The plane that launched D-Day
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular delve into the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. As this is our first blog of 2019, I would like to begin by wishing all our readers a very happy and healthy new year and to hope that the coming twelve months will be good ones for aviation enthusiasts everywhere. As we embark on this fourth year for our Aerodrome blog, we already have plenty to look forward to over the next 26 editions, including Airshow reviews, exclusive historic aviation features and several exciting new opportunities, showcasing some of the most interesting aviation related projects in Britain today. With the help of our extensive overseas readership, we may even be able to feature some aviation related articles from a little further afield – if you think you could be in a position to help with such a feature, please do get in touch via our usual firstname.lastname@example.org contact address.
Due to both the festive holiday period and the impending range launches across the various Hornby Hobbies brands, there has been a little blog rescheduling taking place of late and despite the fact that Aerodrome was the final blog to be posted in 2018, it has also turned out to be the first one of the new year, which is not altogether a bad thing if aeroplanes are your passion. The schedule will have reverted back to normal by the end of the month, so please bear with us during this period, as there will now be a three week gap before the next edition of Aerodrome is posted. For this first blog of 2019, we are looking ahead to a significant year of events commemorating of the 75th anniversary of 'Operation Overlord' and the D-Day landings, by featuring an aircraft which may not initially spring to mind as one of the most famous types of the Second World War, but one which made a significant contribution in earning a hard fought victory for the Allied forces. It is also an aircraft which is destined to pay the most poignant tribute to the D-Day commemorations in June this year, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain/Dakota.
From stylish airliner to the ‘Bringer of war’
This famous KLM liveried Douglas DC-2 is a stunning example of the classic airliner design which brought about the birth of an aviation legend. PH-AJU was photographed at the Coventry Classics Airshow back in 2003
At a time when aviation was still very much in its infancy, the Douglas Aircraft Corporation of California unveiled an aeroplane which is still regarded as one of the most significant in the history of aviation and one which revolutionised air travel in the USA. The Douglas Commercial 3 (DC-3) was a sleek, twin engined passenger airliner which built on the company’s previous design successes with the DC-2 to produce a relatively wide bodied aircraft which was capable of transporting a greater number of passengers than had previously been possible, in levels of style and comfort that made air travel both glamorous and relatively affordable. Indeed, the DC-3 proved to be the world’s first truly profitable airliner and paved the way for widespread air travel across America, accessible for millions of people – the world’s first truly modern airliner. Initially conceived as a competitor for the Boeing 247 already in operation with United Airlines, the DC-3 incorporated a host of innovations in its design and utilised wind tunnel technology to develop the swept back wing leading edge which gave the aircraft such impressive performance and its distinctive appearance. Possessing both speed and range, the aircraft was an instant success, however it was its stability and reliability which endeared the DC-3 to both passengers and operators alike. The DC-3 made air travel in the US both safe and normal for the general population, with the rather basic and unpleasant conditions of previous air travel replaced by spacious, comfortable seating in a relatively quiet and heated cabin. The age of air travel had arrived.
The Douglas DC-2 bears many similarities to the later DSL (Douglas Sleeper Transport, later known as the famous DC-3), but is most easily identified by the pair of nose mounted headlights
Heralding a new era of aircraft production and the emergence of a true aviation classic (although they didn’t know that at the time), some of the manufacturing trivia associated with DC-3 production is simply astonishing and well worth visiting again. Five hundred thousand rivets were used in the construction of a DC-3, each one between 3 and 8 inches in length – if laid end to end, they would stretch for a distance of over three miles. The lighting system used in a DC-3 was equivalent to that found in an eight room house – more than 90 lights were used and required 1,517 watts of power. The total number of people employed in the production of DC-3 aircraft was around 6000. The total length of control cables used on each DC-3 was around 3,000 feet, more than half a mile of cable. Each DC-3 required 3,900 feet of tubing, 8,000 feet of wire and around 13,300 square feet of sheet metal in its construction and over 3,600 blueprints were produced by the design department to aid in their manufacture. Approximately 700,000 parts were used in the construction of each Douglas DC-3 airliner and astonishingly, this figure does not include instrumentation, engine parts or rivets.
