Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

Crossing America

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Arriving Friday in Bangor we were greeted by friends who had tracked our trip and insisted we accompany them to a lobster dinner. The next day we flew over the Adirondack Mountains, avoiding Boston and New York air spaces. We filed a flight plan for Columbus, Ohio, to once again visit the home of DC-3 pilot Bill Mnich. These cross-country journeys have spontaneous aspects, weather permitting. We were treated to a family BBQ at the home of Bill’s brother, Matt, who had joined us in June for the Normandy segment.

Sunday (the 21st) was decision day for Oshkosh. We hoped to make an appearance with the D-Day Squadron before passenger and pilot commitments prompted continuation of our westbound journey. Mother Nature interceded. The Saturday conditions included wind gusting to 60 MPH and hail. Pity the tent campers. By Sunday the organizers had closed all grass parking due to soggy conditions and allowed hard surface parking only for aircraft with reservations. Small aircraft arrivals were suspended so many crews clustered at airports within a couple hundred miles. While the forecast is good for the coming week of Oshkosh, it has suffered a rugged beginning. For many aviation enthusiasts, this pilgrimage is a highlight of the season. But we decided not to enter such an unsettled realm.

Did I mention there are sometimes surprises on these journeys? Our FBO at Columbus ran out of 100LL after pumping 205 gallons into DC-3 N877MG. It holds 1,200 gallons. And Greenland had fuel to spare! Go figure. We stopped in Cedar Rapids due to our range limitation. Dodging storms, we next flew to Rapid City, home of Ellsworth Air Base and a B-1 squadron with ties to the Doolittle Raiders. After so much recent practice, the stiff prairie crosswind did not alter our good mood.

Later today we will circle Mt. Rushmore before heading to Spokane Felts Field for a tour of the HFF hangar project. Tomorrow we will visit Pasco to inspect our B-25. A serious engine problem last Friday forced a landing there. We should reach Paine Field by 2 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday afternoon.

It will take some time for this trip to spool down. Each day held rich events. In polling the crew over the weekend, each of us recalled a different best experience. The pilots performed well and acted as a team. The other crews bonded with us and we with them. The people who flew with us were exceptional. The memories will become like favorite books on a shelf. Every so often I will pull one down, dust it off and read a chapter.

Thanks to many supporters, followers, maintainers, visitors and friends. Let’s change the oil, fix the leaks, wash off the bugs, and plan our next adventure.

Crossing the Atlantic

Friday, July 19th, 2019

Three weather gods decide the fate of any vintage, unpressurized aircraft making an Atlantic crossing. One resides in and around Iceland, another Greenland, and a third in Labrador, around Goose Bay. On the 17th, we enjoyed a good relationship with two of three with the unsuitable destination being Greenland. So we toured Iceland for a day. As is often the case in outback flying, our patience was rewarded. Yesterday, Greenland delivered blue sky as we flew a fiord between mountains above icebergs on our way to Narsarsuaq. Later in the day it was necessary to fly an instrument approach into Goose Bay, but visibility was good once we dropped below the last layer of clouds. Yesterday, we flew approximately 1,500 miles. We will lighten up a bit today and don’t have a plan at this writing. The “breakfast summit” convenes in an hour.

I expect the word “Oshkosh” will enter the conversation.

July 16

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Our Prestwick hotel remains trapped in WWII Scotland under rationing. A nuanced expression of Scottish frugality, the hot water tap is so tightly screwed that one must commit both hands to liberate warmth. You had better travel with a bar of soap and shampoo. But it’s not the five-star hotels I remember. It’s these wonderful places. Breakfast choices included various parts of a pig, baked beans, stewed tomatoes and of course, porridge.

The weather challenge today may be icing. Satellite images suggest scattered clouds for most of the trip with a bit of rain and mist in Reykjavik. We like the summer temperatures. With 55-59 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface of the sea, we expect above-freezing temperatures at our cruising altitude. Having achieved consensus among the pilots that the risk of icing is manageable, we head for the airport.

Fuel in Prestwick is bloody expensive. The chap assigned to clear our account had the most fascinating, and unintelligible, brogue of any airport staff. He could star in a sequel to the famous SNL Scottish ATC skit still available on YouTube. The comedy began when I asked to pay over four thousand pounds in cash derived from air show retail sales, mostly t-shirts. The denominations were twenties, tens and fives. He admitted to never having seen so much cash before. It builds confidence when your air traffic controller makes an admission suggesting he never dealt drugs. Twice he broke away from counting the stacks of bills to land a C-17, then a P-8.

We have now flown over Scotland on our way to Iceland. The crew has donned “Gumby” survival suits. Happy Halloween from a plane-full of big pumpkins.

