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Operation SoCal Strong turns eyes skyward with Memorial Day flyover

An effort named Operation SoCal Strong led by the D-Day Squadron treated Southern California to a unique tribute this Memorial Day, when 15 World War II-era airplanes flew in formation across the southland to salute veterans and front-line healthcare workers, and boost morale for the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Lyon Air Museum’s C-47 “Willa Dean” flies over Dodger Stadium. The parking lot of the stadium has been converted into a drive-thru testing site for COVID-19. Photo by Alicia Herron.
  • C-47 “Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber” on the ramp in San Bernardino. Photo by Alicia Herron.
  • Palm Springs Air Museum’s P-51D “Bunny” was restored to look like Tuskegee Airman Robert Friend’s airplane. Photo by Alicia Herron.
  • Flying over Downtown LA with a view of City Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad museum, and abnormally low traffic. Photo by Alicia Herron.
  • Robert Friend’s burial flag tucked into the pilot’s seat of the Mustang. “Bob, as he was for many, was very impactful in my life and that made it a very emotional day,” said pilot Tom Nightingale. “Carrying his burial flag [was] kind of like he was sitting there with me.” Photo by Alicia Herron.
  • Tom Nightingale points out the late Robert Friend's signature on the Palm Springs Air Museum's North American P–51 Mustang "Bunny" modeled after the Tuskegee Airman's airplane. Photo by Alicia Herron.
  • Inside Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber flying over Zamperini Field in Torrance, named for World War II veteran Louis Zamperini. The book and film “Unbroken” are based on Zamperini’s experience in the Pacific Theater. Photo by Alicia Herron.
  • Taxiing by grounded Delta airliners on the way to begin the flyover. Photo by Alicia Herron.

The idea for the flyover began with Steve Rose of the Commemorative Air Force’s Inland Empire Wing, who piloted the lead aircraft, the Douglas C–53 D-Day Doll. Rose sent an email to his fellow aviators to gauge their interest in a flyby, and his proposal was met with total enthusiasm. Pilots flying aircraft ranging from Douglas C–47s to North American T–6s and Ryan PT–22s signed up to participate. As the group planned the route and discussed logistics over Zoom—and agreed to operate on their own dime—they chose sites that first and foremost were meaningful to Memorial Day; second, were relevant to the current pandemic; and third, as Rose put it, were places “where there are people.”

The D-Day Squadron, which this time last year was on its way to Normandy to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, is no stranger to formation flying. Accompanying D-Day Doll from the squadron were C–­47 Flabob Express, C–­47 Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, and C–­53 Spirit of Benovia. Rose noted that because this flyover wouldn’t include only DC–­3 types, although C–­47s from outside the squadron would join in, the challenge would be in the coordination of dissimilar aircraft. The preflight briefing at Luxivair Aviation emphasized safety and decision making, and Rose stated that the flight would tend toward a looser formation to mitigate the speed and type differences among participating aircraft.

Crewmembers Andy Conley and Mike Lindgren in front of lead ship, C–53 “D-Day Doll.” Photo by Alicia Herron.The sight of World War II-era propeller airplanes taxiing out through the crackling desert heat of San Bernardino was unique. What made it even more memorable was that they taxied by dozens of grounded airliners, engines plugged, waiting for the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.

After an approximately 11:50 a.m. wheels-up time, the flight of 15 (once formed up) accomplished the planned 1.5-hour route nearly to the minute. The flight path began at the Loma Linda University Medical Center and ended at Chino Airport's Threshold Aviation, flying over national cemeteries, Veterans Affairs medical centers, Zamperini Field and Santa Monica Municipal Airport, landmark piers and harbors, and the Queen Mary and retired battleship USS Iowa along the way.

Aboard Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, which is still outfitted as a jump airplane, the atmosphere was electric. Whether watching the Condor Squadron’s T–6s form up around the C–47s and C–53s, gazing down at jacaranda-lined avenues, or even getting a glimpse of the Virgin Orbit rocket launch attempt, everyone’s eyes were glued outside in awe. Dustin Mosher, a general aviation pilot who works on the Paso Robles-based C–47 “a handful of Saturdays a year,” rode along for the flyover. “It’s an honoring experience given the times we’re in,” he said. “The DC–3 is a true symbol of survival.”

Heading up the coast near Newport Beach. Photo by Alicia Herron.

Also participating in the flyover was the Palm Springs Air Museum’s North American P–51 Mustang Bunny, piloted by Tom Nightingale, and modeled after Tuskegee Airman Robert Friend’s airplane. Nightingale and Friend met at the christening ceremony for the restored airplane in 2015 and developed a kinship through their shared love of aviation. Friend, who flew 142 missions during World War II and had a 28-year career in the military, died in 2019 at the age of 99. The opportunity to salute his memory and other veterans, said Nightingale, was one of the key motivators to why the museum’s P–51 joined the flyover.

Precious cargo on board made the flight even more impactful—carefully tucked into the right hand of the pilot’s seat was the American flag that covered Friend’s casket at his funeral, and one of the flyover points was his burial site. “Bob, as he was for many, was very impactful in my life and that made it a very emotional day,” said Nightingale. “Carrying his burial flag [was] kind of like he was sitting there with me.”

From concept to execution, the day was a success, and offered a moment to reflect on those who gave all so that we could be free, and to those who give now to keep us safe and well.

Alyssa J. Miller

Alicia Herron

ASI Aviation Writer
Aviation writer Alicia Herron joined the AOPA Air Safety Institute in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. Alicia is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.
Topics: Warbird

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