Odyssey 86 – Around the world by DC-3
A two month long journey around the world to celebrate both the fiftieth anniversary of the DC-3 and the World's Fair on Transportation and Communications being held in Vancouver would be a daunting task for most modern day aircraft to undertake. When the mode of transportation is none other that the fifty year old DC-3 itself, then this journey has all the makings of a real adventure story. Thanks to some splendid organisation prior to the aircraft's departure, a well maintained aircraft sponsored by a wide variety of companies world-wide, and a well trained crew of eleven, this epic flight ran as smoothly as many present day airline schedules.
When Propliner was first informed of the DC-3's planned arrival date in London of July 27, it was still more than six weeks away and the DC-3 had only just departed from Vancouver on its first leg. Somehow it seemed highly likely that with so many destinations to visit in between leaving Canada and arriving in England that the schedule would surely slip. Remarkably, though, Ken Olson and his crew managed to maintain the schedule so precisely that on the afternoon of July 27 C-FGXW arrived overhead North Weald in the company of a welcoming Piper Cherokee, having earlier made a stop at Stansted to clear customs. Once the welcoming formalities had been completed, armed with several copies of Propliner I approached Ken Olson with a view to hearing about some of the problems experienced by the Odyssey 86 Dakota and her crew during their flights over some of the most gruelling air routes in the world. Surely there must have been some weather problems, difficulties with diplomatic clearances through sensitive airspace or simply maintenance troubles with the old Dakota? But his reaction was remarkably composed and one of surprise that I should have expected any problems. "Just a few snags with the radio on some of the legs, otherwise very straightforward. Were you expecting us here today? Were we on time?" Yes of course the DC-3 was on time, and it seems that this round-the-world flight was a model of punctuality and serviceability. The immortal DC-3 had behaved as impeccably as ever.
A DELAYED DEPARTURE
It had originally been planned that the DC-3 [C-FGXW] would make its round-the-world tour prior to the opening of the Expo '86 World Exhibition in Vancouver. Ken Olson and his crew were to visit numerous cities around the world and invite everyone to come and join in the celebrations at Expo. However, delays in obtaining sufficient sponsorship meant that these plans had to be shelved, and a new timetable was drawn up scheduling the departure of the DC-3 from Vancouver on June 7 1986, once the Airmada fly-past from Abbotsford had taken place. The Odyssey 86 team had been extremely successful in winning sponsorship from numerous companies around the world. Many leading airlines agreed to supply fuel free of charge, while hotels, maintenance organisations, tyre companies, aeronautical chart publishers, film companies and many others all supplied goods and services. Sadly, sponsorship from UK based companies was rather low key, although the DC-3 and her crew spent three whole days in the UK as guests of Aces High. The list of fuel sponsors alone totalled 24 different companies including Shell Canada, Qantas, Greenlandair, Lufthansa, Alitalia, KLM and even the Czech airline CSA. Heading the list of major sponsors was Standard Aero Engines, while other significant benefactors were Goodyear Canada, Kelowna Flightcraft, McDonnell Douglas and Northwest Territorial.
The crew of eleven aboard the DC-3 consisted of nine men and two women led by the aircraft's captain, Ken Olson. Ken has had a life-long interest in aviation -- his father worked for Trans Canada Airlines for almost forty years, and at the age of 14 Ken himself began a part-time job with Trans Canada. He later became a flight engineer and travelled to all parts of Canada and across the Atlantic to Europe. Today he works as a Marketing Director for a large insurance company, but he has retained his love for flying and had dreamed for many years of flying a DC-3 around the world. Other members of the Odyssey 86 crew included Doug Andrews, an air traffic controller from Toronto Airport and a commercial pilot, Bob Blanchard, an airline pilot and one time adventurer undertaking a one-month solo trek through Nepal and a 2,000 mile journey down the Amazon river, Dale McNarland, an experienced aircraft engineer, Barry Lapointe, President of Kelowna Flightcraft and a pilot with almost thirty years of flying experience, Bill Gillies, pilot and flight planner, Jim O'Toole, oldest member of the crew and one time Hurricane and Spitfire pilot on board to act as medical advisor, and Doreen Olson, exchanging her normal role of Air Canada flight attendant to become crew co-ordinator for the Odyssey 86 trip.