The vast expanse of the North Atlantic shares its haunting beauty through gaps in the clouds. Significant intervals separate call-in points with no assurance of a response. We layer to keep warm, though 28 degrees in the cockpit exceeds by ten the temperature endured in the American crossing back in May. A cloud-deck below creates a plateau from which the towering cumulus form what appear to be snow-capped mountains. We yawn, not because we are tired, but because at 10,000 feet the air thins. Excuse me as we descend into Reykjavik.

July 15

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

After bidding farewell to old and new friends at the Flying Legends Air Show, today we briefed a new passenger complement and headed for Prestwick, Scotland. I must have been tired after the air show ended. While (or to use local parlance, whilst) yet in my flight suit at 9 pm, upon return to the lobby bar at the hotel, I spotted friends who invited a conversation. Excusing myself momentarily to change clothes, I sat down in our hotel room to collect my thoughts. At 1 a.m. I woke up, still in my flight suit. One expends quite a bit of energy at an air show.

We are now in the full-time business of down-line logistics. Coming over, the excellent staff of the D-Day Squadron took care of the details. We’re now solo. Prestwick and Reykjavik were easily sorted, but we wonder about Narssarssuaq, Greenland. Predecessors en route reported various dramas with the fuel truck. Since we have the range to theoretically fly non-stop to Goose Bay from Reykjavik, assuming favorable or at least neutral winds, we certainly would avoid landing without some assurance of fuel.

Last December, the D-Day Squadron imposed a deadline (and a litmus test for participation) for a wire transfer of approximately $8,000 for 700 gallons of 100 low lead aviation fuel at Narssarssuaq. “100LL” has become a boutique fuel in the north, having been replaced by Jet A. This bulk purchase allowed the Squadron to enjoy some savings. Yes, the cost could have been higher. The fueler hired a small ship to transport the inventory for fifteen DC-3s. We wondered whether anyone remembered inclusion of N877MG in the purchase. This now has been confirmed though we are not yet certain of the condition of the fuel truck. I have fueled big twins from 55-gallon drums. It’s a job. We will do it if we need to. The full-on puzzle requires we not fuel to the maximum in Reykjavik to preserve room for 700 gallons in Narsy since the trip to get there requires less than 700 gallons unless we skip it altogether to fly non-stop Goose Bay, in which case we want fuel dripping from the caps and vents.

And we have a tail wind heading west! Go figure! The source is the center of a low-pressure system heading northeast spinning counter-clockwise winds around it. This may be the dominant weather factor all the way to Narssarssuaq.

The crew is good. They now know more than necessary about immersion suits and rafts.

It brings me pleasure to spell the names of these places. The trick is to convince the spell checker to leave them alone!


Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

Against all odds, we mustered fourteen aircraft for the penultimate flight of Berlin Airlift 70, our trip to Berlin. At one point the German element of this trip could not be assured due to a lapse in planning by certain foreign-based producers, but the D-Day Squadron of Americans and certain German producers elegantly filled the void. For some, landing in Berlin represented an important aspect of the trip. For most of us, and perhaps all but one or two by June 16th, paying our respects from the air checks the box.

Unlike most of our previous missions, the sequence of visits remained in play almost until the brief. We were to take off from Fassberg at approximately 1315 local time following an A-400 and C-130 on static for the air show. We briefed a streaming take-off (standard) to form up for a series of passes over the airport and town. Then we followed a series of waypoints taking us to all the airports in Berlin, to Leipzig, then to our destination of Erfurt, a city in the center of Germany with a marvelous old town and we would later learn, a festival in full swing.

At briefings, I adopt a low profile unless I am the leader. This was impossible for the Berlin flight. The first call-out for “Pan Am” confirmed our willingness to take with us, the wonderful German producers of BA70, Thomas Keller and Jacqueline. Next, we were asked to confirm our willingness to fly the no. 2 position in the first vic. Finally, we were asked to take over the lead role if no. 1 had a problem. So much for a low profile. Needless to say, we paid attention to the details of the briefing. I could imagine the headlines… “HFF’s DC-3 Busts German Air Space in Futile Attempt to Find Tempelhof.”

It was a beautiful flight. Clouds rose to a height sufficient to dilute mechanical turbulence, a condition we had encountered in Germany. Numerous social media and YouTube recordings tell the story. Waving Tempelhof crowds (we were rather close to them) will not be forgotten. The crescent shape of the terminal area has not changed. The abandoned runway and infield have become a popular park and homage to the Berlin Airlift.

Approaching Berlin, one cannot help remembering WWII, partitioning, the wall, and many remarkable leaders such as Conrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. The Germans remember the Berlin Airlift as an extraordinary humanitarian act but also as the beginning of over seventy years of peace. HFF gratefully accepted a German flag in gratitude for our unique participation and in recognition of an extended period of peace and cooperation since WWII.

