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A day at the airport – Caribbean cargo operations

The cargo operation I flew for out of St. Thomas U.S.V.I, is the focus of this diorama.

The diorama is representative of various daily airport operations combined in one setting. One of the more notable aspects of hauling cargo were souls no longer on board. We often transported “human remains.” These were typically packaged in low profile, cardboard boxes that one might never suspect contains a body. This type of box is in fact one of the miniature cargo items loaded inside the Twin Beech. However, the coffins

and the hearse

were the perfect match to clearly depict one of the more unusual cargo items being transported.

My first encounter with the human remains issue was in San Juan, where I spied a small cardboard box sitting atop a pile of cargo just prior to loading. The box had originally contained toilet seats and in a bizarre twist, the company logo featured a pugnacious, diapered baby wearing a pair of boxing gloves with his fists up as if he were sparing. I made an off-hand comment about the box to the loadmaster who flatly replied, “it’s a baby.”

I said, “What!? You’re joking!”

He repeated, “It’s a baby.”

I scoffed, “Oh sure, we always fly baby deliveries in cardboard boxes for toilet seats that just happen to have a picture of a baby on the box. With a rather disgusted expression, he produced the cargo manifest and pointed to the listing for the box – “Human Remains” – and repeated, “it’s a baby.”

Somewhat disturbed, I mumbled under my breath, “I guess that makes me the grim stork.”

That was San Juan Puerto Rico.

I never quite got over the bizarre serendipity of that moment. Watch the movie “The Rum Diaries” for an idea of what San Juan was like. The movie features Johnny Depp as a character from an unfinished novel by Hunter S. Thompson. There’s even an airport scene with a twin beech in the background. For me, the beginning of the movie was a real memory flogger, listening to “Volare” as a bright red cub tows a banner over the beachfront. The song, the cub and the hotel in the final shot of the opening are related to personal moments of life that now only dimly exist in memory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMg9sNycXqY

While there are a number of aircraft featured in the diorama, the C-47 is one of two main aircraft the diorama theme centers around. The other aircraft is a C-45 awaiting final finish.

Here is the action as viewed. The C-47 on the ramp is being loaded with cargo.

The first load of cargo is piled close to the tail, awaiting loading

while a couple of coffins and a crate are loaded first.

Finished with his delivery, the top-hatted undertaker departs in his ancient, but well maintained, LaSalle hearse.

The loader inside the C-47 plans positioning of the crates once loaded aboard.

Outside, the loadmaster is guiding the forklift driver’s close tolerance entry, as the coffins barely fit through the cavernous, cargo hatch.

In the meantime, the pilot (who curiously resembles Robert Lansing from the TV series Twelve O Clock High) and cargo operations manager stand close by going over the cargo manifest.

Up front, a couple of men from “Flying A Service” carefully fill the C-47’s fuel tanks according to the aircraft’s loading.

The hose tender makes sure the hose does not scuff the aircraft as he watches the fuel metering gauge in the hose storage compartment, while the other man filling the tank has the ubiquitous, red, shop rag stuffed in his back pocket to wipe up spills and protect the fuel nozzle.

Access to the fuel tanks is provided by a well-worn, yellow, work stand at the leading edge of the port wing. The raised platform’s canvas buffer strip, typically an old piece of fire hose, can be seen mounted around the edge to prevent damaging the aircraft.

An avionics technician sits in the left seat of the cockpit

doing a final check on the new radio installation, identified by the newer style antennas mounted atop the fuselage.

Another tech standing on the ramp calls up to the man in the cockpit to confer on questions concerning the radio installation.

At the edge of the ramp, a technician puzzles over replacing a burned out taxiway light.

The LED actually did burn out and there is no way to replace it without major surgery to the diorama; hence the puzzled tech.

It was all in day’s work.

Stay Tuned – Up next: A gear retraction test on King Aerial Survey’s Cessna T-50 Bobcat.

25 additional images. Click to enlarge.


16 responses to A day at the airport – Caribbean cargo operations

  1. I lack words for this fantastic diorama. Great to see all bits and aircraft come together.

  2. Absolutely Fantastic, amazing work my friend, so………whats next?

  3. awesome diorama, brings back some good memories. My ex wife was an air traffic controller at St. Thomas for a couple years during 2010 and 11. I lived there and hung out at the airport quite a bit during her breaks. The DC-3s were grounded for corrosion issues but the cargo ramp was always busy with other types. I kinda miss that place but it certainly isn’t the paradise people think it is outside of the tourist areas.

