Historical Flight Foundation’s DC-7B: Trip Report

I had the opportunity this month to join a group of 50 aviation geeks on the first international passenger flight of a Douglas DC-7 in decades.

Historical Flight Foundation’s Eastern Airlines DC-7B restoration, Opa-Locka Airport (Miami) prior to boarding for our trip to St. Maarten. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

This airplane, N836D, was delivered to Eastern Airlines in 1958. It flew with Eastern for about seven years and was sold to the Nomad travel club, which operated it for a number of years, still with the EA interior, before selling it to a third party who intended to create another travel club but never completed funding. It sat in St. Paul (MN) for 33 years until the owner of Florida Air Transport (FAT) discovered it and bought it. The Historical Flight Foundation was created for restoration to full EAL 1958 colors.

Ralph Pettersen, who was on the HFF trip, several years ago wrote this article with photos of the interior of the DC-7B as it had been stored at the St. Paul Airport.

Wikipedia has this history of the DC-7. Eastern ordered 49 DC-7Bs, more than any other carrier. According to the book, From the Captain to the Colonel, a history of Eastern by the late Robert Serling, EAL’s CEO Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker over-ordered the DC-7, knowing the jet-powered Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 were around the corner. (Eastern ordered the DC-8.) According to the book, had Eastern ordered fewer DC-7s and Lockheed Electras and more DC-8s, Eastern would not have been at a competitive disadvantage during the early years of the jet age.

Child of the Jet Age

This trip was, to me, a chance of a life time for several reasons. First, I’m literally a child of the jet age. My first airliner flight wasn’t until 1964, when I was an early-teenager. It was an Ozark Airlines F-27 from Chicago O’Hare to Peoria. The large windows and the high-wing airplane made for great views and the short hop from ORD meant we were at a relatively low altitude. This was how I fell in love with the airline business.

Through the years, I’ve ridden on the deHavilland Twin Otter, the four-engine Dash-7, the Dash-8, the Convair 580 and the Hawker-Siddeley HS748, all prop-jet airliners (in addition to a variety of jets, of course). I’ve done the obligatory 20-minute air show ride in the DC-3 and I’ve had rides in the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24, as well as the Convair C-131 (CV-240) and deHavilland Beaver.  But I never have been in the Electra or Viscount and certainly not DC-four engine transports or the Lockheed Constellation.

So this DC-7B trip, offered through the UK travel tour company Ian Allan, with 12 hours of flying, promised to be a real thrill.

The Restoration

The broad story is noted above through Ralph Pettersen’s article and through this link at the HFF. The plane has been airworthy for some time, but elements of the restoration continue. The pressurization system has not been restored, limiting flights to 10,000 ft and below–which isn’t all bad because in good weather, we had some fabulous views of the Caribbean and the islands to and from Puerto Rico and St. Maarten. At various times, we flew at 1,000 ft between San Juan and St. Maarten (and 5,000 ft on the return); and at 9,000 ft or so to and from Florida.

Neither has the air conditioning system been restored yet, which caused some issues in the warm, Caribbean and south Florida climates. Ramp time and the low-level, 1,000 foot flight were especially challenging.

As any aviation geek knows, the Curtis-Wright compound engines of the DC-7 were cantankerous and prone to failure. Interestingly, HFF president Roger Jarmen told me that this was because the airlines all pushed the engines to maximum performance and the strain caused the failures. But back off the power settings, and the engines are reliable. HFF does this for reliability and fuel conservation, operating the engines at 25% less than rated power.

In addition to the unpressurized, non-air conditioned flights at low altitudes, we cruised at only 200 mph. The experience, therefore, was more akin to the DC-4 than the DC-7. This really gave us a taste of what post-war aviation was about (and why it took 4 1/2 hours from Miami to San Juan and another 1 1/2 hours to St. Maarten).

The noise and vibration vs. jets was another element I was interested in experiencing. Naturally we all know how quiet and smooth jet flight is, but you don’t have a true understanding of the jet revolution from pistons until you have done a piston-pounder flight like this. Although books will tell you the back of a piston plane is quieter than the front (hence, that’s where first class seating was in the piston era), I frankly didn’t notice much difference.

I clearly noticed the increased noise level, shaking and vibration vs. jets. It’s just not quiet, period. But I found I could actually fall asleep easier and more soundly on the DC-7 than on a jet because of the rhythmic vibration.

Itinerary

As noted above, we went from Florida to Puerto Rico to St. Maarten and reversed the routing to return.