The debrief didn’t last long. The only safety concerns pertained to uninvited aircraft trying to penetrate the formation. We have improved as a group to quite a high standard. It brings to mind a comment attributed to Harry Truman when speaking about the job of President of the United States. He said by the time you figure it out, it’s over. The Berlin flight was perhaps our best as a formation.

I would like to sing praises of the crews, especially N877MG. Some featured strong, idiosyncratic personalities. But good humor and generosity became the ethos. Pilots and mechanics coached one another. The collective stores of spare parts were available to all. Significantly, there were no mishaps of consequence. One golf cart collided with an elevator but the affected aircraft quickly returned to service. At Duxford, a beloved former air boss of the Flying Legends show asked me if there had been any pilot tantrums. There were not; before, during or after our time in Duxford.

Soon we will take up a westerly heading back to Duxford, then home to the United States by commercial airliner. We have agreed to return to participate in the Flying Legends air show July 13 and 14. This will allow me to offer to HFF members, a chance to attend the show as crew members, then retrace our steps along the Lend/Lease route, perhaps to Oshkosh, but in all events to our base at Paine Field. Are you ready for an adventure? If so contact HFF Visitor Services (425.348.3200) to offer your email address and telephone number. We will send you details. Look for our tracker and blogs to resume for that journey. For now, best wishes to all who have shared with us, D-D

Candy Bomber

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

I wasn’t sure how Germany and Germans would react to a D-Day Squadron trying to morph into a recreation of the Berlin Airlift. As with history, good people adjust rapidly to changed circumstances. We have been embraced by Germany and Germans. The country has lived up to its reputation for quality and order.

Our first stop, Wiesbaden, served as a major staging area for Berlin Airlift cargos. Its terminal building housed Luftwaffe general staff during WWII. The walls feature pictures of WWII aviation heroes representing the current philosophy of realistic presentation of the Nazi years, rather than denial.

If you have spoken with me about the Berlin Airlift, you know I consider it the most important humanitarian act in aviation history and substantial evidence that a haberdasher from Independence, Missouri, ranks among our greatest presidents. While the Airlift receives some attention from American, French and British historians, and aviation enthusiasts, Germany celebrates it with a national holiday. It was our great pleasure to demonstrate our aircraft in the first of a series of national air shows at Wiesbaden. The event attracted over 50,000 people. We were pictured on the front page of all the German daily newspapers.

Our honored guest was Col. Gail Halverson, the original Candy Bomber. In 1948, then-Captain Halverson approached a group of German children gathered around the perimeter of an Airlift airport. He offered them what he had, two sticks of gum. Though undernourished, the children divided the gum into small pieces for sharing, then allowed those not receiving a piece to smell the wrappers. This so impressed Captain Halverson, he began a campaign of dropping chocolate with small parachutes whenever he flew. In time, other pilots adopted the practice. Back home, word of the Candy Bomber spread in what today would be considered a viral reaction. Substantial donations of candy and home-made parachutes found their way to the Airlift pilots.

In speaking to our pilots and crews, Col. Halverson emphasized the importance of the little things that matter; they can become big things. He is fit and friendly at 98 years-old. In Germany, he is a national hero. The culmination of the air show was a candy drop from five DC-3s with HFF’s “Pan Am” flying the no. 2 spot. The donated parachutes and “Jelly Belly” jelly-beans were professionally prepared. We were able to drop approximately 400 in our five seconds over the drop zone. As soon as we passed, the children of Wiesbaden scurried onto a grassy area to recover the treasured cargo.

Col. Halverson flew left seat in the lead aircraft. I’m told he landed the plane.


Sunday, June 9th, 2019

In the brief, the motorways were to close at 6 a.m. Driving in the dark, our motorway access point was already closed at 5:30! D-Day security exceeded my expectations, and I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. We quickly reprogrammed our GPS units onto the road less traveled, managing to make it to the Secret Service checkpoint before the airport quite literally shut down.

On the tarmac, we saw Marine One and witnessed the arrival of two presidential planes, one for the US and one for France. Three Ospreys positioned to accompany Marine One to the site of the ceremonies, the cemetery behind Omaha Beach. Our mission was a timed fly-over with thirteen American C-47s and a Coast Guard C-130 in trail. Our N877MG drew the number two position (photo side) in the second “vic” (victory formation) of civilian aircraft. Before and after us, over the ceremony, would be a formation of eight C-130s and a formation of modern fighters. It was a complex, timed sequence with commencement dependent on the progress of the ceremony.

On take-off and forming up, we flew large holding patterns beyond view and earshot of the official ceremonies. We were not beyond the sensory experiences of what seemed to be hundreds of thousands of French and international visitors who lined the cliffs, beaches and roads, waving as we flew overhead. We had ten and six-minute call-outs to run-in to the target, and we hit our marks. After the special pass, we flew the battlefield beaches, Pegasus Bridge (also packed with waving patriots), Point-du-Hoc, and other D-Day landmarks for most of an hour. We had briefed a formation hold until the President could return to Caen Airport and depart. Instead, we were allowed to execute a streaming break and land with the Presidential party on the ground. Perhaps they enjoyed the old birds.

