When brothers Bruce and Paul Salerno called their parents in 1980 to say they bought a plane, their aviation enthusiast parents asked, “Oh, a Cessna?”
No, they replied, a DC-3.
After a long silence, their parents asked, “What are you going to do with a DC-3?”
Plenty, they thought. It was their chance to start a business flying cargo throughout the Northwest.
They flew fish in the Alaskan bush and delivered packages for parcel services like UPS and Airborne Express. They flew charter flights to the Caribbean. The business brought their father, Joe Salerno, now 81, out of retirement. He had flown 36 years for PanAm Airlines.
Now, 18 years later, the company, Salair Air Cargo Inc. is going back to it bush-flying roots - and routes.
It’s been acquired by Air Alaska Cargo Inc., an Anchorage-based cargo company started in the 1920s and will use that name. Planes will no longer fly out of Spokane International Airport. Flights will be worldwide in a Boeing 727. At least five scheduled flights will fly from Seattle to Alaska.
Brothers Bruce and Paul will command the flights from their new administrative office on the second floor of the Felts Field airport terminal. They will head a staff of about 12. Their father retired with the sale of the company.
Salair began selling its fleet of Convairs and DC-3s in 1996 and planned to sell the company as well.
When the option to stay on with Air Alaska materialized last December, the brothers couldn’t stay away.
“I planned to retire with the company,” said Paul, 42.
Now he talks emphatically about how history has linked two companies and their routes.
Their father flew for PanAm between Seattle and Fairbanks in 1940s. Wien Air Alaska, started in 1924, was one of Alaska’s first airlines.
“We owe everything to our father, Joe,” Paul said.
But there’s no question that dedication and vision helped.
“My vision has always been, ‘You can’t win if you don’t put in,”’ said Bruce, 45, who will now serve as general manager. He worked as an engineer for Boeing before starting Salair.
The memories help define the business.
Bruce recalls bringing back their first DC-3 from California to Washington on May 18, 1980.
While flying over Northern California, he first saw a huge cloud billowing in the sky to the north.
“It looked like a huge storm,” he said.
He stopped in Oregon to spend the night. The next morning everything was covered in ash. It was, of course, the Mount St. Helen’s volcanic eruption.
Navigating the Alaskan bush in the 1980s “was adventurous flying” Paul recalls. “There was no glamour, no frills.”
A jar of coffee was placed outside the plane’s window to make iced coffee. Bagels and rolls wrapped in aluminum foil were put under seats to keep them warm with the heat of the engine. The salmon was incredibly fresh - and sometimes it was dinner.
In the summer of 1993, the entire family restored a 1946 DC-3 to fly on the scenic route from Felts Field to the Silverwood amusement park in Idaho.
“We were so proud of that airplane,” Paul said. They polished the aluminum by hand until they could see their reflections.
And there was the crash of the Convair 440 in January 1996, which Paul said changed his life.
Paul was piloting the twin-engine plane when he called in an emergency landing approach to Spokane International.
He and a co-pilot had taken off from Phoenix early that day. He noticed a gauge which indicated an imbalance in the fuel tanks, so he began crossfeeding the tanks to balance the load. Later he learned the problem was with the fuel gauge.
The plane’s left engine lost power, and Paul radioed for an emergency landing. But the plane crash-landed in a snowy field west of Spokane International shortly before 7 p.m.
“I put the nose down and headed for a dark area. I didn’t want to be near people,” he said.
He saw a berm of snow and thought, “It’s over.”
The next thing he remembers is his co-pilot shaking him and saying, “We’ve got to get out.”
He climbed out the airplane and called his family on his cellular phone to tell them he was alive.
They had been listening to the radio and heard him call “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”
Paul and his co-pilot suffered minor injuries. Paul still flies.
“It was a grace of God. I didn’t see the ground coming. I was uninjured for a reason,” he said. “It changed my whole life. I was destination-oriented rather than journey-oriented. Now I take joy in the journey.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo