Iditarod champ’s long-awaited journey home included old cargo plane, engine trouble and a collision with a deer

2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Thomas Waerner during a stopover in Yellowknife, Yukon Territory, with the DC-6 cargo plane that flew him and his dogs home to Norway. (Thomas Waerner)

The 2020 Iditarod champ is finally home, thanks to an old cargo plane in Fairbanks that had been flying for more than 60 years.

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

“It’s good to come home again,” Waerner said Wednesday. “You know, it’s been a long time away, but a nice time.”

Waerner won the race March 18. But he couldn’t get back to Norway because of coronavirus-related, international travel restrictions related to flying his dogs. So he ended up staying with friends near Fairbanks in Ester.

Then an unusual plan came together: Waerner, along with fellow Norwegian Iditarod musher Tom Frode Johannsen and all of their dogs, would fly to Norway on a DC-6B cargo plane owned by Everts Air Cargo in Fairbanks. The historic plane was set to go on display in an aviation museum.

Everts owner Rob Everts said the plane, simply called “151” for its short registration number, has flown all over the world, which is what it was designed to do. Everts was part of the flight crew that flew it to Norway.

Everts said it went into service as a passenger aircraft in 1958, starting with Cathay Pacific flying in China and Bangladesh. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, a Norwegian airline owned the plane and flew it in Europe, Africa and South America, Everts said.

It served a stint as a firebombing plane dropping retardant on wildfires before Everts bought it in the mid-90s. It sat for a roughly four-year stretch before Everts started using it as a cargo plane in Alaska, flying from Anchorage to places like Nome, Kotzebue and Bethel, among others, Everts said.

Speaking by phone from Norway while looking over the plane’s logbook, Everts said it now has just under 55,000 flight hours.

Everts already planned to send it to the museum in Norway when Waerner’s situation came up.

“It was a real workhorse,” Everts said. “The good thing about it is this airplane won’t go under the knife or to the scrap yard, so to speak, like so many of the other airplanes will. This one’s actually going to find a nice little home where it’s going to sit on display.” 

Still, it took weeks to put together the plan to fly the mushers and their dogs home and to get permission, which included getting everyone tested for coronavirus. Everts also painted the likeness of the mushers and their dogs on the side of the plane.

But after they took off from Fairbanks, there was a problem.

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

Everts said it was fortunate that the only mechanical problem they had occurred so close to home. 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.

2020 Thomas Waerner sleeps on the floor of a DC-6 while en route home to Norway. (Thomas Waerner photo)

They had a tailwind most of the way, and the two dozen dogs aboard were even well-behaved, Everts said.

“You know, the minute those dogs loaded up in the airplane and got in their kennels, it’s like somebody turned the radio off and just complete silence,” Everts said. “Once the engine started up … and the dull rumble, they were like a bunch of babies in a rocking chair. They slept and were patient the entire trip.”

The mushers, the dogs and the flight crew were all congratulated at the airport. Waerner said there were even people on the sides of roads waving the Norwegian flag as his friend drove him home in a dog truck loaded with the team on the final 10-hour drive home. 

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

“So it was a long drive,” he said. “But things happen so you have to deal with it.”

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

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

“If the planes are going,” he said, “I will start planning.”