We first learn history as grade-school children, but stories of fighting for freedom fade all too often. Climbing aboard an airplane that was there brings those old stories to life.
That's what it felt like flying aboard a truly historic airplane on the first day of the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo. This beautifully restored C–47 was none other than That’s All, Brother, which helped carry the first wave of paratroopers to begin the assault on Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, forever after known as D-Day.
The fleet will travel together on the “Blue Spruce Route,” departing from Connecticut's Waterbury-Oxford Airport with several stops planned along the route to Caen-Carpiquet Airport in Normandy. Moreno Aguiari, the D-Day Squadron’s executive director, said the fleet will stay in Europe to participate in the Berlin Airlift’s seventieth anniversary before returning to the United States.
During the June 6 flyover, an international fleet of more than 30 aircraft will drop 250 paratroopers wearing “authentic Allied uniforms” and using period-correct military-style parachutes. The organization’s website says the event will honor “the citizen soldiers” whose bravery led to the liberation of France and to the defeat of the Axis powers in Europe.
The Spartan interior of the aircraft was striking as we climbed aboard. Exposed metal ribs and aluminum skin surrounded us, and the thick seat belts held me snug, easing my concern that this was not exactly a modern airliner with all of the safety features developed in the decades since this machine was built by hand.
As fellow passenger Gus Hawkins put it, “This is history and it’s important that younger folks appreciate this legacy.” And this was my chance to do just that.
Hawkins’s father Edwin was a paratrooper stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. And while Gus lost his father at a young age, he found a way to connect to his dad’s legacy through this historic aircraft. He and his wife Pat sat across from me next to a permanent plaque engraved with the names of Gus’s father and other World War II veterans. Those names belong to men who put their lives on the line fighting for the freedom we enjoy today. Hawkins and his family have made several donations to support bringing the vintage aircraft back to life, and said they will continue to do so.
The crew chief delivered a safety briefing as we taxied to the runway. Seat belts fastened, nearest exit was where we entered, fire extinguisher—there and there, and air sickness bags available if necessary.
The pilot fired up the powerful twin radial engines, and since we didn’t have headsets, you could hear all of that power roaring and raring to go. Cleared for takeoff, we lifted off and roared quickly to the edge of instrument meteorological conditions. Bad news: We wouldn’t be hanging out above the clouds, and all too soon we began our descent.
I might have wished for a chance to get up out of my seat, imagining each paratrooper standing up under a heavy load and lining up at the door to jump into history, but I was grateful for even a fleeting taste of a time gone by. This flight, although brief, will forever be among my best aviation experiences.
As we prepared to land, fellow passengers talked about how this experience impacted them. One man put himself in the shoes of those 18-year-old soldiers and paratroopers who had occupied these same seats. He talked about how anxious, naïve, and inexperienced they must have been, not knowing what awaited them below, and not having the luxury afforded to us to turn around when the weather was uncooperative.
Retired American Airlines pilot Tom Travis was our captain, bringing extensive experience flying modern airliners and vintage Douglas DC–3s, similar to That’s All, Brother.
Travis is a colonel in the Commemorative Air Force, the caretaker of the D-Day reenactment’s lead aircraft, who joined after learning the organization needed more pilots with his kind of experience. He was appreciative of the time and effort the group put into the restoration and said the aircraft “flies like a brand-new DC–3.” He said that the first officer's daughter was moved to tears by a recent flight. He added that the experience exemplifies the organization’s mission “to honor those who served.”
Travis, who has crisscrossed oceans for more than 20 years as a line pilot, check airman, and instructor, is scheduled to fly the first, third, and last legs of the journey to Normandy. He and fellow D-Day Squadron crews have trained up for the special demands of overwater flight. He anticipated “enjoying a glass of wine” with his wife between legs and confided that the special flight to Normandy might help him ease into retirement when Travis turns 78 next year.
I exited the airplane admiring Travis’s career and the enthusiasm and energy put into this endeavor by the entire D-Day Squadron team. As I waved goodbye to Gus and Pat, I was thankful for having met them and for learning about their shared enthusiasm and support for the D-Day Squadron’s mission. I was also grateful for sharing the experience of flying in an aircraft that played such a crucial role in history.
A nostalgic feeling came over me, and I wondered just how I would put this experience into words. Scrolling through my photos, hoping they appropriately captured the significance of this historic airplane, long after I returned home, I shared some quick snippets of my trip with friends.
As I sat down to write, I received a message from a friend who had seen my photos. “In an aircraft with a truly distinguished pedigree, having been the lead aircraft on D-Day,” he wrote, “be sensitive to the ghosts she carries.”
That struck me as great advice, and I began to write.
A selection of the D-Day Squadron C–47 and DC–3 aircraft will be at AOPA’s Frederick, Maryland, Fly-In on May 10 before departing for Oxford, Connecticut, and staging for the flight to Normandy. Placid Lassie, Miss Virginia, Flabob Express, Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, Clipper Tabitha May, and Virginia Ann will make appearances on the Frederick Municipal Airport flight line. Liberty Jump Team members will hit the silk to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. Additional events are also planned during AOPA’s 80th Anniversary celebration, which continues through May 11.