The Douglas DC-3 has long been a familiar part of the Florida skyline. TONY MERTON JONES meets two members of the legendary Moss family who plan to return the type to the skies in the form of a genuine Douglas Sleeper Transport, with the restoration of the world's oldest surviving example about to begin at Shell Creek.
Take care as you arrive at Shell Creek Airpark as you may need to avoid a baby turtle crossing the road, and along the way you will find many other items of interest at this idyllic rural retreat. A visit to Shell Creek, near Punta Gorda, in Florida, is rather like taking a journey back in time, and if Frank Moss and his sons, Glen and Charlie, can fulfill their dream, then the experience will soon rise even further up the nostalgia ladder.
Established as a grass airfield alongside the peaceful Washington Loop Road by Frank Moss in 1980, Shell Creek currently boasts four reasonably complete resident Douglas DC-3s, one hurricane-damaged example and a gaggle of light aircraft. A single grass runway aligned north-south with a length of 2,600 feet serves a variety of general aviation types that use the airfield. Having parked my car in the visitors area near the entrance, I am warmly welcomed by Glen and Charlie Moss, both commercially-rated pilots and sons of Frank Moss, keen to show me their wonderful collection of aviation artefacts and in particular their rather special Douglas DST.
The open-ended Moss hangar near to the entrance of the airfield is a veritable treasure trove hosting a collection of memorabilia from a bygone age. Guardian angel is a complete Pietenpol monoplane, which greets you as you enter the hangar, together with engines and other components from a variety of aircraft, including the cockpit section of DC-3 N224GB (c/n 12261), and all around the hangar lie the components from Lockheed L-12A Electra Nl6085 (c/n 1214), used in the recent Amelia Earhart film, now lying in a dismantled condition - but safely under cover.
Two of the locally based DC-3s are parked near the Frank Moss hangar on the eastern side of the airfield, and comprise Nl30D (c/n 19800), a former Academy Airlines example owned by aviation historian Gary Quigg undergoing a slow rebuild, and N133D (c/n 1499), the world's oldest surviving Douglas DC-3/DST with a pedigree unrivalled by any other airliner. She arrived at Shell Creek from Griffin, Georgia, (via a stop at Punta Gorda between March 4 and 7) on March 7 2012, having lain idle for nineteen years, during which time her Academy Airlines paint scheme had faded and her overall condition had deteriorated considerably. Knowing the true historic value and provenance of this relic, Frank purchased her in 2010, with the Moss family travelling to Georgia in December 2011 to prepare the aircraft for her ferry flight to Shell Creek. Arrival at Shell Creek saw her flying logbook temporarily close with a total flight time of 78,594 hours 15 minutes.
For anyone appreciating the history of Nl33D, climbing aboard her today is something of a shock, with the interior crudely gutted for freighting in a manner far removed from the opulence of her early flying days when as American Airlines Douglas DST NC16005, she carried passengers in the height of comfort on transcontinental flights across the United States. And when the early DSTs rolled off the Santa Monica production line, rather noticeably they featured a starboard side rear entrance door. That appears to have been replaced during her Academy service with the more common port side cargo entrance door arrangement, and there is now no evidence of her original door. It is intended to restore the aircraft to her original configuration by replacing the port side cargo door with a forward-swinging passenger entrance door on the starboard side. Another modification incorporated during her Ozark Airlines service was the removal of the curved, and far more elegant wing root fillet, and its replacement by a more angular unit, apparently helping to improve the air-craft's take-off performance.
Once aboard the DST, Glen thoughtfully points out the covered eyebrow window on the rear port side aft of the entrance door, together with the original lower floor at the rear of the aircraft, which would have accommodated a powder room and toilet during her early American service. Making one's way up the cabin of the DST, it is ever apparent that this was a hard-worked freighter, with the windows still bearing horizontal metal strips to protect them from the cargo. Although the pilot's seats have been removed, otherwise the cockpit remains functional and will no doubt benefit considerably from the meticulous restoration planned by the Moss family.
