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2009 Articles

DEC 08 2009
Detroit, Willow-Run Cargo Operations

When I started working at British Airways (BA) in 1979 at the tender age of just 16 I could hardly wait for my one year of service anniversary to come around, for this would allow me access to the much coveted Staff Travel opportunities on the BA network.

So it was that in November 1980 I made my first ever trip to the USA in search of propliner heaven at Yipsilati Airport (YIP) just outside of metro Detroit in the heart of the automobile manufacturer belt. I knew of YIP thanks to reading a new magazine called ‘Propliner’, conceived by the late great Stephen Piercy; who I attribute for inspiring me on my many quests capturing these old and oily beasts scattered across the globe.

I flew to Detroit on a BA Boeing 747-100 (G-AWNL) via Washington and spent approximately half a day at the airfield soaking up the atmosphere, and the oil, before visiting other airfields in the area.

During this time one operator dominated at the airport - Zantop International Airlines. They operated a fleet which included DC-6, Convair 640, L-188 Electra and DC-8 aircraft and you could find most of these huddled on the vast ramp during the day with scarcely a space available for parking. Even in those days there were scapped aircraft being used as spares sources.

The airport would come alive at night as aircraft were dispatched all over the continental United States carrying ad-hoc time sensitive freight for express carriers, military contractors and their bread-and-butter work for the automotive industry in Michigan.

Zantop served the US automotive industry with an on-demand service, carrying parts from sub-assembly production lines to the main production lines in Michigan with some plants bordering the airport itself. One of the reasons for the use of aircraft was because the main assembly lines were unionised and if assembly parts were not delivered on-time the line would simply shut down.

Other operators on the airfield included Transcontinental Airlines with their very attractive yellow and black C-46 and DC-6 aircraft, and there were also smaller outfits with Falcon 20 jets and yet another flying Beech 18s.

I made a second journey to YIP in July 1984 after writing a letter to Zantop asking to fly in one of the DC-6s. A few weeks later an envelope was pushed through my letterbox bearing the bright red Zantop logo. My reply came from one of the Zantop family and basically said "no problem, just turn up."

So a further trip, this time on BA Boeing 747-200 (G-BDXF), and I found myself at the Zantop office in the hangar. A quick trip to the FAA office and I was given a small piece of paper that would allow me to fly on any aircraft for three days. Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!

So the first night came along and I was given the bad news that no DC-6s were due to depart that night. A quick phone call by one of the operations staff and I was led down the ramp to the Transcontinental Airlines (TCA) ramp where I was presented with a yellow and black DC-6 by the TCA staff - this would be my aircraft for the night.

The flight (on N6586C) was through the night, destination Rockford Illinois, but the return was at daybreak and the sights and sounds as we flew at mid-level over Lake Erie were something that I will honestly never forget.

The following night I decided to fly on Zantop DC-8-33F (N8217U) to New York, Newark. It was a most interesting flight as there were building thunderstorms on our path and the crew steered the aircraft on a roller-coaster ride; left, right, ascending and descending, dodging the storms as they formed. There was almost no other traffic on the radio and Air Traffic Control gave the crew almost carte blanche to go wherever they needed to avoid the weather.

With a day to kill in New York after this I flew with New York Helicopters on a Dauphin and a Sikorsky S-58 around the city, before flying back to YIP on the DC-8. What a rush!

I worked for Channel Express (CEX) in Guernsey, Channel Islands from 1988 through 1992 and via that company I made further contacts with Zantop. CEX, alongside Air Bridge Carriers (ABC) shared the costs of certifying the Lockheed L-188 Electra with the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK in order to operate this larger aircraft in place of the Handley Page Dart Herald and the Vickers Vanguard. Many of the Electras that originally came to the UK were Zantop machines and operated by US crews until the long certification process was completed.