For an aircraft which earned such a significant reputation in the history of aviation, it is also interesting to note that the first flight of the Douglas DC-3 took place on 17th December 1935, exactly 32 years after the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight at Kill Devil Hills.
A flying legend. This highly polished Douglas DC-3 in Swissair livery was the lead aircraft in the ‘Classic Flight’ at the 2017 Flying Legends Airshow, with a pair of smaller Beech 18s. This aircraft was originally constructed at the Douglas plant at Long Beach in 1943, making its first flight as a military transporter
There are few aircraft in the history of aviation able to boast the significant reputation enjoyed by that of the Douglas DC-3 and its eventual military derivatives. This revolutionary aircraft was responsible for establishing comfortable and reliable passenger air travel throughout the United States in the 1930s, as well as attracting significant military interest from the US Army. As America watched Europe and the Far East descending into conflict in 1939, they quickly realised that they would need an effective aircraft to potentially transport troops into combat areas and resupply their forces wherever they may be operating - a military version of the rugged and reliable DC-3 was identified as the ideal solution to this significant problem. As these aircraft began to roll off the production lines, they were also proving to be of great interest to the British and following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, the Douglas C-47 was also supplied to British and Commonwealth air forces under the Lend-Lease programme in quite significant numbers. Indeed, the demand for this war-ready variant of the DC-3 proved so great that the establish manufacturing facilities at Santa Monica simply could not cope and the government immediately constructed a new facility at Long Beach. Unfortunately, there was no let-up in demand for this essential aeroplane and even this increased capacity was struggling to cope, so a third factory, this time in Oklahoma City, was constructed by the US government, specifically for the production of military variants of the Douglas DC-3.
The proposed military variants of the DC-3 were thought to be so important to America’s ability to wage war effectively, that an army engineering team was assigned to the Douglas Factory during the development of the aircraft, ensuring that the alterations to the standard DC-3 (Douglas Sleeper Transport) made the aircraft as militarily effective as possible. In October 1941, the US Government decided to adopt the British system of identifying their aircraft with a name – the reason for this was to mask the development of new aircraft from prying enemy eyes and prevent information falling into enemy hands. The Douglas C-47 was given the rather fitting name of ‘Skytrain’, the first US Army aeroplane to be given a name in this manner. The first flight of the C-47 Skytrain took place on 23rd December 1941 and between 1941 and 1945, the Douglas Corporation built over 9,200 examples of this magnificent aircraft.
Built for action, the C-47 Skytrain proved to be the ideal military transport for the US Military and one of the most important aircraft of the Second World War
The military variants of the DC-3 differed from their earlier civilian airliner forebears in a number of ways, but perhaps most noticeably by the addition of a large two piece cargo door, located at the rear port side of the fuselage. It also had reinforced flooring to cope with the rigors of military service and the main cabin floor was also tilted upwards slightly, to make this area parallel to the ground during loading of the aircraft. The fuselage seating arrangements consisted of fold down metal and canvas benches down both sides of the fuselage and each window had a rifle grommet installed, to allow the aircraft’s occupants to fire out if the situation dictated. To aid with navigation, the aircraft also benefited from an astrodome on top of the fuselage, just behind the cockpit area. Other differences from the original airliner configuration included a slightly increased wingspan for military variants and a reduced internal fuel capacity, down from 882 gallons to 804 gallons, although the aircraft could be fitted with as many as eight 100 gallon ferry tanks for long distance flights. An inclusion which would prove invaluable during operations in support of D-Day, most Skytrains were also equipped with a robust glider hitch, which was positioned centrally at the very back of the fuselage and usually hidden behind a removeable tail cone. A specialist paratrooper variant of the aircraft was designated C-53 and named 'Skytrooper' and aircraft operated by British and Commonwealth air forces were known as 'Dakotas'. The aircraft also attracted a number of less than flattering nicknames during its military service, including Gooney Bird, Dumbo and Old Fatso – not very complimentary for an aircraft of this pedigree. Perhaps the most poignant nickname it attracted was ‘Vomit Comet’, a name given to it by paratroopers, presumably due to the severe buffeting experienced in the minutes immediately prior to arriving over the drop zone.
