Friday, October 7, 2011

The Golden Nugget Herc

Alaska Airlines operated six Lockheed L-100 Hercules freighters, the civilian variant of the venerable C-130, from 1965 through 1971. They were purchased by maverick CEO Charlie Willis in order to provide heavy equipment freighter service to the oil development industry on Alaska’s North Slope. They were also operated on charter to various locations in Southeast Asia, where this 1966 photo was probably taken, though little information on this work is available (if you have stories of the Herks in SE Asia, please comment below!)

To promote its passenger amenities, Alaska had developed the brand “Golden Nugget Service” with the advent of their Douglas DC-6s. Passengers were offered the first hot in-flight meals and could even visit an on-board honky-tonk styled lounge. With the success of the campaign, the branding goodwill was extended to the L-100 freighter operations.

Around two years after this photo was taken, on May 16, 1968, N9267R was being operated by Aerovias Ecuatorianas CA Ltd, better known as AREA Ecuador, and had landed at Macuma Airfield. The field was saturated, and the wheels of the Hercules sank 20 inches into the mud. In order to try to free the plane, timbers were wedged under the wheels, the engines fired up, and the pilot poured the coals to her. At that point, the No. 1 prop struck the ground and came apart, with pieces penetrating the No. 2 engine nacelle, resulting in a massive fire that destroyed the aircraft.

How N9267R and its sister Golden Nugget Freighter L-100s began operating for AREA Ecuador is a another interesting thread of history. Alaska’s oil pipeline customers loved the utility of the Herks, and when oil was discovered in the jungles of Ecuador, Texaco and Mobil approached Willis about using the aircraft in South America. Unfortunately, Willis didn't have an Ecuadorian air carrier certificate, so couldn't legally operate the aircraft there under the Alaska name. However, he did have a single Convair 990 airliner, one of the faster four-engine jet airliners in the business, and AREA Ecuador was trying to break into the Florida market, and needed a modern, fast aircraft. So a deal was struck to "lease" the 990 (with Alaska crews flying it), in exchange for AREA allowing Willis to use their certificate to operate the Herks on the oil contracts.

Due to financial woes and a debt that reached $22 million, Willis was fired by the board of directors, who also got rid of the carrier's cargo service, quickly disposing of the remaining L-100s in 1971.

[Big thanks to my brother Eric, who deals in military collectibles (his online shop is here) for giving me this photo, and being so encouraging of this project!]

Update 10/12: Josh Nyhus at pointed out that the UC-123K is still around at DM, and can be seen here:

Aircraft info: Lockheed L-100 c/n 4146, manufactured 1966.
Photo info: 8x10 print, stamped on back "U.S. Air Force Photo 27877 '66 Uncl."; handwritten on back: "Snellgrove, Turn Key 6/733" (Anyone with info on what this inscription might refer to is invited to comment below!)

1 comment:

  1. Very nice article. I am glad that dusty pictures can be brought back to life through research and words. True a picture is worth a thousand words, but only if you know what language the picture is speaking. A picture can be nothing but a mystery without a translator who can take those words and set them free into a story that can be brought to the light of day and shared. How many times have we seen boxes of old pictures in some antique store wondering who or what the story was behind the pics. Thanks Alan, for telling the story.