Story and photos by Henry Tenby, as presented in the October, 2013 issue of Airways Magazine.
Some would have thought the era of passenger carrying JT3 powered Douglas DC-8s came to an end many years ago. Operating out of the limelight and under the radar of many, Little Rock based Air Transport International (ATI) has been operating two DC-8-62 combis and a DC-8-72 combi under contract to the US Air Force for the past few decades, but by the time this story appears in print, their lastDC-8s will have been retired., having been replaced by newer 757 combis.
In mid-May, we travelled to Sacramento to document and bear witness to DC-8-62 N799AL’s last ever departure from the Continental United States. On a hot and sunny Thursday, May 9, 2013., we were welcomed by ATI’s Sacramento maintenance base Director Robert Dobler at their McLellan Air Park DC-8 engineering facility.
ATI employees about a half dozen maintenance engineers at McLellan Airport (the former McLellan AFB) that care for the aircraft. The California based DC-8 operated the USAF passenger and cargo supply contract between Travis AFB and Hickam AFB, and between Hickam and various US military points in the South Pacific, primarily to Kwajalein Atoll and Wake Island, both approximately five hours air time from the Hawaiian Islands. Typically the aircraft would operate the service weekly or bi-weekly, with passengers filling the rear 32 seat passenger cabin, and perishables and food in the forward cargo hold.
The DC-8 was ferried to Travis AFB from Mclellan before and after each charter rotation, a distance of about 50 miles, which would usually take some fifteen minutes. At the time of our visit, the DC-8 arrived at Travis right on schedule at 0900 am, during which time ATI’s contract groomers and cargo handlers readied the aircraft for its 12 noon departure to Hawaii. As the aircraft was on her last ever flight from California, ATI had the aircraft specially cleaned and polished in anticipation for the hand over to the Naval Air Museum Barber’s Point later in the week, a process which started on the Friday afternoon and finished on Saturday evening.
We met the ATI maintenance crew at 0600 am on Sunday, May 12, 2013, at the McLellan hangar and the aircraft was pushed out to her parking position for the last time, to be readied for her last positioning flight to Travis AFB. To stand under the wing of the DC-8 and savour her magnificent lines as the tractor pushed her back and into the cool morning air was a sight to be remembered forever. With no time wasted the stairs were positioned to the forward door and power was attached to the aircraft while the crew did their final checks for the morning’s flight.
We jumped in the rent a car and departed McLellan at 0700 am sharp for the 50 minute drive to the Travis main gate, all thanks to minimal road traffic on a quiet Sunday morning. Without time to waste, we met up with Ellen Hatfield, Travis AFB Deputy Chief of Public Affairs, and Lt. Col. Larry Suter (C-5 Galaxy Captain and a fellow aviation historian) just after 0800 am and surveyed photo positions on the Travis control tower and the roof of the Terminal building, opting to document the historic event from the control tower and the main ramp where the DC-8 would be parked. Lt. Col. Suter manned a camera on the control tower while the author based his video camera and tripod on the edge of the cargo ramp.
At exactly 0845 am Ellen and I were in position on the grass by the cargo area facing the runways, and I received a text on my cell phone from Robert Dobler “Here we come” signaling they were departing McLellan at that very moment, and would be smoking into Travis on finals in a matter of minutes. True to his word, some fifteen minutes or so later we detected the tell-tale trail of smoke in the distance to the east, as the DC-8 was lining up for a straight in approach to 21R. It was a crystal clear morning, and as typical of Travis (which is situated in a valley) the winds were very strong, not ideal for video sound filming, but the DC-8 rolled out with full reverse trailing a cloud of smoke as she braked with plenty of time to make the intersection turn to the parking area where we were anxiously awaiting her arrival.
The DC-8 nosed in to her parking position nose-to-nose with a World 747-400, also a Travis regular. (Side note: The World maintenance crew were happy they had a 747 on their hands instead of a company MD-11 .. which they lovingly referred to as a “Maintenance Delay Eleven!”) With help from the World engineers on site, we are able to visit the flight deck of their 747 to get some elevated nose on views of the ATI DC-8-62.
Maintenance Director Robert Dobler and Engineer Phil Sisco decided to ride aboard N799AL’s last flight to Travis, which was operated by DC-8 Check Airman Captain Brad Watts, First Officer Stephanie Swain, Flight Engineer Scott Olson, along with Flight Attendant Sandra Lucas-Detrick and another Flight Attendant, all seasoned ATI DC-8 veterans.