The aircraft chosen for this trip was a former Transport Canada DC-3, C-FGXW, which had earlier in its career notched up many hours flying for Trans Canada Airlines. By the time that the Odyssey team acquired this aircraft, she had amassed more than 40,000 flying hours since rolling off the Oklahoma City production line in the summer of 1942. Completely overhauled for her important mission, C-FGXW retained her red cheatline and a large red 'CANADA' painted on the undersides of the wings. Externally the Dakota looked little different to her Transport Canada days when she departed from Vancouver, except for a large black bomb shaped object positioned immediately above the cockpit. This strange looking lump, although rather spoiling the Dakota's naturally pleasing lines, was very essential to the Dakota's smooth progress around the globe as it housed the weather radar. There was insufficient room to place this in the nose of the aircraft as is standard on most airliners, and initially it had been planned to install this beneath the Dakota's fuselage. However, it was felt that it would be rather undiplomatic to fly over certain sensitive countries with a "bomb" shaped object slung under the aircraft's belly! And so the weather radar was placed above the cockpit.
Inside, the Dakota had been completely stripped and furnished to carryall the equipment necessary for a round-the-world flight. A large fuel tank was installed on the right hand side of the cabin near to the wing, while the usual bulkhead positioned between the cockpit and the passenger cabin had been completely dispensed with, giving the old Dakota a rather more modern, roomy appearance. Instead of the normal cramped cockpit conditions experienced by most other Dakota crews, the Odyssey 86 crew were all able to see everything that was taking place on the flight deck of this very special aeroplane. The large fuel tank in the cabin increased the Dakota's endurance to around fourteen hours while the floor was covered with a mass of essential pipework feeding fuel to the wings. The remainder of the cabin contained nine passenger seats for all the crewmembers, and sufficient room to stow their entire luggage and equipment. All normal navigational aids were fitted, together with HF and VHF radio. the former being an essential aid for some of the long over water crossings that had to be made where VHF frequencies are rarely in use. C-FGXW had certainly become an aircraft tailor-made for the round-the-world journey envisaged by the Odyssey 86 team.
Dressed in smart dark blue flying suits, Olson's Odyssey 86 Dakota crew had planned to make a grand departure from Vancouver on June 7 on their first leg. However, last minute insurance problems forced a disappointing change of plans, and C-FGXW did not leave Vancouver until June 10. Her first sector from Vancouver to Oakland Airport. California, was completed without incident and on June 12 her first long overwater crossing was successfully accomplished when the Dakota touched down in Honolulu. Three days in Hawaii were followed by sectors to Pago Pago. in Samoa, Suva, Noumea and Brisbane. The Dakota arrived in Brisbane on June 21, and after visiting Cairns from June 24 to 26, Odyssey headed north once more visiting Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea before flying on to Darwin, and thence to Davao and Manila in the Philippines. Originally it had been planned to visit Guam, Tokyo, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Peking, Wuhan City and Hong Kong after leaving Australia, but the three day delay in Canada prior to leaving had been crucial to the smooth operation of the flight, and it was decided that rather than catch up with the schedule it would be wise to forego visiting Japan, China and Hong Kong. Odyssey had been scheduled to arrive at Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, on June 29 having already visited China and Japan, but by this' date the Dakota was still in Darwin. Arrival in Manila, though, on July 1 was bang on schedule, and here the crew were greeted by Mr Joe Clark. the Canadian Minister for External Affairs who was present in the Philippines at the time. After leaving Manila on July 3, the aircraft flew on to Brunei, then Singapore [July 4], Bangkok [July 6], Dacca [July 7], New Delhi [July 9], Karachi [July 11] and Abu Dhabi [July 12]. July 12 was a particularly busy day, with C-FGXW flying from Karachi to Abu Dhabi, and then on to Rivadh, where the Dakota's crew were formally welcomed by H. R. H. Prince Salman Ibn Abdul Aziz and Sheikh Hussain Ibrahim Al Mansouri.
