Daks over Normandy

I’m not old enough to remember the day, but I grew up hearing stories of the day. Today is the 75th anniversary of the start of the Normandy invasion that led to the end of World War II in Europe. The invasion, also known as D-Day, was a massive effort involving a huge amount of preparation and planning. Starting at 3 am, the first C-47s took off with paratroopers. By midnight over 23,000 troops had been transported across the English Channel by parachute and glider. The gliders were towed aloft by C-47s.

The venerable C-47, known as the Dakota, the Sky Train and other names was a design by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation that was conceived as luxury passenger transport. The DC3 was an enlargement of the DC2, outfitted with sleeper births for transcontinental flight across the US. It couldn’t span the country non-stop, but it was the first commercial airliner capable of allowing passengers to make the trip from New York to Los Angeles in the same airplane. When the war broke out, the airplane received its military designation, C-47, joining the C-45, built by Beechcraft and the C-46, built by Curtis. Cargo doors replaced the narrower air stair door at the rear of the airplane. The doors were large enough to accommodate a jeep. The ships were so heavily loaded that a “hamburger door” was installed just aft of the pilot’s seat so that the crew could get into the cockpit after the cargo was loaded. In order to meet demand, in addition to the California assembly plant, a factory was opened in Oklahoma. C-47s were also manufactured by several other allied countries. After the war C-47s and parts were available relatively inexpensively as surplus. Many operators purchased C-47’s and converted them to DC-3s for passenger service.

In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day around 40 flying C-47s and DC-3s are taking part in a flight from England to France, where about 250 parachuters will be dropped over the fields of Normandy.

I have a vey small personal connection to the commemorative flight. But, as usual, there is a story behind the story.

My father was already a licensed pilot when war was declared. He enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and served as a pilot instructor and service pilot in California. Most of his time in the military was as an advanced trainer, helping new pilots transition from single-engine to multiple engine airplanes. They used AT-11, a training version of the Beech 18, which was also configured as the C-45 in some versions. The AT-11’s were equipped with a plexiglass dome on the front to train bombardiers as well as operating bomb bay doors. Later in the war, my father flew as an instructor pilot on B-17s and B-29s, and after the war he served as a ferry pilot, accumulating hours in most of the aircraft that flew in the Pacific Theatre. He had a lifelong passion for airplanes with twin radial engines.

Our family’s air service, based in Big Timber, Montana operated mostly very small, light aircraft, but we did own and operate a Beech-18 that started its life as a post-war military C-45. That was our largest airplane. In Missoula, Montana, Johnson Air Service was another Forest Service contractor that operated Ford Tri-Motors and a DC-3. At the time we were working with the Johnson Brothers, their DC-3 was used as a smokejumper plane. It was the airplane from which the 12 smokejumpers who perished on the Mann Gulch fire jumped. During its stint as a smokejumper plane, I was fortunate to have a ride in the plane when it was being flown back to Missoula from Billings.

That particular airplane was manufactured just a bit too late to have seen war service, so it was brand new when it was obtained for civilian use. After its stint as a smokejumper plane, it was the foundation of Johnson Air Service’s brief foray into airline service. The airplane was extensively damaged and the pilot and 12 passengers perished in a weather-related accident in Pennsylvania. The airplane, however, was recovered from the river into which it crashed and rebuilt. After many more years of service the plane was finally purchased by the Museum of Mountain Flying and returned to Missoula where it is the centerpiece of the aviation museum. Because the airplane was win flyable condition, a major effort was undertaken to prepare it to participate in today’s flight over Normandy. A lot of volunteer hours and a lot of donated funds were combined to return the plane to its Johnson Flying Service paint job, complete with its Miss Montana nose art and to make the plane mechanically sound for a trip to Goose Bay Ontario and from there across the North Atlantic to England.

So flying over Normandy today is an airplane in which I have ridden.

Compared to some of the airplanes in the flight, Miss Montana has lived a pampered life except for the accident. The plane is actually just shy of 75 years old. The lead plane in the flight is the actual lead plane of the Normandy invasion. The plane, dubbed That’s All Brother has been restored by the Commemorative Air Force in Texas. Over the years many parts of the airplane have been replaced. The airplanes participating in the commemoration all have upgraded radios and navigational equipment. But none of them have autopilots. All have been hand flown for their entire lives. The pilots are all too young to have flown in the war, but they are being held aloft by rivets and aluminum that are older than they are.

Today is a good day to remember the heroism and tremendous effort that led to halting the spread of fascism and totalitarianism in the middle of the 20th century. It is a part of our story that we must never forget.

I grew up with the planes of the era. I can still tell the difference between a C-45 and a C-47 solely by the sound of the engines. I still run out and look up every time I hear a radial engine fly over. I can only imagine what it is like to be in England and France today with 40 C-47’s flying over. The stories of these planes are ones I will tell my grandchildren and perhaps some of them will linger with them long enough for them to tell their grandchildren.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!