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Behind the scenes: From idea to overflight in 18 daysBehind the scenes: From idea to overflight in 18 days

National Warplane Museum quickly organizes COVID tribute

In just 18 days, a dedicated cadre of volunteers at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York, planned and executed an ambitious series of flyovers of key hospitals, Veterans Affairs facilities, city centers, and parks in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse areas to honor first responders and essential workers making sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pilot Briefing August 2020
The National Warplane Museum’s historic C–47A flies over Syracuse Hancock International Airport in New York during Operation Thanks from Above May 16.
Photography by Jamie Germano

And when Saturday, May 16—the day set for Operation Thanks from Above—dawned with persistent fog, they scrambled to revise those plans, so no scheduled community was left out.

On April 28 the museum’s president, Austin Wadsworth, announced the Western New York flyovers—led by its Douglas C–47A, Whiskey 7. “These are interesting times we are living in. Each worker, family, and organization has had to make drastic, unusual, and spontaneous changes to the way that we all conduct life and business,” Wadsworth said. “We are fortunate to have first responders and essential workers who take risk to ensure that safety, care, and supplies are available to everyone, every day.”

And the museum’s C–47A was ideally suited for the mission. Called Whiskey 7 for the W7 squadron designation painted on its nose, the World War II veteran led the D-Day invasion’s second wave June 6, 1944, when it dropped 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers over Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, said Todd Cameron, the museum’s director of flight operations. “People associate it with values like hope, sacrifice, and patriotism. People found it very emotional when it flew over. That’s what we wanted,” he said.

But putting the flights together wasn’t easy. Like many other facilities, the museum has been closed because of the pandemic. “The actual flight crews had not been able to do checkrides in the airplanes yet, because of COVID, so we had to get their checkrides done,” Cameron said. Camaraderie kept 50 volunteers working, sometimes until 2 a.m., the week before the event.

“We put the cart before the horse and announced the tribute flight without knowing how we would pull it off,” Cameron confessed. “The community was more excited about the flyover than we were, and it was clear a lot of people wanted to take part.” Support, including financial support, for the project was strong.

Finally, everything was set for May 16. Then the weather objected.

“All of western New York was covered in fog,” Cameron said. “We weren’t able to get to our first seven checkpoints.” While the pilots flew, more than 20 volunteers on the ground revised the second leg to incorporate the missed locations, communicating the changes to local media. “At the end of the day, we made all of them,” he said. “It was amazing, given that weather challenge in the morning, that we were able to do that.”

The C–47—flying with Mad Max, a P–51 owned by Lou Horschel, and a Van’s RV–10 photo ship flown by Dan Maloney—was seen by many on the 580-nautical-mile journey. “We covered 95 sites over six and a half hours of flying. And we believe that to our knowledge, this has been the longest COVID flyover in the country to date.”

The tribute was so successful that Operation Thanks from Above II was conducted on June 6—76 years to the day after Whiskey 7 flew over Normandy. It included overflights of some 65 locations from Jamestown east to Binghamton.

The museum’s annual Geneseo Airshow has been canceled for this year. However, if conditions allow, the museum hopes to hold some kind of aviation event in Geneseo later in the year, Cameron said.

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Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.

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