Article: From Money to Monkeys, PWA’s Cargo Service Moved Anything that Fit into a Hercules

  • Image of PWA Lockheed L-100 cargo plane

    Fall, 2011, Altitude

    The poor benefitted when international aid agencies chartered Pacific Western Airlines to fly relief supplies to disaster zones in Africa, Asia and South America. The rich, for their part, chartered PWA to move racehorses and luxury goods to their private enclaves.

    While moving freight in support of oil and gas exploration in Canada’s north was the most important aspect of the charter service’s business plan and the motivation behind PWA’s acquisition of the L-100, the firm’s worldwide cargo charters included every type of domestic livestock, monkeys and other wildlife, killer whales and exotic fish, nuclear reactor parts, military equipment, explosives, money, beer and Christmas cake, wigs and anything else a load master could fit into the cavernous hold of the Lockheed L-100. The company’s brochure on load planning told customers “no matter what shape your cargo comes in, we’ve got a shape it can go in.”

    For the several hundred people who served as pilots and support crew, being part of the cargo charter service provided a unique opportunity to see the world. The quality of their accommodations during their downtime was as diverse as their cargo and their destinations – they shared tents on arctic ice, dined in some of the finest night spots on the planet and enjoyed the best flying experience any group of aviators and ground crew could ever dream of.

    PWA’s cargo charter service was started in 1967 and operated from its base in Edmonton. PWA was the first commercial air carrier in Canada licensed to operate the Lockheed L-100, the civilian version of the Hercules C130 military cargo lifter. PWA continued this charter service until 1983.

    The people who were part of the cargo charter service developed a bond with each other that continues. For example, crew members who served in the cargo service organized their first reunion three years after its end. Since then, they have held a reunion every four years, the most recent in June 2011.

    John (Gus) Bonner, who volunteers in the museum library, was part of the PWA air cargo service for most of its short history and recalls those years with affection. He was first a load master and later a project manager. He said that the air cargo crew members genuinely worked as a team, where members respected each other because of their expertise and also helped each other without regard for job description.

    Bonner said that the air cargo’s assignment to fly relief supplies into Biafra, a secessionist state in south eastern Nigeria that precipitated civil war in 1968, was one of the high points in the air cargo’s history but also one of the more intense operational periods. One Hercules aircraft on that mission logged an impressive 428 hours of flying time in a month, averaging almost 14 hours in the air every day on flights between London and Lagos, Nigeria.

    Another assignment that illustrates the challenge facing both the crew members and the equipment was when PWA was chartered to move a drilling operation in Ethiopia within a 10-day deadline. Bonner said they completed the mission in seven days. He said the on-ground process of loading/unloading as well as refuelling took about 30 minutes. Just over 110 flights were required to complete the move. Bonner said if sand wasn’t blowing in the wind it was being churned up by the Hercules’ propellers, finding its way into every orifice (human and machine) and clogging air filters so quickly they were cleaned or replaced after every flight. And, yes, it was “bloody hot.” At the end of this Ethiopian mission, Bonner said there was time left over to find a resort to rest and wash the sand out of their bodies and their aircraft.

    Oil rig movements for PWA were not limited to Africa. Bonner said there were many missions to move drilling equipment in the Arctic, where cold weather caused completely different problems. A typical arctic oil rig relocation involved more than 100 flights.

    Pacific Western had a fleet of six Hercules L-100 aircraft in its cargo charter fleet. The first L-100 was acquired by PWA in 1967. PWA purchased its last Hercules in 1978. In total these aircraft logged more than 90,000 air hours and 26 million miles of travel, carrying more than 800,000 tons of widely varied cargo. The aircraft landed and took off from paved and unpaved landing strips in temperatures ranging from minus 68ºF in northern Canada to plus 134ºF in the African deserts.

    Over its 16-year history, the PWA charter service recorded only two accidents. One Hercules crashed in Zaire, killing all on board, and the other Hercules crashed on landing in Peru with all crew surviving.

    PWA’s air cargo charter service stands out because company management and Hercules crews were committed to operating a high-quality cargo service and creatively developed a wide range of skills and techniques that exploited the unique features of the L-100 in a way that established the company as a world leader in cargo airlifts.

    The six Lockheed Hercules aircraft in the PWA fleet consisted of one L-100-10, four L-100-20 aircraft, and one L-100-30. Of the three models, the L-100-20 was mid-size in terms of cargo capacity; it was able to carry 52,000 pounds in a cargo hold of 4,785 cubic feet over a distance of 1,300 nautical miles.

    This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2011 edition of Altitude magazine.

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