We flew from Miami to San Juan, on the eastside of Puerto Rico then on to St. Martin (aka St. Maarten). On the return, we flew from St. Martin to Borinquen Field, the former Ramey AFB on the western side of Puerto Rico on the southern coast and then to Miami. The two stops were necessary for customs and immigration clearances.

We landed at the St. Maarten Juliana Airport, where landings are just feet over the beach and adjoining roadway.

HFF/EAL DC-7B on final approach to the famous St. Maarten Airport, where planes land within feet of the beach. HFF did a special take-off and landing over the beach so the tour group could get airborne shots of this airplane. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

St. Maarten is the only island divided by two countries: the Dutch have in the south and the French half in the north.

On the return, we fleet to Puerto Rico’s Rafael Hernandez Airport on the west end of the island to clear customs.  Here is our flight track to Opa-Locka Airport in Miami.

The Return of Eastern Airlines

As word spread at San Juan that this restored EAL DC-7 would be stopping for customs paperwork en route to St. Maarten, retired EA employees asked if they could meet the airplane and get a tour. The HFF and Ian Allan were happy to accommodate this request.

It was quite the meet-and-greet. The San Juan Airport fire department gave us a water cannon salute; all the local TV and print media were there, along with dignitaries.

It looks like rain but this is the fire department water cannon salute at San Juan Airport provided the arrival of the restored Eastern Airlines DC-7B. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

A large crowd of perhaps 150 people greeted the airplane. The event made all the local media plus it was picked up by MSNBC and a New York City TV station.

The DC-7B at San Juan, with part of the retired EAL employees, dignitaries on other on-lookers in the background. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

Landing, taxiing and take-off proved to be a real show-stopper at the airport as employees from all companies stopped to watch. Our take-off completely stopped the productivity of all the American Airlines ramp workers.

At St. Maarten, the HFF enlisted the cooperation of the local ATC for the short photo-hop, including taking along a couple of controllers for the ride. Our departure to Puerto Rico (for customs and immigration clearance) and to Opa-Locka was delayed three hours by rain, so we were all deposited in the secure area of the terminal to wait for the weather to clear. Our waiting area was at ground level; coffee and sandwich shops were up the stairs. When the weather cleared and we were to board our airport bus for the ride to the plane, our group was scattered between the two floors. Although we were on a Florida Air Transport flight number, at my suggestion, the Menzies gate agent called, “Eastern flight 502 for Miami now ready for boarding….” It’s the first time this has been heard since Eastern ceased operations 20 years ago.

Miscellaneous Information

You can get a 1/72 desktop model of the airplane from Atlantic-Models for $345; 25% goes to the HFF.

Two ex-Eastern Airlines flight attendants served our flight. The garb is 1958 EAL uniforms–except they wore today’s tennis shoes. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

At 9,000 ft from Opa-Locka to San Juan. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

Curtis-Wright engines on the DC-7B. Cantankerous in airline service, reliable derated. HFF says a spare engine now costs $7,500 vs. the $40,000-$60,000 for spares for DC-4s or DC-6s today. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

“Check the gas, fill the oil.” That’s what HFF says is the standard line for big recips, which consume oil (not burns it). You can see the oil drips on the ramp at San Juan, from our flight over from Miami. The tops of the wing, painted black in the photo above, hides the trailing oil leaking from the engines during flight. When we boarded the airplane at Opa-Locka, I was amused to see oil spots on the windows aft of the engines. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

HFF is considering a DC-7 trip to Central America, but nothing has been announced or arranged at this time.

Needless to say, this was a fabulous trip. HFF has done a marvelous job of restoring the airplane to the colors and to flying condition. Work continues on the A/C and perhaps the pressurization. The interior for now consists of lavs and seats from a dismantled DC-9; to restore the DC-7 seats would cost $200 per and at this stage, HFF doesn’t have that money. The interior hat-racks are absent–Airliners.net readers say there is a certification issue, but I didn’t know about this so I didn’t ask. But these non-era issues are minor compared with the overall experience.

HFF takes the airplane occasionally to air shows. Check its website for information. Also watch for the new ABC TV series, “Pan Am” (which by description sounds perfectly awful); N836D makes an appearance in Pan Am colors. A photo is on the HFF website.

29 comments on “Historical Flight Foundation’s DC-7B: Trip Report

  1. Great trip report, but not buying the notion that St Maarten is the only island divided by two countries.

    Think, for instance, of the island of New Guinea. The eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea, the western half is part of Indonesia.