Aerial workhorse for victory
Wearing its distinctive D-Day identification markings, this beautifully restored machine now flies with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and represents one of the 2,000 Dakotas which flew with British and Commonwealth air forces
The first C-47s in British service arrived in India during 1942 and were given the name Dakota – there are several theories as to the source of this name, with some stating it was an acronym derived from Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft ‘DACoTA’, although it is much more likely to have simply been a randomly selected US state/place name as used with previous US aircraft types in British service, such as the Buffalo, Maryland, Boston and Baltimore. Over 1900 Dakotas were eventually produced for British and Commonwealth air forces, from a total production run of over 10,000 aircraft and like all C-47/Dakotas, they were to perform a vital role in keeping the Allied forces on the move and their enemies on the back foot. British Dakotas were to see extensive service during the Burma campaign, the D-Day landings and operations at Arnhem and it is interesting to note that Dakotas were operated by both the RAF and BOAC during WWII. With many of these aircraft going on to see military service long after the end of the Second World War and the C-47/Dakota still being a regular performer at Airshows all over the world, there is no doubt that it has to be considered as one of the most significant aircraft in the history of aviation and one of the most important types to see Royal Air Force service.
Same aircraft, different livery. This time presented without D-Day markings, the BBMF Dakota looks resplendent in the sunshine at Duxford, clearly illustrating the handsome good looks of this aircraft
During its military service, the Douglas C-47 was required to perform many of the background duties undertaken by aircraft, even though these proved crucial to the outcome of the Second World War. Famously, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe described the C-47 as one of his ‘Four pieces of equipment most vital to Allied success in Europe and Africa’, along with the bulldozer, the Jeep and the two and a half ton truck – all products of the American war machine, none of which had originally been designed for a military role. Perhaps not as exciting as a Mustang or as devastating as a Lancaster, the C-47 did not enjoy the widespread notoriety of other WWII aircraft, but in its own way, it was perhaps more exciting and even more devastating than either of these more famous aircraft, ensuring that troops and supplies were in the right place at the right time, transporting Allied forces to eventual victory.
Arguably, the most famous and effective use of massed formations of C-47 Skytrains during WWII occurred on the night of 5th/6th June 1944 – D-Day. In order to ensure the defeat of Germany and the end of the Second World War, the Allied powers knew that they would have to launch a full scale assault against continental Europe, an undertaking fraught with potential dangers. In support of this plan, Allied aircraft began a concerted bombing campaign, targeting aircraft and munitions manufacturing plants, as well as attacking strategic targets in the intended landing areas, all designed to diminish Germany’s fighting capabilities. These attacks were always carefully masked by strong diversion raids, so as not to alert the Germans to where the anticipated Allied amphibious assault would take place, making D-Day as much about deception, as it was about preparation. Finally, after months of planning, the order was given to ‘Go’ and the invasion was on. At RAF Greenham Common in the late evening of 5th June 1944, paratroopers of the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions climbed aboard hundreds of Douglas C-47 Skytrains, as they prepared to drop behind German lines in advance of the main seaborne invasion force, the spearhead of 'Operation Overlord'. There crucial mission was to deliver troops in the areas behind the German fortifications and to disrupt the enemy’s ability to effectively reinforce the landing areas, thus giving Allied forces a greater chance of breaking out from their beachheads. Their main objectives included the seizure of road crossings, bridges and strategic villages, as well as helping to disable as many of the coastal batteries as possible, in advance of the main seaborne landings, spreading confusion amongst the defending Germans.
A classic study of a USAAF C-47 Skytrain, wearing the markings synonymous with Operation Overlord and the Allied invasion of occupied Europe in June 1944
British Dakotas were also heavily involved in air operations in support of the D-Day landings
At the head of this mighty air armada and the individual aircraft which effectively launched D-Day, Douglas C-47A ‘That’s All Brother’ would lead a force of over 800 Skytrains over the next few hours, as she used specialist equipment to navigate through thick cloud and accurate German defensive ground fire to deliver her precious cargo of brave paratroopers onto their designated drop zones in Normandy and the opening combat operations of D-Day. Equipped with an early form of airborne radar, this significant aircraft was the first one to take off from RAF Greenham Common on the night of 5th June, the lead aircraft at the head of a mighty force of US paratroopers, destined to cause havoc behind the invasion landing beaches. It is thought that the name painted on the nose of the aircraft was linked to the significant role it was scheduled to play on invasion night and was a message to Hitler, informing him that his murderous reign as Fuhrer was about to come to an end. Damaged by flak on her historic mission, ‘That’s All Brother’ was patched up, before flying a second mission on D-Day, towing a glider with troops of the US 82nd Airborne Division destined for the battle now raging in Normandy. Seeing plenty of action in the months following D-Day, it was thought that this aircraft had been scrapped, until it was discovered as a derelict airframe in an aircraft boneyard many years later. Purchased by the Commemorative Air Force following a successful crowdsourcing appeal, the aircraft was later returned to airworthy condition, making her first post restoration flight in early 2018. She is scheduled to take part in the ambitious ‘Daks over Normandy’ gathering of Douglas C-47s during the summer of 2019, to mark the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings, where she will surely provide the most poignant flying tribute to the men and machines involved in this historic day.
