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.

GAR wants to interact with its readers so if you have a question for the author or a comment to make on this feature, please click on the button below. The best comments will appear right here on GAR.

Deprecated: mysql_connect(): The mysql extension is deprecated and will be removed in the future: use mysqli or PDO instead in /var/sites/g/globalaviationresource.com/public_html/comments/displaycomments.php on line 8

2014-05-06 - Jan Koppen
Sentimental article how you started spotting. Enjoyed it.
Never knew you worked for Channel.

Brgds Jan Koppen/OldJets.net

2014-01-27 - Michael Fabbiano
Great article, I worked for Zantop in BUF from 77 - 95... Flew many time into YIP, what a great company to work for. If you liked working long hours, that was the company to work for. Got on with Kalitta in CLT for a while, but it was not like Zantop...

2013-07-23 - Jimmy Wingo
I worked for Zantop in Atlanta from 1978 until they stopped scheduled operations in 1993. I went to Ypsilanti twice during those years. Kalitta took over the scheduled operations after Zantop gave it up and I worked for American International from 1993 until they merged with Kitty Hawk in 1998 and worked for Kitty Hawk until getting laid off in 2003. I then went to Lufthansa when they got the contract to handle Kitty Hawk's freight until Kitty Hawk finally completely shut down.

2012-10-12 - John Mahoney
I worked for TCA from 1978-1980 as a mechanic. Willow Run was a hooping place then. I was fortunate to have worked at a couple of outstations for them and was selected to be part of the Alaska operation we did in the summer of 1980. We flew salmon back to Kenai and Anchorage from the fishing villages to the cannery's. It was quite the experience. Still love the sound of those 2800-CB16'S.

2010-11-09 - dalton w spencer
Wow what great info I remember going to willow run with my dad when I was about seven till i was a teen(1975-1985).We drove two and half hours from Canada just to walk around the the ramp checking out the old DC -6 ,Commandos DC-8 and what ever else was there.We never had any problem walking the ramp or climbing in some some off the planes,I was always a little scared climbing up a twenty foot ladder in the planes but once we were in dad would get some pictures with me in the captains seat with the headphones on.We have alot of the same pictures you have ,my favorite was the Trans continetial DC-6 loved that paint scheme.Does anybody remember seeing constelation , it was white with a blue stripe that was cool to see that was in the mid 1970s.
Thanks again!!!

2010-05-19 - paul proud
great article. this has brought back many fond memories for me. i worked for zantop for the better part of 14 years . also did a tdy in STN and EDI for channel express in 1996. had a short stint with AIA in miami as well. thers nothing like the sound of a dc-6 with all 4 at full power or the force of an electra taking off. i had the pleasure of working with some of the finest characters in the business, and i shall never forget them or the wonderful machines we worked on and flew.

2010-04-06 - Ryan Murphy
This is a fantastic article. Being 35 I am a bit too young to have worked at Zantop or other YIP airlines in the good old days, but I sure do remember their visits to MSP, my home airport. In the mid and late 80s (and I believe well into the 1990s) we had a Zantop L188 come in around 6pm most days. I loved watching them on approach with those zig-zagging smoke trails behind the Allisons. You could tell it was an electra a good 5 miles out on final because of the unusual exhaust pattern. And the howl of the Allison 501s is unforgettable - something that reminds me of being a kid with NC and later RC CV 580s coming into MSP all day. We also got TransCon DC-8-50s in the mid and late 1980s, and DC-6s during the night (I would jump out of bed as a kid when I heard the R2800s). Just an FYI, the old Zantop hangar abeam 4-22 at MSP still has the logo on it today...

Ryan in Minneapolis

2010-02-09 - Aaron Kobbeman
Terrific article! I am a copilot on the DC-6 for Evert's Air Cargo in Alaska. I appreciate the bit of aircraft history and the excellent photo of N6586C in TCA paint. The old girl is still flying along, but sad to say her 121 flying days will end soon with less than 2000 hours to go.

2010-01-17 - Phil Brooks
Thanks for this excellent tribute, Paul! I made the pilgrimage to YIP in 1979, at age 17; that and subsequent visits are among my best aviation memories. I sure appreciated the opportunity to roam the ramp there, as well as at their station in Indianapolis, my hometown. I regret I never got a DC-6 ride with them, but I did have the privilege of an Electra jumpseat ride YIP-MSP, late in their history. I also rode on a Zantop DC-8, but not into or out of YIP. The early exposure I had to the world of air cargo led me to work ten years for CF Airfreight/Emery Worldwide. I'm a Flight Dispatcher with United Airlines now, but I wouldn't trade my cargo years for anything! I'm glad you got to work with Electras later in your career. What a machine!

2010-01-14 - John Stewart
Great memories! I worked for Zantop from 11/1983 to 4/1997 and moved on to American International/Kitty Hawk International and then to reliant Airlines in 2000. The YIP operations during the Zantop hub days was awesome and never worked with a more professional group of pilots, engineers and mechanics, both at YIP and in Alaska for the Lynden Air Cargo startup.
Great website and keep the memories flying!