    It’s not even true when limited to the Caribbean — the island of Hispaniola is divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

  2. Other than a little Cessna flight in 1957, my first real flight was in a MATS DC-7B from Norfolk to Bari, Italy in 1958. It was courtesy of of the USN as I was going to be joining the USSWasp-CVS-18. I was in the jump seat, and as we passed over JFK, the captain said, ‘Looks what coming up from JFK. It’s one of those new DC-8s.” Never did I know I would go on to work for TWA for 15 years–starting at JFK– and then Airbus for another 20 years.

  3. Wow, what a a trip! Into the sky and back in time.

    MATS never had any DC-7’s except possibly as an occasional airline charter. The US military had DC-6A’s, designated C-118 for the USAF and R6D-1 for the Navy

    The DC-7/-7B/-7C may have been the latest and greatest in their day (just a few years before Electras, 707’s and DC-8’s), but in retrospect they may have been a step too far. The DC-6B was almost the same size, almost as fast, did not fly quite as far, but it was much more efficient and reliable than any of the DC-7’s.

    US domestic DC-7’s and -7B’s were for the non-stop transcon market, so they made sense for American and United. But they were also purchased by Continental, Delta, Eastern and National, none of which had routes that really needed the extra speed and/or range. No matter; they too could advertise “we have the newest fastest best” etc etc.

  4. I make no apologies for repeating a previous entry revolving around your Caribbean piston sojourn.

    You certainly know how to evoke aviation memories I must say I envy your being able to take the trip.

    From my own piston recollections of the fifties flying as a Brit brat (Boarding school child visiting parents) five day flights on the Kangaroo route, flying on DC6′s with numerous stopovers en route, reduced to a speedy four days with the introduction of the Turboprop Bristol Brittania. Dressing up to travel, not like todays passengers who dress looking like down & outs or aerial refugees. Crisp linen, Silver service, Bone china, & those Oh so cosy armchair style seats, Big almost square windows, the skipper & his frequent walks through the aircraft to chat, Stewardesses in pencil skirts who understood the word service, but Oh dear the noise those piston engines made… turboprops seemed silent by comparison, happy days.

    An excellect report thank you Scott.

  5. That must have been quite an experience, Dave. If that was 1958, though, it was “Idlewild,” not “JFK.” I’m surprised that the captain would recognize the plane as a DC-8 instead of a 707 from an altitude above the airport. Also, there was probably only one DC-8 flying in 1958: the prototype.

  6. Another reason the R3350s on the DC-7B are reliable is that, except I believe for one engine, the engines installed are ex-military R3350-93s. These incorporate all the improvements made to the Turbo-Compound and are a far more robust engine than the earlier series.

  7. Eastern ordered 50 DC-7Bs. They received 49. One of the DC-7Bs was damaged beyond economic repair in the hands of Douglas Aircraft prior to delivery, the details of which are something of a mystery–perhaps an embarrassing mishandling of the plane resulting in structural damage??

  8. Some of those photos are stunning! Incidentally, I’d rather be a passenger in a DC-6/DC-7/Connie in any position (except adjacent to the propellers)than in the back two rows of a DC-9 / MD-80 series!!!

  9. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and made many a passenger flight on DC-7s, 7Bs and 7Cs with Delta, Eastern, United and Northwest. My last trip in one was from Savannah to Atlanta on a Delta 7B in 1967. The DC-7 was always my favorite piston airliner, probably for the fact that in its day, it was the most featured amongst the airlines’ advertising and promotion. Delta’s wore a Golden Crown. Eastern’s a Golden Falcon. Northwest featured Imperial Service and United rolled red carpets out to theirs on the tarmac. Champagne flowed freely inflight and dinner trays carried complimentary Tarryton or Winston cigarettes. Children delighted in the attention of stewardesses as they were then called who passed out junior pilot and junior stewardess wings along with pieces of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. Engine start-up was always an exciting element as the blades turned over the top, a belch of blue-white smoke and the engines, one by one, came to life. Normal conversation at altitude, however, was labored due to the vibration that made one’s voice sound hoarse and gravelly. But not speaking much afforded one an opportunity to more completely enjoy the changing land and cloud scapes during breakfast, lunch or dinner as they passed leisurely beneath the wings. It was indeed the golden age of the airlines.

  10. Thank you Scott, for your fascinating and detailed report on the restored
    DC-7 on its first international flight after many years over the Caribbean,
    during your recent vacation.