C-47 Skytrain – A personal perspective
Tough as old boots, the Skytrain is equally at home operating from grass strips, as it is a modern tarmac runway
As many Aerodrome readers will have undoubtedly gained their fascination for all things aviation and specifically WWII related from reading the famous war comics of our youth, which were more about the excitement and courage of combat, as opposed to the real horrors no one really wants to acknowledge, it was the exploits of fighter pilots and their enigmatic aircraft which really captured the imagination of younger minds. This meant that such aircraft as Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitos became familiar to millions of youngsters and a source of constant fascination through reading and modelling, with other aircraft such as the Douglas C-47 Skytrain seeming a little tame by comparison. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have an unexpected C-47 experience which led me to have an early appreciation of this magnificent aeroplane and a memory which I still hold dear to this day. On my first visit to Duxford without my parents, I made the long journey from Lancashire with my best friend, who was three years older than I was and the proud owner of a brand new driving licence. Borrowing his father’s car for the weekend, we intended to visit Duxford on the Saturday and The Shuttleworth Collection the following day, before returning home in time for school (for me) on Monday. I remember that when we arrived at Duxford, the weather was glorious and the airfield was bathed in sunshine, with plenty of aircraft activity taking place on the field, even though visitor numbers seemed to be pretty sparse.
On walking around the site, we quickly noticed that a C-47 had been positioned away from the airfield itself, between hangars two and three and appeared to have its rear doors opened. It transpires that the aircraft was actually available for purchase and prospective buyers had been invited to come along to Duxford over the weekend and inspect it at their leisure, prior to registering their interest. Although the steps leading up to the open cargo doors were roped off, we had a clear view inside the aircraft and could see that it was looking especially well turned out for its expected suiters. At that moment, a rather official looking man who clearly had a military background marched into view and fearing an ear-bashing, we looked a little sheepish at taking up such a fortuitous vantage point, however, to our amazement, rather than asking us to move, he invited us to go onboard the aeroplane. ‘Go and sit in the cockpit if you like, but don’t touch anything!’. What an opportunity and one we gratefully accepted – the rope was removed, then replaced after we had climbed aboard and the man walked away in the opposite direction to the one he had appeared from. We headed straight for the flight deck and occupied the two seats as invited, enjoying an extremely memorable half an hour, completely uninterrupted by another human being and left to our own thoughts. Looking back through the open cabin door, it was easy to gain an understanding of the responsibility a C-47 pilot would have had on D-Day, with an aircraft full of men and their equipment relying on him to deliver them accurately over their drop zone and hopefully doing so without inducing too many gut wrenching manoeuvres. It was also easy to see how spacious the cockpit area was for the pilot and despite the challenging wartime conditions many C-47 flights would have been made under, this was actually quite a pleasant working environment and clearly a throwback to the aircraft’s civilian airliner heritage.
Although I will have a picture of my Duxford Skytrain experience somewhere in my collection, this image of a cockpit section was taken on a recent visit to Cosford’s Michael Beetham Conservation Centre
At that time in my life and being quite a superstitious soul, I thought that this wonderful opportunity was something of a sign and as I had recently embarked on my dream of joining the Royal Air Force as a pilot, I felt that this was fate and in a few years’ time, I would be flying one of the new Tornado strike aircraft just about to enter RAF service. Just then, the chap who allowed us this fantastic opportunity came back and told us that unless we intended to buy it, it was time to get off the aircraft, which we duly did, after thanking him for his kindness. Although I will always remember that afternoon at Duxford, I never did get my chance to fly a Tornado, even though I had an extremely enjoyable and rather successful attempt at negotiating the significant challenge of the RAF’s aircrew selection programme – that is, however, a story for another blog.