    • It was paradise for me. High adventure, living out my 1940’s movie fantasies flying old airplanes around the emerald islands. Bogart characters, eat your heart out. Living in a house just above Caret Bay, surfing, swimming and snorkeling almost every day in Hull Bay next door, before having a quiet, sunset drink at the small, beachfront bar. Many people work two jobs to live on the Island. I managed to do it with just one.

      Eating at open, bay-window, waterfront restaurants downtown and some of the more secluded ones up on the mountain that tourists seldom found. I spent my last moth sleeping in a hammock strung between two palm trees just swimming and surfing. I would pick coconuts and then open up one of the eyes and pour out half the milk, replacing it with dollar-a-bottle Mount Gay rum, corking it and then letting it sit for a few days before drinking it.

      Wreck diving around the islands in crystal clear water. Picking spiny lobsters from their lair and boiling them over a beach campfire. Sailing in a steady breeze at midnight under a full moon. I thought So Cal was heaven until I moved to the islands. However, there far more pretty, young girls on the beach in So Cal.

      There was one. I picked her up in my VW bug as she swayed up the road, going over the backside of the island. She was a long legged, drop dead gorgeous blond with golden hair brushing her shapely bottom. This was a very unusual sight to be seen walking down the road, especially in that area and that is why I stopped to pick her up.

      I told her I was on my way to work at the airport, but I would be happy to drop her off wherever she needed to go. She was grateful for the ride and explained she was on her way to the downtown marina. She went on to explain how she had sailed into Charlotte Amalie on her 38 foot sail boat where her crew had jumped ship. Now she was looking for a male crew member replacement.

      My head began swimming with options. It was truly a profound moment of decision for me. All I had to say was “here I am. I’m ready to go.” But I was living my long held dream job flying the Islands, so I dropped her off at the downtown marina and bid her adieu as I watched her beautiful bottom sway down the dock out of sight. A month later I lost my job -Duho! Had I made the other choice, the blond road not taken, no doubt life would have turned out quite different.

      I find all my favorite places have been destroyed by “progress.” There is no place on earth to return to now. Next big adventure, some cosmic bus stop in the other world, wings not required for travel.

  4. Lots of energy in this one – very nice!

  5. Interesting concept, and nice attention to detail. Thanks for posting.

  6. Brings back a lot of memories for me, too, G. Swap that location for Tucson, AZ, Brownsville, TX , Albuquerque NM or scores of other airports around the southwest and that could be me in that Gooney cockpit. We seldom had the luxury of a hangar though. I don’t ever remember flying human remains, also known as “HR” (which is now a major department at the airline I work for), but we did fly lots of auto parts, and on one trip we hauled a half dozen custom motorcycles (and their owners) to a bike show in Phoenix. They didn’t seem to mind sitting on the floor. Best load we ever took was fresh flowers from Florida to California – the old Gooney had never smelled better, before or after!

  7. stunning natural metal and dio…must have been tough living in St. Thomas

  8. Excellent diorama and interesting narrative .

  9. Really nice altogether. What scale? I’m thinking 1/48 but could be mistaken.

  10. Really like the highly polished DC-3. Makes me want to get Monogram’s Eastern Airlines bird. (I think polished aluminum and blue look great together!) I like the T-6 sitting off to the side waiting for its turn to get back in the air as well! Any close ups of that?

  11. I did a separate article on the T-6. you can see it in my list of articles. Just click on my name, or look here – https://imodeler.com/2018/09/hey-pardner-looking-for-an-airplane-a-bird/.

    The finish was a mistake. I shot the bird with a can of off-the-shelf chrome paint that did an astonishingly good job. Every bit as good as the the Alclad series of paints, but like other metal finishes, it does does not tolerate handling.

    I noted a smear on the fuselage and tried to buff it out. However, this left a dull aluminum sheen. With no other option, I polished out the entire airplane and was quite pleased with the results. I fined modeling is one of extreme patience in learning to correct stupid mistakes.

  12. 🙂 … Greetings 🙂 :
    Nice work, lots of details too see .

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