Super DC-3 Belly Landing at Merrill Field, Alaska

10 Dec 21 17 Comments

Last Wednesday, the 8th of December 2021, a 69-year-old Super DC-3 landed wheels-up at Anchorage airport in Alaska. Everyone cheered.

The Super DC-3 is a later version of the DC-3 with a longer fuselage, increased stabiliser surfaces and more powerful engines. The first flight of the Super DC-3 took place in 1949. This Super DC-3, registration N28TN, was produced in 1952.

N28TN Super DC-3 photographed by Jeroen Stroes Aviation Photography

Since 2007, the Super DC-3 has been owned and operated by TransNorthern Aviation, an Alaskan airline who takes pride in their vintage aircraft, offering cargo and passenger flights to some of the most remote airstrips in Alaska.

The Super DC-3 was departing Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport for a 90-minute cargo flight to Kodiak Island. Only the flight crew, two pilots, were onboard.

However, directly after take-off, the right engine failed and the flight crew declared an emergency. They had initially requested to return to runway 7 at Anchorage International using left turns only. After the first turn, they decided instead to divert to Merrill Field Mountain View Airport, a general aviation airport in downtown Anchorage. Merrill Field has three runways: 5/23 is 610 meters, 16/34 is 805 meters and runway 7/25, their best option, is 1,219 meters (4,000 feet). To compare, runway 7 at Anchorage International is 3,231 metres (10,600 feet).

“We don’t get too many DC-3s coming through Merrill Field,” said Edward Munson, who has worked at the airport for years.

But the DC-3 couldn’t afford to be choosy: they were only able to climb to 900 feet and with only one engine powering the aircraft full of cargo, their options were limited.

The crew did not extend the landing gear which has caused some confusion in the mainstream media but it seems clear that they were desperate to reduce drag in any way they could. As it is, the aircraft clipped some trees on the final approach to Merrill’s runway 7. They landed safely and although watching the video made me cover my eyes at one point, the aircraft skidded to a stop before running out of runway.

The NTSB is investigating.

The video above shows a montage of the footage taken by witnesses and CCTV with the ATC audio overlaid (please click through to the website if you can’t see the video). You can also download the original audio on LiveATC.net: just click on TNV123 N28TN DC3 Emergency Merill Alaska

The aircraft was lifted off the runway with a crane and the airport was able to re-open about six hours later. One mainstream news article stated that “It was not immediately clear if the plane was damaged .” I… I think we can assume that yes, the plane was damaged. At the very least, that poor DC-3 needs a good belly rub and some new propellers.

This is the second DC-3 that TransNorthern has damaged this year; in August, a passenger flight came off the runway at Goodnews, Alaska. The Super DC-3 in this week’s incident appears to be the last of their operational DC-3s.

Munson quickly thought to grab the video along the runway as the aircraft landed (included in the montage I’ve shown above starting from 00:30). He later said that he heard the aircraft before he saw it. “…It was flying super low. I didn’t see it until it was pretty much right on runway 7 here. And I noticed it was only running on one engine, it’s landing gear was up, and he just barely made the runway. [It] kind of hit the snowbank and kind of hurtled to a stop on the runway.”

That landing looked pretty perfect to me, under the circumstances. My favourite comment on Reddit was by someone known as Likesdirt: “It’s fine. The pilots probably aren’t much younger than the airframe and have done this before.”

The DC-3 probably has as well, to be fair. I hope this wasn’t its last flight.

17 Comments

  • There are quite a few pictures available online under the aircraft’s old registration, C-GGKG, with various designations, like C-117D, C-47A Skytrain, or R4D-8 (as the NAVY called the type).

    I don’t understand why the pilots were asking for left turns, I would have guessed that with only the left engine working, right turns should be easier to fly?

    • With only the left engine working, right turns may have been so natural, they may not have been able to stop the turn once the inertia of the plane yawing and the torque provided by the asymmetrical thrust.

    • Clearly they didn’t feather the failed engine, though at this stage it is not clear why not. Whatever the reason, that added a great deal or asymmetric drag and obviously worsened the performance problem.

      • There might not have been enough oil for the feathering pump to pressurize the hub. I saw this happen to a Beach 18, 50 years ago. Lucky, the pilot had altitude, experience and most important attitude to safely land the old Beach.

        Or, the pilot might not have had enough time to identify the dead engine and just shoved throttle prop and mixture all the way forward. That is the way I was taught, many, many years ago.

      • Look at the stills of each prop taken on the ground: the starboard engine is clearly feathered or very close to it, and the port engine is not. If you watch the video of the low turn to final (pretty hair-raising!) you can see that the starboard prop is windmilling a bit but much more slowly than the port prop making power.

    • Right turns would actually be TOO easy, and potentially deadly. In twin-engine aircraft, especially propellor-driven when heavy and relatively underpowered, it is best to turn away from the dead engine to avoid rolling over and losing control, especially when low and slow. “Raise the dead” is part of the mantra for engine failure in flight: even flying straight and level, you should have about 5 degrees of roll toward the good engine. These pilots did a fantastic job of maintaining control of the airplane and using the resources available to them, including a short but available runway and the willingness to accept an intentional gear-up landing to get to that runway, and relied on the ruggedness of the airframe to save their lives. No injuries, no fire, cargo intact, airplane repairable. That’s a very good day.

  • It is always sad to see a by now virtually irreplaceable classic aircraft to come to a sad end. Sometimes they are just broken up, but more often a failure of some kind leads to an crash.
    By the looks of it, this Super DC3 will probably survive, although it may be retired as a static exhibit in a collection. Maybe it will be kept in an airworthy condition to fly at air shows? It does not seem likely that it will fly in a commercial role any more.
    Years ago it was possible to admire the fleet of Air Atlantique, a UK based cargo operator that kept a fleet of classic aircraft. The main reason for them being used in commercial roles, if I remember well, was to generate the cash in order to keep them in the air.
    Looking at some of the pictures of the Super DC-3, both propellers seem to show signs of having rotated prior to impact. Why the crew elected to opt for left turns only may be explained later. It certainly looks as if they did a very good job.

  • It’s nice seeing a happy outcome, and with full cargo! Everyone involved was so professional and collected, well done all the way around.

  • “The pilots probably aren’t much younger than the airframe”

    This is what I love about old pilots flying old airplanes, we both want to fly again one day.

    These pilots did an excellent job of flying the airplane.

    “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, if the aircraft can be repaired and fly again, it was an excellent landing.”

  • A question to the pilots reading this: is it not conventional wisdom that one avoids turning into the dead engine? It looks as if they were super concerned about drag, so would right hand turns not have been particularly hazardous? Especially on older piston aircraft? I am not a pilot – this is just what I recall reading.

  • Clearly they didn’t feather the failed engine, though at this stage it is not clear why not. Whatever the reason, that added a great deal or asymmetric drag and obviously worsened the performance problem.

  • From the photos on the video, new wheel doors and props and flying again! What do I know :) but damage looks less than I imagined. I do hope it remains a viable aircraft.

  • The original DC-3/C-47/Dakota was designed so that its mainwheels extended out of the wheel wells when retracted. it had no wheel covers. the idea was that it could be landed safely even with wheels up–the brakes were still functional with the gear folded (I’m not sure if that’s the case with other aircraft). the Super DC-3 has a similar landing gear geometry to its predecessor (hence its nacelles look “pregnant”) but with the addition of wheel covers.

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