2020 Iditarod champion finds an unusual ride back to Norway

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) Thomas Waerner won the 2020 Iditarod in March of this year. The Norwegian musher was planning to fly home after the race, but complications from COVID-19 halted his plans. After winning the race he went to stay with a friend in Big Lake, Alaska.

A DC-6 bound for Norway carries Iditarod Champion Thomas Waerner and his team back home after he was stranded in Alaska because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (John Dougherty/KTVF)

"I was living there and I figured out, I am not coming home, this is not working out. The airline is shut down, everything; I was calling around to try to find solutions," Waerner said.

Waerner was stuck in Alaska, halfway around the world from his home, family and job. He had friends in Fairbanks so he decided to come up from Big Lake to stay in Fairbanks.

While here Thomas said he spent time catching up with friends and exploring Alaska with his dogs while trying to figure out how to get back to Norway. Then one day he was sent an article.

“I got this message on the messenger, and it was an article from Norway that they had canceled the deal with Everts of buying the plane because the Norwegian Krone got a little low so the plane got a lot more expensive,” said Waerner.

The plane was a Douglas DC-6 owned by Everts Air Cargo in Fairbanks.

"We acquired it back in 1996, it was probably two-thirds of it's life had already flown around the planet and it finished off its life here in Alaska hauling cargo," said Robert Everts, the owner and CEO of Everts Air Cargo.

Before coming to Alaska, the plane had flown in Norway as a passenger aircraft. A museum wanted to purchase the plane and bring it back home.

"This was their flagship back in 1962 as a passenger carrier and they had ambitions since 2015 to get the airplane home and put it on display,” Everts said.

After hearing about the story, Waerner got an idea.

"I didn't know about it at all and I said this plane is sitting 10 minutes from Arleigh's house, so it's kind of... maybe this can be a solution in getting home," he said.

So he called one of his sponsors, the Norwegian company Qrill Pet. "I said, you know, can you fix something, so Matts the CEO there, called the museum and we worked out something," Waerner said.

Qrill Pet worked with the Museum and Everts Air Cargo to help purchase the plane and bring it back to Norway. Everts finished painting the aircraft in its original livery and adding some special touches for its special mission.

Everts agreed to fly Waerner and his team back to Norway on the vintage aircraft.

“They wanted to see if there were any chances that we could get the dogs on the aircraft to get them home because of the challenges they have had because of COVID-19,” Everts said. He quickly agreed. "Happy to help and makes sense of this journey."

Around 2:30 on Monday morning, Waerner, his team, and a couple of his friends who were also stuck in Alaska boarded the DC-6 for the long journey back.

"It's a little bit of a long trip, we got about 21 hours ahead of us of flying. So it's going to be a long day and a half for them," said Everts who was also one of the pilots on the trip.

When he gets back, Waerner said he is looking forward to finally being able to see his family again. “It’s going to be special to get back, and it’s actually more the small things you are missing you know, dinners, breakfasts, sitting on the couch watching television, having a cup of coffee in the morning with my wife, you know, it’s just the small things I am missing actually. So, yeah, I am looking forward to a normal life with my family.”

When Waerner arrived in Norway, there was a large crowd gathered to welcome the special plane and the champion and his dogs home.

Waerner said that even though he was stuck, it all worked out. "It's a good story and it's going to, its a really good ending to this great journey I had this year with winning the race and being here."

Even though he just got home, Waerner said he is looking forward to racing again next year, “As soon as I see the planes are going, I will sign up for Iditarod.”

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