It was a joyous de-brief. Each pilot had a turn to speak. Most recalled a family member. Several revealed medals earned by a loved one, taken with them on the flight.

D-Day Minus 1, The Channel Crossing

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

On the last day of the Duxford shows, we launched a streaming take-off into a formation of over twenty C-47s bound for Normandy. David Hamilton joined us, the only surviving D-Day pathfinder.

David’s robust personality wins friends wherever he goes. Kay, his constant companion, gets him going just like Burns and Allen. He spent the morning among adoring fans and not so sensitive journalists, so he was ready for a rest. We moved him to the aircraft early. He had seen the interior when with us in Oxford, Connecticut, but now could avail himself of the reclining club seats. He rallied for our take-off and form-up on the way to East London, Kent, and Beachy Head, also known as the White Cliffs of Dover. Some of the repartee between Kay and David (Gracie and George) concerned his willingness to visit the cockpit and perhaps take a turn. Initially he declined, but when I and another pilot cupped each of his elbows to help him rise, any resistance evaporated. Indeed, he did most of the flying across the Channel. You can tell a pro right away. David’s smile while flying will be something I cherish long after the D-Day 75 fuel bills are paid. Helping him into the cockpit became my remembrance moment for Sgt. Myron Guy Sessions of the 101st Airborne Division.

The lushness of the Normandy coast hides many horrors of WWII. Hedgerows define land ownership. Cliffs and beaches created the barriers Germany believed it could defend. But history will wait until the morning. We required prompt delivery to our hotel anticipating a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. At least ten heads of state would attend the June 6th ceremonies the next day. Consequently, all C-47 crews had to return to our Caen Airport headquarters hangar before 6 a.m. to complete vetting by the Secret Service. After check-in, we remained in a sterilized hangar (i.e., essential crew only) until we took off for our formation passes on D-Day, plus 75 years.


Sunday, June 9th, 2019

Many people familiar with HFF also are familiar with Duxford, a WWII air field preserved in 1940s style. The American and Imperial War Museums dominate the exhibit area, but some of the best artifacts lurk in working hangars where passionate engineers maintain and restore vintage aircraft. Principal among the maintenance and restoration facilities is Aircraft Restoration Company or “ARC” and its sibling restoration company, Historic Flying Ltd. This is where HFF’s Spitfire became the stellar example it is today.

We began our stay in Duxford by touring ARC. Our crew has grown to eight members. Some have contributed significant sums toward our crossing expenses, notably fuel. The visit allowed me to reconnect with many old friends who had not seen me since my encounter with a Canadian runway. There was a fair amount of surprise that I was so enjoying my Cheetah blade prosthesis and able to fly across the Atlantic. Indeed, I removed it long enough to explain its mechanics and allow one of the engineers to trim down a wing of the socket, too long for our rather rambunctious air displays. The engineer, named Smudge, recently turned eighty years-young. Having worked in aircraft restoration for sixty years, he smiled and said “it’s not every day I can add something to my resume.” Then he returned to extrusion of bomb racks for a Lysander. The people of ARC represent an extended family as we have spent many days working and flying together.

While at Duxford we practiced formation flying, sold HFF retail items from a pop-up presence, and participated in two days of air shows. We also visited “The Eagle” tavern in nearby Cambridge where many RAF and American pilots spent time during WWII. It is famous for its preserved wall and ceiling inscriptions.

May 29

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

We have had our quiet time. Now to discover if we remember how to fly the DC-3.

The weather is IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) meaning we must fly on instruments to be safe. All three pilots (Gene Vezzetti, Bill Mnich and yours truly) have substantial experience. The difference is contemporary pilots usually enjoy the aid of an autopilot to follow instructions through the mist and muck (hopefully, not ice). I “hand flew” the big bird to altitude, all the while helping Gene interpret handoffs from one brogue to another. If you haven’t seen the SNL skit (youtube) on Scottish air traffic control, you should. It’s realistic and funny, when you’re on the ground.

Each controller asks whether we require basic, traffic or terrain services. Having flown several long trips in my career, I have a funny feeling HFF will one day receive a series of bills reflecting IFR services in Scotland. “Basic” seems sufficient (and entirely consistent with Scottish frugality) since our databases and radios reveal traffic and terrain. We left the clouds on descent into Duxford, flying by Cambridge and into the pattern. A significant row of Dakotas (the favorite British term for the C-47) greeted us, but nowhere near the number expected by Sunday, June 2nd. By then, when our European colleagues arrive, the number will exceed 30.

Were you four or five years old for your first memory of Christmas morning? Some of our crew members are in their 70s. Landing at Duxford rivaled that Christmas morning.