    While the flight brought back memories of your first flight as an early-
    teenager on a high winged F-27 in 1964, your report also rekindled
    memories of my first flight in 1933 at the age of five, on a Fokker Tri-
    motor, also a high winged aircraft, from Bandung where my dad ran
    a manufacturing industry, to Batavia, the capital of the former Dutch
    East Indies,
    I will also never forget my fascination, if not ecstasy, when looking out of
    the large rectangular plexiglass window next to me and the earth sinking
    way below me, looking at the belching exhaust gases coming out the six
    inch diameter exhaust pipes and the large rigid landing gear and the
    roaring three-bladed propellors pulling the craft to ever higher altitudes!
    That flight, without any question, also cemented my fascination with
    aviation for the rest of my life!

    Coming back to the DC-7 and in particular the DC–7C, isn’t it remarkable
    that while Boeing was getting ready to deliver the first 707 to PAA in 1959,
    Douglas launched yet another version of the propeller driven DC-7 in 1958,
    while also developing the DC-8, which only highlights the near complete
    lack of appreciation and or understanding in the US aviation industry, for
    the phenomenal potential of commercial jet aviation, as late as 1958.

    Also, it isn’t very well known, that when the US intelligence services
    “captured” the swept-wing data from Germany in 1945/6 and distributed
    the top-secret data to all US manufacturers, all other US aircraft manu-
    facturers rejected the swepped-wing concept as “UNWORKABLE”!.
    Only Boeing management, under the extremely capable leadership of CEO
    Mr. Bill Allen, decided to apply the swepped-wing data to the first ever
    multi-jet-engined aircraft, in the competition for the next US strategic
    bomber, the B-47, which enabled Boeing to win that competition!

    Almost without any serious challenge and because of the phenomenal
    success of the B-47, Boeing also won the follow-up long range strategic
    B-52 bomber contract, which in turn enabled Boeing to decide and
    build the –80 prototype in 1952, which, as we all know now, gave
    Boeing the head start in commercial aviation and tanker/transports,
    which it never lost until the end of the last century.
    Airbus regrettably, surpassed Boeing in this decade, by leading the
    industry in 1986, with the first all new FLY-BY-WIRE concept on the
    A320, and standardising all their models on the new concept, sub-
    sequently!
    Boeing, did not launch it’s first fly-by-wire equipped aircraft, the 777,
    until 1991!

  11. Sadly I never had the opportunity to ride on a propeller engined airliner.
    Already the humming sound and the vibrations caused by the engines must
    be a great feeling.
    My only experience is that of a short ride on a helicopter, which was terribly
    loud and wobbly.
    St. Maarten: isn’t that the island where the jets approach Princess Juliana Airport only around 100 feet above the heads of beachgoers ?
    h t t p://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo3BEVfe4Fo

    • Hello Evin,

      Re Princess Juliana Airport, you are correct. “Fence riding,” as they call it, is something of a sport to some of the beach goers as they attach themselves to the perimeter fence and hold on as jets align with the runway and spool up to take off just a few hundred feet in front of them. Re missing the opportunity to fly on a propeller plane, if you ever get the chance to take an Alaska cruise, don’t miss taking a flight seeing tour out of Ketchikan to the Misty Fjords Natl Monument on a classic deHavilland DHC-2 Beaver float plane. Exceedingly reliable and stable, the Beaver is the quintessential Alaskan/Canadian bush plane and is powered by a Pratt & Whitney R985 piston radial with all the heart-pounding, blood-pumping, adrenalin-rushing excitement and delight imaginable. The scenery of the Misty Fjords is beyond belief breathtaking as well. Check out http://www.seawindaviation.com which is owned and operated by my friends, Steve and Lesley Kamm. Tell ‘em Marshall sent you.

  12. Mr Hillinga raises some interesting issues. Boeing deserves credit for applying swept-wing technology to large jet aircraft but there were several US aircraft makers who built smaller swept-wing jets during that same time period, such as the North American F-86 Sabre. There were even several examples of straight-wing aircraft being replaced by swept-wing derivatives i.e. Grumman Panther vs Cougar and Republic F-84 vs F-84F.

    Boeing bet the company when they built the 367-80 prototype, but the initial result was the military KC-135 Stratotanker in 1956, followed by, with USAF approval, the civilian 707-120. (Note: despite outward similarities the KC-135 and 707 are very different aircraft).

