WWII aircraft prepared to retrace D-Day flight
By SARA-MEGAN WALSH | The Ledger | Published: April 3, 2019
LAKELAND, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — About a dozen passengers sat in a World War II aircraft wondering what it must have felt like to be an 21-year-old paratrooper ready to deploy over Normandy as fog and rain clouds rolled, weather similar to the morning of D-Day in 1944.
Indiana resident Gus Hawkins was one of those strapped into the Douglas C-47 Skytrain "That's All, Brother" as it lifted into the skies over Lakeland on Tuesday morning. The Ledger was invited along for the flight held as part of the 45th annual Sun 'n Fun Fly-In.
"It's overwhelming," Hawkins said.
His father, Staff Sgt. Edwin Hawkins, served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper during World War II in the South Pacific arena. Gus Hawkins and his wife, Pat, were among the more than 2,000 individuals who donated to a 2015 Kickstarter campaign to help restore the historic C-47. It had been found lying in a Wisconsin scrapyard.
"We thought this was an important aircraft to preserve," he said.
The C-47 led a formation of 432 planes that dropped thousands of paratroopers behind enemy lines June 6, 1944, in the Invasion of Normandy. "That's All, Brother" will retrace the flight route this summer.
A group of 18 American restored World War II planes known as the D-Day Squadron will make the transatlantic trip to participate in Daks Over Normandy. The event features a flyover of more than 30 international aircraft dropping about 250 paratroopers on the shores of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack.
"Our goal is to continue, at least from an educational perspective, telling the story of D-Day," Mo Aguiari, executive director of the D-Day Squadron, said. "You can't forget history. You need to keep it alive."
The squadron will take off from Oxford, Connecticut, in May on what's called a Blue Spruce route, according to Aguiari, which transverses the North Atlantic using land-based navigational aids and allows for refueling points. Half the planes will split off to refuel at Narsarsuaq Airport in Greenland before continuing on to Prestwick, Scotland.
"The northern part of the route is the most critical part of the mission," Aguiari said.
The D-Day Squadron will participate in an event to honor World War II veterans before flying onto Duxford, England. From there, they will meet with other C-47s from across the world to reenact the June 6 invasion of France.
The historic flight comes at a steep cost. Aguiari said each airplane's owner or crew had to commit to raising $250,000 to cover the costs of fuel. A down payment of $12,000 for fuel in Greenland had to be made in December.
"Even today, I still get emails from airplane pilots that want to go," he said.
Dallas pilot Tom Travis, who was in charge of the Sun 'n Fun flight, will be in the C-47's cockpit for three legs of the flight. The 77-year-old has been preparing for the flight by taking survival training and practicing dropping off parachutists.
"It's a real piece of history, it's an honor to be involved," he said.
Travis is a member of the Commemorative Air Force, a Texas-based nonprofit organization that owns "That's All, Brother" and is dedicated to preserving and showing historical aircraft.
"We're not trying to glorify war in the Commemorative Air Force, we're trying to teach history and to honor those who served," he said.
Travis said he's had the honor of bringing many military veterans up in different aircraft to reflect their past experiences. His own father served in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he was killed in Italy 14 days before the fighting ended.
"It's important to teach history to kids," he said. "What [veterans] went through to give them the freedoms they have today."
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