Robert Dobler and Phil Sisco are both former USAF maintenance engineers, and worked on C-5s and C-141s at Travis. before they retired from the military and joined ATI. During the DC-8’s time on the ground at Travis Phil Sisco explained that N799AL is engine configured with an intermix, which means that has JT3D-3B engines on the port side, and a JT3D-7 on the starboard side. The difference between the engines is in their thrust rating. The -3B is rated at 18,000 pounds, while the -7 is at 19,000 pounds.
With only one or two JT3D-7 engines, the aircraft is operated at -3B power settings or less. Under normal conditions, the -3B’s 18,000 pound thrust rating works out to an EPR setting of 1.83. The 19,000 pound thrust rating of the -7 would be achieved with an EPR setting of 1.87. Doesn’t sound like much, but it is difference of a thousand pounds of thrust. With an intermix configuration, the crew does not set throttles and thrust levels individually. They all get the same takeoff setting, with a de-rated power setting somewhere between 1.78 – 1.82.
Phil Sisco explained that the fuel burn of a JT-3 engine is 1,100 – 1,300 pounds per hour at idle, and 2,500 – 3,000 pounds per hour at cruise (over 30,000 feet). On take-off each engine will be burning 5,000 pounds of fuel per hour. It is not difficult to do the math to see that the DC-8 (and 707) are thirsty aircraft. They were designed for fuel at 10 cents a gallon .. not $4 a gallon. A quick calculation reveals that the DC-8-62 will burn seven to eight thousand dollars per hour of fuel in cruise. Over a five hour flight, factoring in a take-off, the fuel cost per average leg can easily approach $50,000 to $60,000.
Captain Watts started on the DC-8 in 1988, and has been with ATI twenty years, and has been with the company’s DC-8 combi program since it started in 1993/1994 (originally as ICX with their first oil charter operations into Russia). With 7500 hours of flying experience on the DC-8, Captain Watts was joined another ATI DC-8 veteran in the right hand seat by First Officer Stephanie Swain.
First Officer Swain started her aviation career as a ramp hand at an FBO in Ohio in 1982, and eventually earned her pilots license and commercial license, and in 1994, got her first DC-8 job flying a DC-8-55 freighter. She’s been with ATI for the past fifteen years with 5500 hours on type to her credit.
When asked if the ATI DC-8 crews tend to stay on the same routes, First Officer Swain explained “the way our lines are made up we tend to bounce around a lot, for instance in March I did Thule, I went to Japan, and I did part of this segment out of here .” Which is not out of the norm for the maintenance engineers, who also do a fair bit of travel tending to the DC-8s. ATI’s McLellan based maintenance expertise tends to visit Hawaii and Japan, while the company’s east coat based staff can visit Thule and Ascension as part of their job duties.
Even though the DC-8 is no stranger to First Officer Swain, she shared a humorous insight in that “a lot of times your taxing in and you’ll hear on the radio someone ask what kind of airplane is that, or even up in the air we’ll hear them ask what kind of airplane just passed over us?” Captain Watts added “Some of the younger voices on the radio just don’t really know what it is.” When asked what year the aircraft was built, Flight Engineer Olson answered “1968” .. to which Flight Engineer Swain responded “the same year I was born!” Which really does highlight that the aircraft is older than many people realize, and most people in the industry who aren’t enthusiasts will have no idea what is DC-8 is all about!
Flight Engineer Scott Olson started his career in the US Air Force in the mid 1970s and developed a maintenance expertise and then worked as an AWACS Flight Engineer, a position which he held for ten years before moving onto airline work as a civilian. When asked to compare the AWACS 707 to the DC-8, Flight Engineer Olson joked “The DC-8 might have been a better airframe for them to use, but that’s my preference as I’ve been on this (the ATI DC-8s) for 19 years now.”
As for the future and the new 757 combi replacements, Captain Watts explained “I look forward to doing something new, but the airplane is hard to give up after this many years. It has served us well and has done everything that’s asked of it.” When asked the question if the aircraft could continue to fly, Captain Watts explained “With enough money you can do anything. The airplane will need a some costly avionics upgrades, and the airframe itself is perfectly viable, and our -72 series aircraft meet al lot of the noise and emission requirements even today.” He further explained “the major structural mods have been complied with, so there is no real end to the airframe.”
Fuel costs aside, Captain Watts pointed out that finding DC-8 maintenance expertise is a challenge as “many people have moved on to other types of work.” In other words, with so few DC-8s remaining operational, those with DC-8 type experience have moved on to maintaining newer aircraft. “The DC-8 has old systems, and they have to be maintained hands-on so to speak!” was how Captain Watts explained the situation. So it will be a challenge for some other operator to continue with the ATI DC-8s, and there have been a few casual inquiries out of Africa regarding the aircraft. Suffice it to say, if the aircraft are sold into Africa, they won’t likely see the light of day again .. certainly not by western aviation fans.