Arguably the most popular C-47/Dakota on the UK Airshow circuit is the magnificent aircraft operated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which has become a much-loved display aircraft in its own right
Having attended hundreds of Airshow and airfield open day events over the years, I have always found the C-47 to be a really enigmatic performer and thrilling in its own right, possibly as a result of the Duxford experience of my youth. A particularly rugged performer, the Skytrain is equally at home on as grass airstrip as it is on tarmac and for what is rather a large aeroplane, this can make for some extremely exciting take-off and landings, especially from smaller airfields. Even shows such as Duxford’s Flying Legends Warbird extravaganza can boast the Skytrain/Dakota in its flying programme and when you see the beautifully clean lines of the aircraft performing with surprizing agility in front of your eyes, you are left in no doubt that you are in the presence of aviation greatness. During the summer of 2019, the Douglas C-47 will be playing a significant role in commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, as an ambitious project to re-create the aerial armada which headed for Normandy in advance of the amphibious landings in the early hours of 6th June 1944 is planned. After years of meticulous planning, the Daks over Normandy project aims to gather a force of over thirty DC-3 and C-47s from all over the world, all coming together to pay a historic and extremely poignant tribute to the men who gave so much in their attempt to liberate occupied Europe on D-Day. This once in a lifetime event will see the aircraft based at Duxford between 2nd and 5th June, before they re-locate to Caen Carpiquet Airport between 6th and 9th June. The highlight of the commemoration will see around 250 parachutists wearing WWII style uniforms and equipped with authentic round parachutes flying over the English Channel, before jumping into the historic drop zones in Normandy. This is already shaping up to be one of the highlights of this D-Day 75th anniversary year and I am very much looking forward to documenting the occasion for posterity and for the enjoyment of Aerodrome readers. Please keep an eye on the Daks over Normandy website for the latest details and for ticket information for the events themselves.
An enduring aviation legacy
The sight of D-Day identification marked C-47s and Dakotas is something we can hopefully all look forward to seeing a little later in the year, as Europe marks the 75th anniversary of this historic assault
The commemorative events planned to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day will undoubtedly thrust the Douglas DC-3/C-47 Skytrain into the aviation spotlight once more, re-affirming its undeniable credentials as one of the most important aeroplanes in the history of aviation and one of the most successful military aircraft of the Second World War. With aircraft operated by all branches of the US Military and British and Commonwealth forces using the type extensively, both Russia and Japan built the aircraft under licence, bringing the eventually production run of the Douglas DC-3 and its derivatives to well over 16,000 aircraft. It was reported that as of 2013, around 2000 DC-3 and C-47 airframes were still in existence, many of which were still in airworthy condition, testament to the impressive design of this magnificent aircraft. Reports from wartime C-47 pilots claim that the airframe would moan and groan during flight, the engines would leak oil and it would flex in an alarming manner, but this reliable aircraft just flew and flew, safely delivering its payload, before returning to base for its next assignment – an effective and reliable aviation workhorse.
An aircraft of distinction. The aircraft which led D-Day was built by craftsmen and women in America, flown by well trained and capable Allied crews and carried heroes into battle. This unassuming transport aircraft was one of the most important military aircraft in the history of warfare
Perhaps the most enduring assessment of the capabilities of the Douglas C-47 is that many of the men who flew and maintained these aircraft were confident that the only adequate replacement for a Douglas C-47 was another C-47. With many of these aircraft still flying passengers or hauling cargo from airfields all over the world, it is difficult to argue with them and as Europe prepares to marvel at the sight of an impressive formation of these historic aircraft during the summer of 2019, approaching 84 years after the first flight of the prototype DC-3, the aviation legacy of this magnificent aircraft seems certain to only be enhanced further. Rather than being remembered as the ‘Vomit Comet’, it is more of a ‘Volant Classic’.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this first edition of Aerodrome for 2019, however, we will be back in three weeks’ time as our blogs fall back into their usual publication slots. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at email@example.com, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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