Two days were spent in Saudi Arabia before the Dakota continued its journey, by now heavily decorated with a growing mosaic of stickers and good will messages. From Riyadh the colourful Dakota proceeded on to Cairo [July 14], Athens [July 16] and Rome [July 17] . After leaving Rome it had been planned that the Odyssey Dakota would visit several Eastern bloc countries, and the original itinerary called for a route from Rome to Prague, Warsaw, Moscow and Leningrad to be followed. However, at the last minute the Russian authorities refused permission for the Dakota to enter Soviet airspace, and instead the aircraft simply routed from Rome to Prague on July 18, to Warsaw on July 19 and then on to an unscheduled stop at Oslo. Four days were spent in Oslo before the Dakota resumed its original route, calling at Copenhagen on July 24, Frankfurt on July 25 and then Amsterdam on the morning of July 27.
ODYSSEY ARRIVES IN ENGLAND
Scorching hot weather conditions greeted the Odyssey crew when they arrived in Amsterdam, but only a brief visit could be made to the Dutch capital as the Dakota was scheduled to fly on to Stansted that same afternoon before flying on to North Weald. Departure from Amsterdam was made in company of a chase plane with photographer Chris Mak ensuring that this Dakota's visit to Holland would be well captured on film. Warm, sunny weather over the continent gave way to rather indifferent conditions over England as the Dakota approached Stansted. Customs formalities completed, the Dakota took off again to make the short journey to the Aces High base at North Weald, where a welcoming party had been arranged by the 'Friends of the DC-3'.
On most weekends throughout the summer North Weald becomes a centre for a wide variety of sporting activities, the most notable of which is gliding. At any one time gliders seem to fill the sky around the airfield, but the stately arrival of the Odyssey Dakota over North Weald caused a temporary interruption to the endless stream of gliders circling the airfield. For a few, glorious minutes the sound of two Twin Wasps fills the air as the music of these piston engines replaces the eerie silence of the gliders. One long, slow fly-past along the main runway is followed by a wide circuit and then a rather faster approach with a steep banking turn to starboard and an invigorating swoop past the Aces High hangar and the assembled gathering. Ken Olson provides his captivated audience with a second equally enthralling display before touching down at North Weald, and taxying to a halt outside the Aces High hangar in the company of their very own Dakota, the camouflaged G-DAKS.
Without a doubt the most noticeable feature of this Dakota to any onlooker was the impressive collection of stickers adorning every single square inch of available fuselage, tail and wings. Wherever the Dakota had set down, stickers had been liberally applied. There were scores of goodwill messages in languages ranging from Arabic to English. Taking into account that the Dakota had by now covered many thousands of miles, both the aircraft and her crew looked remarkably smart as the eleven members jumped from the Dakota's door to be greeted by an excited gathering of press reporters, photographers and Dakota enthusiasts. Several local dignitaries were present, and following a speech by the leader of Epping Forest District Council, owners of North Weald Aerodrome, Odyssey's pilot, Ken Olson, read out a greeting from the organisers of the Expo 86 exhibition in Vancouver having already enjoyed a celebratory glass of champagne.
On July 30, C-FGXW continued on her long journey leaving the peace of the Essex countryside and setting course for Reykjavik and Nassarssuaq, before touching down on Canadian soil again on July 31 at St. John's, Newfoundland. Departing from St.John's on August 1, the Dakota flew on to Halifax, Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto before arriving at Oshkosh for the annual fly-in and air show on the evening of August 5. Having been admired by thousands of visitors to Oshkosh, Olson fired up the Dakota’s Twin Wasps again on the morning of August 7 and then flew on to Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton and Kelowna before returning to the familiar scenery around Vancouver on August 11 on completion of one of the most exciting and ambitious journeys ever undertaken by a DC-3 - more than fifty years after her introduction to airline service.
The successful completion of this epic voyage surely helps to confirm belief that there is no true replacement of the old Dakota. While the crew of Odyssey 86 no doubt thoroughly enjoyed the experience of a world tour by Dakota, it is perhaps a little sad that they received so little national press coverage taking into account the tremendous effort put into the organisation of the whole journey.