It was a great pleasure to fly in the Electra on many occasions as part of my work commute to Bournemouth. I will never forget sitting in the jump-seat behind the captain at an elevated position, rolling down the runway at full power while the crew fought to keep the nose wheel on the runway until the aircraft was ‘let go’ and she would head skyward - so much power even when loaded with 15 tonnes of freight.

I had the chance to visit YIP again in 2007 and was interested to see how things had changed since my visits back in the 80s. Well, sadly Zantop is no more as they went out of business in 2005, partly due to the downturn in the automotive industry as that work essentially dried-up and partly due to their dislike of pilot unionisation. They changed their operations to a FAR Part 125 Certificate to avoid the unions and gradually passed contracts to other carriers. Eventually the airline lost business momentum and most aircraft were sold off before the company eventually disappeared.

The company now dominating the scene at YIP is USA Jet which operates a fleet of Falcon 20 and DC-9 freighters alongside four DC-9 passenger jets. Part of the Active Aero Group they started by operating the corporate charter contract for Ford on the opposite side of the airport, before branching out to ad-hoc freight charter work.

The company has designed a web system called Charter Net that allows companies to place specific requirements for cargo companies to bid on. This started as a service purely for the automotive industry but is now used for many other industries transportation needs and has been renamed Premier Transportation Management (PTM). PTM is basically a bidding system and Active Aero Group makes its money via transaction fees, much like the credit card industry.

Jet USA has many aircraft stored for spares or return-to-service and one aircraft in particular caught my attention. DC-9-32F N207US is an ex-Overseas National Airlines (ONA) and Evergreen airframe and has Jet Assisted Take-Off (JATO) pods in the wing roots for soft-field or short-field take-off. One can only imagine how those take-offs were! I’ve certainly never even heard of a DC-9 with JATOs before. This airframe was one of two originally with Alitalia and has always been a freighter. (Thanks to Danny Clisham for the JATO clarifciation).

The other large operator on the airfield is Kalitta Air who operates 19 Boeing 747s which are maintained further north at Oscoda, Michigan. When I first visited in 1980 they operated long-nosed Beech 18s and a pair of Learjets under the name of Connie-Kalitta.

Conrad "Connie" Kalitta started the airline with a single Cessna 310 in 1967 and, around 1984, the airline was renamed American International Airways (AIA) which, at their peak, operated 60 aircraft including Beech 18, L1011 Tristar, DC-8, Boeing 747 and Learjet.

In 1990 / 91 AIA flew over 600 cargo flights supporting Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and in 1997 merged with Kitty Hawk, retaining the Kitty Hawk name. Connie resigned to concentrate on other businesses and Kitty Hawk subsequently ceased operations in April 2000.

Connie though decided to buy the operating certificate and its assets to bring the company out of bankruptcy and started Kalitta Air in November 2000 with two Boeing 747s. It now has 19 and in the region of 1000 employees.

They were the first and only company to fly after the grounding of all aircraft on 9/11 when they flew a Boeing 747 from California to the East coast carrying medical supplies for disaster workers and were also the first US company to fly into Libya after a period of some 25 years.

Doug Kalitta, who is Connie’s nephew, runs Kalitta Charters II out of YIP operating one DC-9, four Boeing 727s, 15 Falcon 20s and 15 Learjets, offering executive charters, air ambulance and air cargo services.

The other main freight operator based here is Murray Air with their DC-8F aircraft.

Although many of these old aircraft are now scrapped some have found a way to continue working. The TCA DC-6 (N6586C) I was lucky enough to fly on is still earning her keep in Alaska for Everts Air Cargo.

The only remnants of Zantop still on the airfield are the handful of L-188 Electras, some with engines missing, awaiting a buyer or most likely the scrapman - one airframe still carries the Channel Express green cheat-line.

It's very sad to see this once major player in the frieght industry reduced to rotting and scrapped aircraft, but time marches on and new operators take over and the past slowy gets forgotton.

Hopefully by producing this article I can at least retain some record of what once was.

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