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Time Travel on a DC-7

One of the stars of AeroShell Square at this year’s EAA AirVenture was a beautifully restored 1958 Douglas DC-7B. The airplane did a demo flight on Thursday and was open for public walk-through tours throughout the week. On the last day of the show, Jim and I got a pretty special kind of tour: one that involved fastening our seatbelts inside the big four-engine plane and going for a ride.

This Eastern Air Lines DC-7, N836D, was in Oshkosh as a result of years of hard work by a group based in Florida called the Historical Flight Foundation. The airplane sat idle at the St. Paul Downtown Airport from 1972 until it was rescued in 2004. Volunteers helped bring it back to flying status that summer so it could be moved. In August 2004 it made its first flight in 32 years, ending up at Opa Locka Airport in Florida. Then after almost six more years of major restoration work there, N836D flew again on July 4th this year. It was ready to make its Oshkosh debut.

The Historical Flight Foundation will tour the U.S. and possibly other countries with the DC-7. Visitors to the web site www.historicalflightfoundation.com can learn more about the history of the airplane and book seats on “living history flights” at tour stops. The site also includes information on joining the organization, which is what Jim and I did along with a few friends. Members are eligible to ride along on repositioning flights.

On August 1st, Jim and I boarded the DC-7 at about 11 a.m. along with around 15 other people including the crew. We would be leaving Oshkosh heading for Ypsilanti, Michigan (near Detroit), and this would be one of those once-in-a-lifetime types of experiences.

I sat at the front of the plane and chatted with fellow passenger Jeff Skiles, the “Miracle on the Hudson” first officer, failing to notice the irony of his Seaplane Pilots Association polo shirt at first. One by one, the engines puffed smoke and roared to life. I got a good view through an open emergency exit window. Pilot Frank Moss let the engines warm up for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I moved back to a different seat over the wing and settled in with my camera. The crew closed the emergency exits and the plane heated up inside as we taxied out. I might have been sweating, but I loved it.

I’ve never experienced anything quite like the stereo chorus of four Wright 3350 engines being brought up to takeoff power. We lumbered down Runway 18 and almost imperceptibly lifted into the air. We circled back to the airport and did a graceful flyby for the crowd.

Video of the takeoff – crummy video but the audio came through great:

We headed east to the Lake Michigan shoreline near Manitowoc and circled for about 40 minutes for an air-to-air photo shoot. The other passengers and I wandered around the plane checking out the views from different seats. We took turns peering into the cockpit. The flight attendant brought us Mimosas. The air was cool and smooth, making for a very comfortable ride.

After venturing out over the lake toward our destination, the rest of the flight lasted a little over an hour. Everyone helped themselves to a buffet table of sandwich ingredients and chips set up next to the galley where the flight attendant was pouring us sodas. Jim and I went to the very back of the plane to eat, where cushy seats wrap around in a half-circle to form the “smoking lounge.” (No smoking anymore, of course!) We set our plates on our handy table-like armrests and peered out the windows that let us see behind the plane. It was surprisingly quiet back there. Ah, this was the life!

Everyone clapped and cheered when the pilot made a smooth landing in Ypsilanti. We were applauding not only the landing, but also the whole experience and everyone’s hard work in bringing the plane back to life. We may have only crossed one time zone, but we were transported 52 years back.