John Stewart (Air Charter West/SF-O Helicopter/Fairbanks Air Service/Continental Air Services/Pan Am/Zantop/AIA/Reliant and now US Department of Homeland Security)

2010-01-12 - Mike David

I loved your article. I worked Hanger Maintenance for over 8 years working on these aircraft. It was a great place to be. Did you work with our mechanics when we had Electra's flying for Channel Express? Rob, and Prat. They were great people, all of them.


2010-01-12 - Ron Hart
Thank you for the memories... I recognize lots of airframes I personally flew back in the sixties and seventies. Waiting in the Hotel for a call from Auto Air to fly auto parts to no not where? (till you get to the airport). Places as varied as Mexico City, Tetorboro and if lucky... off to Bumfuk.

I flew for four different airlines out of Willow Run(YIP) at one time or another. Some not mentioned in your article were Fleming International(L-188), Rosenbaum(DC-8) and of course ONA(L-188 & DC-9's). The very same jato'ed model in your pics(N931F thru 938F). The Captain that accidently fired off the Jato bottles I believe was Chuck Flanagan. Great pilot, great guy... would like to know what ever happened to Chuck? We all parted ways after ONA shut down in the late seventies. I ended up at Saudia, Fleming, Rosenbaum, Air California and then retiring at American Airlines in 2000.

And, like most non-scheders with a closet full of uniforms.
Thank you again for reviving the memories.

Ron Hart

2010-01-12 - Dave Case
I flew the DC-9s with JATO for ONA. Great plane and as stated the JATO was used to meet second segment at Hill AFB. The fire switches were located next to the landing light switches just below the glare shield. The last item on the Before Take-off check list was to turn on the landing lights for takeoff. I beleive it was the captain who reached up, hit the switches and fired off all four JATO bottles at once. Fresh bottles had to be flown in -- a bad night.
Later, I flew DC-8s for Connie during Desert Storm; I had more three engine ferries and experiences flying his equipment than I did in any of the other 12,000 hours of flying the 8.
Nice article, and thinks for doing it. A great bit of history.

2010-01-11 - Paul Gardner
A friend of mine who I used to work with at Zantop just shot this link to me.. We worked in the avionics shop together during the 80's.. Yes a lot of good memories,, working midnights, in the winter,, is something that does stay with you.. I have flown on my share of Convairs, Electras, DC-6s & DC-8s, either to go repair a broke airplane or to travel,, thank you for the site!!

2010-01-11 - Danny Clisham
Hi Paul

Ref the JATO DC-9, the aircraft was a dedicated F model as you said , but JATO'd for Overseas National Airlines who had a logair {USAF} contract. One route called for ops at Hill AFB in Ogden Utah. The JATO was the only way the DC-9 could meet second segment climb requirements with an engine failure on take-off. The JATO was armed with a key on the before t-o checklist and ready to be switch activated if needed.

Evergreen bought the airplanes because of their payload as logair was phasing out. The JATO was a time item on the aircraft and had to be changed periodically. Some lucky crews were authorized to activate them on t/o. What a hoot it must have been.

By the way i got my first airline job at Zantop in 1965 at the tender age of 22 with 176 totalhours. I had a ball. The Zantop family are great. When I'm in the area I still do a cruise around the perimeter road at YIP and note the ghost town atmosphere of the airport.

Great site you have. Pistons and props forever.

Danny Clisham ex Zantop/ Universal / North Central / Nomads / Mcculloch / Modern Air / Johnson Itnl / Evergreen Itnl / American / Evergreen.......... and holding

2010-01-11 - frank wilson
It was a pleasure scrolling though your pictures and comments on Yip and Zantop. It brought back a lot of good memories as I flew for Zantop from 1972 - 1981 as a captain on the DC-6, L-188 and DC-8. After retiring from United I returned to Yip and again flew the DC-8 for Murray Air on their 125 certificate and later for Kalitta Air when they raised the retirement age to 65 on the 747. I started at Yip and finished my career at Yip at the age of 65.

2010-01-11 - Gary Chappell
Outstanding article, I was with Zantop myself for 17 years working at DFW then moving on to CHI as their manager. It was a great place to work, yes Zantop did move a lot auto-freight but please dont forget that if it was not for Zantop...UPS, FED-X and DHL would not have their planes today... Unions were voted-in due to the lack of pay only (employees & pilots). No-one at Zantop complained about the long hours and the millions of tons of freight that that had to be moved each day, it was about PAY and you still see it today in companies like UPS and they are doing a layoff as I write this comment for you in 2010... Yes, a good company like Zantop Intl Airlines may be gone.. and so will the LIKES of the others that took its place !!!

Global Aviation Resource's photographic and written work is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without express written permission.

If you would like to discuss using any of our imagery or feature content please contact us.