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Here’s one of my favorite flying stories.  It was summer and the fishing lodges in Alaska were running at full steam. I had landed a sweet gig as the first officer on a Super DC-3 flying passengers from Anchorage out to some of these remote lodges. The Super DC-3 was a late 1940s redesign of the venerable DC-3 of the early airline era. Not to be confused with the much newer Basler turboprop conversion, the “Super” was a little bigger and faster than the original, but was still all DC-3 at heart. As summer flying jobs go, they don’t get better than this.

Full-Power Takeoffs From Crooked Runways

Many of the fishing lodges we flew into had their own gravel airstrip, others were just near a beach of other suitable landing area. This particular day we had just dropped off a load of new guests to a fishing lodge west of Lake Iliamna. After our returning passengers climbed aboard, we started up and taxied back to the far end of the strip for takeoff. This particular airstrip had a roughly 15 degree bend about a third of the way down it’s length. It also sloped up gently from both ends and peaked in the middle. These characteristics combined to hide the departure end of the runway from our vantage point at the other end.

We turned the airplane around at the end of the runway making sure the tailwheel would swing an arc in between two runway lights. Once lined up we started the takeoff roll. Departures from this runway generally dictated full-power for takeoff. Full-power takeoffs in the Super DC-3 were loud. You felt the thump of the propellers in your chest. Ironically my headset’s active noise reduction would usually just shut off as if it simply couldn’t take the sound of 1475 horsepower out my window anymore. Seriously, headset, you had one job.

Sunny With a Chance of Tourists

It was my leg to fly, and as we accelerated down the runway I brought the tail up. The nose came down just as the far end of the runway came into view. Off the far end of the airstrip stood two of our recent passengers taking photos of our takeoff. While not on the “runway” per se, the pair stood straight ahead and we’d pass directly over them on our climb. That would make for a pretty cool picture, I thought, but I wasn’t sure I’d stand right there either.

The photographer on the right wore a ball cap and stood taking photos, as one normally would. The other guy, sunglasses perched on his head, planted his feet in a wide stance, squatting slightly like he was ready to leap into combat. He wasn’t going to budge. Both photographers snapped away as our airplane grew larger and larger in their camera frames. As the crew we had no doubt we’d pass well overhead. Clearly these photographers thought so too, but their faith was soon to be challenged. We growled down the gravel strip picking up speed and watched with curiosity as our new friends kept snapping away.

Objects in Viewfinder May be Closer Than They Appear

About midway through the takeoff roll, Ball Cap started to have second thoughts. He’d take a photo and then, without moving the camera from his face, nonchalantly side-step toward the edge of the runway. He’d pause for his next shot, take another step, and repeat. The Captain and I both started to chuckle. I’m not sure if I was more amused with the guy sneaking off to the side, or the one who held his ground as his partner slowly abandoned him.

The Super 3 was by far the largest aircraft I have piloted. Its 90 foot wingspan carried over 30,000lbs of airplane and payload into the air. That must have looked intimidating as it approached you. Yet, as this particular massive piece of machinery became airborne that day, Sunglasses still hadn’t moved. He seemed to dig his heels in, intent on winning this game of aeronautical chicken. Meanwhile on the right side of the runway, Ball Cap had picked up the pace and was rounding third base in a hurry – still snapping photos as he went.

Airplane Noise

If the sight of the airplane rushing toward you didn’t make you flinch, the sound will. I mentioned earlier how loud a Super 3 was during a full-power takeoff. What’s interesting is how something this loud can sneak up on you. Sound changes quickly with distance. Basically each time you cut the distance in half, the sound gets 4 times as loud. If we started out 3,000 feet from the photographers even at full power we’d be pretty quiet. By the time we got to 1500 feet – half of the starting distance – we’d sound 4 times as loud. From 1500 feet to 750 feet the sound quadrupled again. As we get closer not only do we get louder, we also get louder faster.

By the time we got to 500 feet from our photographer friends the airplane would already sound reasonably loud, but by the time we reached 250 feet the sound would have quadrupled again to chest-thumping levels. Here’s the fun part: We’re now moving fast enough to cover that distance in roughly two seconds. So, as we crossed from 500’ to 250’ from where Sunglasses had entrenched himself, our engine roar quadrupled in two seconds. That’s enough to startle anyone, and it appears this sonic straw finally broke the camel’s back. Suddenly Sunglasses looked up and bolted into the brush next to the runway.

As we climbed away for the flight home I just smiled. Some things you just don’t see everyday. I often wonder how those pictures turned out. My only regret of my summer on the Super 3 was the lack of many good pictures to go with the flying stories. I have a feeling the photos that day would have been unique.

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