Glen explains that he intends to restore this iconic aircraft to her former glory as a passenger airliner in the style of the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) - her exterior proudly sporting the orange and silver liv-ery of American Airlines, and her interior reflecting the splendour and luxury of thirties air travel. She was first delivered to American Airlines as a DST-144 fitted with Wright Cyclone piston engines on July 12 1936, just five weeks after American Airlines had first launched scheduled passenger services on the non-stop service between New York and Chicago on June 7 with their first DST. Although records suggest that NC 16005 flew as "Flagship Texarkana", she actually flew pre-war as "Flagship Tennessee". Confirmation of this can be found in a contemporary magazine which reported that NCl6005 was christened "Flagship Tennessee" during the opening ceremony of Berry Field Airport, Nashville, on June 13 1937. It is, of course, entirely possible that the aircraft had flown previously with another name. Impressed for wartime military service as a C-49E with the USAAF in May 1942 as 42-56092, post war the aircraft was sold to Ozark via Douglas in September 1950 and later registered Nl33D. She was acquired by her final commercial operator, Academy Airlines, in May 1970 and flown for over two decades on mainly freight services in Georgia and the surrounding states.
Before the restoration process can begin, it is intended to construct a concrete hard-standing at the entrance to the hangar on which to park the aircraft. Her wings will be removed, either side of the engines, and the aircraft will then be moved inside the hangar for the real work to begin in earnest. A pair of wings from another DC-3 will be used in her restoration. This is a simple expedient to increase the fuel tankage, as the original wings limited the range of the aircraft, and the new wings will allow longer range flights to be made. Most recently the aircraft has been powered by the more common Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps, but her restoration will see her restored to the original Wright Cyclones.
And it is in respect of these long range flights that Glen reveals the truly exciting plans for this aircraft. A fully restored DST with long range tankage would be ideal for conducting round the world air cruise style passenger flights. Carrying no more than 12 passengers on aerial safaris to exotic and romantic locations would surely appeal to a discerning clientele, and to do so aboard the world's oldest and most historic DC- 3 would surely prove irresistible.
While these plans may seem ambitious, the resourceful nature of the remarkable Moss family suggests that the DST is in good hands and the restoration is a practical and wholly worthwhile project. Indeed, both Glen and Charlie are under no illusion about the amount of work involved in placing this iconic airliner back into the condition in which she entered the world nearly eighty years ago. Somehow Glen and his family have to balance their daily flying commitments with the time needed to move this project forward, and the timescale remains fluid. In addition, sponsors will undoubtedly be needed to support both the cost of the restoration work and the subsequent operation of the aircraft, and in this respect Glen would welcome any offers of support, financial or otherwise. Volunteers will always be welcome, with Jack O'Brien and Duane Oester already keenly involved with the DST project. On the southern edge of Shell Creek Airfield lie a number of other interesting aeronautical treasures, including former sprayer DC-3s N213GB (c/n 33232) and N220GB (c/n 4438), both still sporting their yellow and white Monroe County Mosquito Control District liveries. Neither aircraft has flown for several years, and while rudderless N220GB is potentially airworthy given sufficient time and effort, the other example.
N213GB, has lost her entire tail, both engines and many other vital components, and a miracle would be needed to allow her to fly again. A derelict Sikorsky S-55 helicopter lies nearby, while the adjacent hangars house a spray-equipped Huey helicopter, a spray equipped Cessna 0-2 in USAF Vietnam-style markings, and a rather smart 1958-vintage Cessna 310. These aircraft are owned by local businessman Richard F Howe, who operates as Aeromister and Howe Enterprises, in addition to serving in the role of Airport Manager.
Another DC-3 currently in the care of the Moss family is N308SF (c/n 18984), which lies on the ramp at Charlotte County Airport, Punta Gorda, parked alongside the Buffalo Airways spray-equipped Skymaster N55CW, awaiting delivery to her new owner. Purchased by British aviator Charlie Walker, this aircraft was flown from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, to Punta Gorda Airport on September 18. Eventually destined for the UK, Frank and Glen Moss will ferry the aircraft across the North Atlantic in the spring of 2013, possibly routing via Goose Bay, Narssasuaq and Reykjavik en-route to Membury. A number of minor snags require attention before this flight can take place, including the replacement of at least one cockpit instrument damaged when the captain's yoke moved further forward than intended. However, once these items have received attention, then N308SF will be ready to make the Atlantic crossing. A veteran of the D-Day landings, this C-47 will be flown in memory of the many similar aircraft that contributed to this famous aerial assault from Membury in June 1944. This aircraft has enjoyed a varied military and civilian career, seeing service with the USAAF and Aeronavale interspersed with airline activity including Northeast Airlines, Piedmont Aviation, Skyfreighters and latterly Dodson International based at Covington, Georgia.
With thanks to Glen and Charlie Moss for their warm hospitality during my visit, and to Ralph Pettersen for arranging the meeting. "Propliner" wishes the Moss family every success with the DST restoration, and we look forward to reporting progress in subsequent issues.