiing, a coming together was encountered with a snow plough vehicle, damaging the left wing. As before, it was “chin-up” for the old girl and after repairs at Oshkosh, C-GEAJ went on to fly another day. Tough old bird comes to mind.
A combination of strength, reliability, simplicity of construction, material choice, light weight and inbuilt ruggedness, combine to propel this almost 80 year old aircraft onwards and onwards. For its age it does get around. In the last couple of years, C-GEAJ has ventured far and wide from its Canadian home. Antarctica has been a destination several times, other locations include Chile, the Cayman Islands, Faro - Portugal, Gran Canaria – Spain, Tenerife – Spain, Valencia – Spain, Croatia, Palma de Mallorca – Spain, Abuja – Nigeria, Erfurt – Germany and most recently the UK.
Is pleasing to know that a number of DC-3’s are currently undergoing refurbishment which will see them back flying and earning their keep. The Basler BT-67 conversion with its Twin Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67R turbines, enable the aircraft to carry up to 18 passengers, 2 pilots and 1 flight attendant. The range is quite remarkable at 12 hours, 2,300 miles with a cruise speed of 248 mph.
Of course officially non are in regular scheduled passenger service, however a few perform occasional charter flights with passengers on board……..the lucky devils! Main commercial uses for the Basler BT-67 are surveying, para-drops, bulk fuel transport, cargo, combi flights and sea-ice & glacier operations, with ski attachments if necessary.
Much like many DC-3 conversions, C-GEAJ has truly experienced a remarkable flying career………. A distance done, much further to go!
Image by Dani Guerrero 7572