Even flight training on the DC-8 is getting more difficult as the type fades into the twilight. The one and only DC-8 flight simulator that ATI is licensed to use is with the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio. Captain Watts explained that they have stopped using it, and if other customers stop their use as they move on with newer aircraft, the simulator will also likely fade into the twilight.
N799AL had 89,364 hours in her log book as she sat on the Travis ramp on Sunday May 12, 2013, one hour prior to her last departure for Hawaii. The days that would follow would be her last days in the air prior to retirement, the plan being to fly to Hickam that afternoon, then operating an out and back flights to Kwajalein Atoll on Monday and Tuesday (five hours air time each way from Hickam), the crew would rest in Honolulu on Wednesday, and on Thursday, May 16, 2013, they would operate an out and back to Wake Island, marking the last ever revenue flight for N799AL.
Which is quite an accomplishment given the years of service and pedigree of the aircraft. Originally delivered to SAS in 1968, it went to Scanair in 1979, and then spent the 80s with Arista, Northeastern, Thai, Royal Thai Air Force, Arrow, Hawaiian, Air Marshall Islands, Zantop, and finally to ATI in 1998. To this day the aircraft was affectionately know as “Little Ami” .. a cute reference to its service with Air Marshall Islands.
After 45 years and 110 days of service, N799AL made her last ever flight on Saturday, May 18, 2013. Captain Watts and his crew welcomed their guests from the Naval Air Museum Barber’s Point and the military for a special delivery flight from Hickam to Barber’s Point. The flight departed Hickam at 4:03 pm (Hawaii Standard Time) and circumnavigated the Island of Oahu landing, at Barber’s Point at 4:40 HST. The aircraft will actually be kept in ground running operational condition for the time being, and the museum is planning to do some high speed taxi runs later this summer.
N799AL had run up against a heavy D check, which is required every 25,000 flight hours. The aircraft was actually accepted by ATI off a D check in 1998, thus the aircraft clocked up 25,000 flight hours in 15 years, which is 1600-1700 hours per year, which is a terrific testament to the reliability of the aircraft. During the entire duration the aircraft has been configured as a 32 seat combi in support of the military. The fact that the DC-8 was 45 years old, made her no less capable of logging similar flight hours of a new generation Boeing or Airbus.
The retirement of N799AL left ATI with just two operational DC-8s: The -72 was still on contract in Japan, and DC-8-62 N41CX was still on the contract on the east coast serving the USAF resupply contract between Baltimore and McGuire AFB to Thule Greenland and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. With route proving and certification trials well under way with the new 757-200ER combi aircraft, both DC-8s are expected to retire by “the end of the summer” according to Captain Watts, and will be stood down as the 757s enter service.
The ATI 757 combi’s MTOW is 255,000 pounds versus 335,000 pounds for the DC-8-62. The 757 will carry 42 passengers versus 32 on the DC-8-62, and will burn a third less fuel, saving the Air Force millions of dollars a year. The relatively high utilization of the DC-8s and the resultant high fuel costs conspired against it versus the 757. With the checks coming due on the DC-8s they had simply come to the end of their practicality in this specific commercial application.
During the interim period until the first 757 goes into service, there was discussion of DC-8-62 N41CX being positioned to the West Coast to operatr the Travis-Hawaii-South Pacific contract. Which still may happen, if even for just a few weeks, or a month or two. Suffice it to say, the days of the DC-8 in service with ATI are now winding to an end quite rapidly. If N41CX still has airframe time remaining when the 757 replaces it on the contract, the aircraft will be kept operational as a back-up and available for ad-hoc charter until such time that she time expires to her next overhaul check. DC-8 enthusiasts can hold some hope in knowing that an enthusiast flight might be arranged in the Fall by the author, pending sufficient interest.
Fond memories of N799AL and all the ATI DC-8s will remain with the military personnel who relied on the aircraft for their decades of service. USAF Lt. Col. Larry Suter (a Travis based C-5 Galaxy Captain) explained the situation for Airways: “I’ve spent a lot of time in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and this aircraft delivered the fresh fruit and vegetables literally for the last ten years. So every guy there that has eaten a salad at the officers club, or has eaten a fruit, has this airplane to thank. Without this DC-8, there would have been nothing to eat except canned food on that island. “ Hats off to the DC-8 and ATI for a job well done. And long may the tradition continue!
A DVD documentary on this DC-8’s last flights will be released by HenryTenby.com DVDs soon.
The author would like to thank for following individuals for their help in preparing this article:
USAF Lt. Col. Larry Suter
Robert Dobler, ATI
Ist Lt. Angela Martin, USAF Media Operations Travis AFB
Ellen Hatfield, Deputy Chief Public Affairs, 349 Air Mobility Wings, Travis AFB