    In retrospect 1955-1960 were years of incredibly rapid change on the North Atlantic. Domestic DC-7’s went into service December 1st 1953, but the transatlantic DC-7B’s had to wait until May 1955. The ultimate version, the DC-7C, came a year later, on June 1st 1956 (not 1958). The DC-7C was the first transport capable of non-stop transatlantic service in both directions. There were two more two-way non-stop transatlantic airliners: the Lockheed 1649 Starliner (June 1957), and the turboprop Bristol Britannia in January 1958.

    Transatlantic jet service began soon after, a BOAC Comet 4 on October 4th 1958, then a Pan American 707-121 on October 26th. Although both were much faster than prop planes, neither could fly the Atlantic non-stop. That situation ended in August 1959 when Pan American introduced the 707-321 Intercontinental. That same month saw United Airlines’ first DC-8-10 domestic service; the first transatlantic DC-8-30’s followed in April 1960. In five years, speed and payload had doubled, and the world changed forever.

  13. RE: ne90th,
    Yes, the F-86 Sabre-jet of Korean war fame, also had a swept-wing, but as I indicated,
    the B-47 was the first MULTY-JET engined, swept-wing aircraft in the whole world!
    Even the German M-62, built in the country from which the US “secured” the swept-
    wing technology, did NOT have a thru swept-wing!
    Also, the British de-Haviland Comet, launched 5 years before the 707/KC-135
    and at the same time as the B-47 in 1947, did NOT have a swept wing!

    Re. the B-47, one of the greatest design concepts pioneered by Boeing and pretty
    much forgotten today, was to put the engines on the B-47 as far away from the
    aircraft cabin and as far forward of the wings as possible, by hanging the engines
    on struts forward of the wing, to prevent injuries to passengers/crew and or
    critical structure damage to the fuel tanks, in case of engine turban-lade failure.
    This configuration is today the only engine-mount configuration on all jet aircraft
    in the whole world, including Airbus, Russian and others!
    I do not remember having seen much publicity of this major pioneering design and
    do not know if Boeing ever took out a patent out on it?

    It is almost inconceivable, therefore, why the British, while having the expertise to
    pioneer the building of the first revolutionary commercial jet aircraft in the world,
    the de-Havilland Comet, put the engines in the most critical part of the aircraft’s
    structure, the wing to body joint, creating maximum exposure to both passengers
    and the aircraft structures in case of a turbine-blade failure, which was recognized
    to be a serious possibility even at that time, as it is today!
    Ref. The Qantas A380 RR no. 2 engine explosion out of Singapore last November,
    which still enabled the pilot to land the airplane, in spite of major structural
    failures, fuel tank punctures, loss of electrical power etc.!

  14. Pingback: Short Take: Trip Report of International Flight of Eastern Air Lines DC-7 | Airline Reporter | Blogging on the airline business

  15. My Dad had a 40 year career with Eastern with about 25 years in Flight Test and Engineering. My first flight was from New York to Miami on a Constellation at about 6 weeks old. Don’t remember much about that trip. I do remember numerous flights in Martins, Convairs, DC-7’s, Electras, Constellations, DC-8’s, 720’s, 727’s, DC-9’s and 1011’s with many visits to the cockpit. Several of these flights were delivery flights from Long Beach, Palmdale and Seattle to Miami. Never got to fly on the EAL 747 because it was flying New York to San Juan but I did visit Boeing while my dad was going to 747 school.

    New DC-7’s were delivered to EAL and never flew a revenue flight. They were traded for the new jets. I remember walking through these DC-7’s sitting on the ramp in MIA and recall how clean and shiny the seats, carpets and galley’s were. The DC-7’s disappeared pretty quick after the 727’s came into the fleet.

  16. A very little known fact is that Lockheed won the jet tanker competition against Boeing. The plane was a swept wing, with the four engines mounted on the aft fuselage (like the VC-10). Boeing had the Dash 80 in hand, and got the contract.

  17. Very nice article on the DC-7, Scott. My husband, Greg Day, was the Flight Engineer on that trip. He really enjoyed that flight and loves the “Old Girls”. He also Engineers a DC-6 out of Opa Locka. Thanks for the wonderful pics and information!

    Kim Day

    • It was a grand trip, Kim.

      Interesting since then: I was looking at US DOT statistics of block times (gate-to-gate) and Southwest and United airlines average only a little more than 400mph with their jets. That’s not much faster than the old prop days (though obviously a lot less airport and airway congestion then) and a bit higher than the advertised 365mph cruise of the DC7.

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  19. Pingback: Odds and Ends: Recovering WWII flying boat; Constellation restorations; Eastern Air DC-7B; Where will 787-10 be assembled? | Leeham News and Comment

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