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Iditarod Champ, Dogs Get Home to Norway, Threading Restrictions on 60-year-old Freighter

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Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

The 2020 Iditarod champ is finally home, thanks to an old cargo plane that had been sitting in Fairbanks for decades.

Thomas Warner won the race March 18th. He was stuck in the US and had been staying with friends in Fairbanks because of coronavirus-related, international travel restrictions of flying with dogs.

But he flew this week on a Fairbanks cargo plane with quite a history.

Thomas Waerner and his team of sled dogs landed in Norway Tuesday about three months after they left to race in the thousand-mile Iditarod.

"It's good to come home again, you know, it's been a long time away, but a nice time. It's always good to get home to the family, starting a normal, kind of normal, life again."

Waerner, along with fellow Norwegian Iditarod musher Tom Frode Johannsen and all of their dogs flew to Norway on a 60-year old DC-6 cargo plane owned by Everts Air Cargo in Fairbanks. According to Everts Assistant General Manager Susan Hoshaw, the plane flew in the 1960s and early '70s and had previously been owned by a Norwegian airline. Everts already planned to send it to an air museum in Norway when Waerner's situation came up.

"So the trip ended up getting the plane back to its original home, kind of, coming full circle. We didn't need to cut it up or anything like that. There will be lots of people who can enjoy the aircraft in the museum. At the same time, it was an opportunity to get Thomas and his team back to Norway.

Hoshaw says the plane, which has flown 50,000 hours, has reached the end of it's commerical life. It was spared from being scrapped, and instead, was repainted and logoed to look like it did when it flew for Brathens Safe airline in the 1960s.

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Credit Patrick Jacobson of Yellowknife
1956 Douglas DC-6B refueling in Yellowknife, NT, Canada.

For the special passengers, Everts even painted the likeness of the mushers and their dogs on the side of the plane.

"We had one of our employees, a retired captain, pilot, little bit of everything, and he's done a lot of nose art on our aircraft,  and he drew that with COVID masks on the dogs ad everything. It turned out great."

It took weeks for the plan to come together and to get permission. Everts owner, Rob Everts, piloted the plane on what was its last flight. But after they took off from Fairbanks, there was trouble.

"We had a little problem with one of the engines, so we had to turn around after 40 minutes and go back. I'm pretty good at putting negative thougths away, but I said, 'Whoops, I hope this isn't something big."

Waerner says Everts' mechanics in Fairbanks quickly fixed the engine, and soon they were again on their way for what would be 20 hours of total flying to get to Norway.

Hoshaw says the mushers and flight crew were tested for COVID-19 prior to departing. They made one stop along the way in the COVID-19-free community of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

"The plane stopped there for fuel, the dogs got out and took a little bit of a break, and then from there they flew over Greenland, over the ice cap, over Iceland, and then to Norway. Very long flight, that was about 15 hours.

Waerner, Johannsen and the flight crew were greeted by museum officials and Norwegian meda at the airport, and Waerner says there were even people on the sides of roads waving the Norwegian flag for him as his friend drove him home in a dog truck loaded with the team.

But... before Waerner made it home to see his wife and five kids for the first time in months, there was more trouble: The truck hit a deer.

Like Alaska, he says, Norway requires salvaging meat from road-killed animals like deer, so they had to wait to help a wildlife official with that.

"so it was a long drive. But things happen so you have to deal with it."

Finally, about 6 a.m. Wednesday, Waerner arrived home, tearfully, to his wife, Guro and woke up his kids. He says one of them, the youngest, was afraid until she fully awoke and remembered who he was.

Waerner says he hopes to return to Alaska in 2021 to race in both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod. But that, he says, depends of course on international travel and any restrictions next year.

The Planesavers group recorded the special flight: https://youtu.be/vHQWsPOdhn8","_id":"0000017a-8197-dd22-adff-fbd779070000","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">https://youtu.be/vHQWsPOdhn8">https://youtu.be/vHQWsPOdhn8","_id":"0000017a-8197-dd22-adff-fbd779070000","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">https://youtu.be/vHQWsPOdhn8