Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Last Time

Half of the DC-3s in America celebrate the Gooney Bird’s 75th

Joe Colmer looks out the window. He remembers how all the soldiers rocked forward when the glider released from tow behind the C-47. The deafening vibration and noise ceased. Almost immediately the big Horsa plywood-skinned glider took hits from German machine-gun fire on the ground—close to landing! The pilot yelled back something indecipherable, then all hell broke loose as the glider crashed into a tree and the entire right side of the airplane disintegrated, killing all the soldiers on that side. Because he forgot to strap in, Joe flew forward like a rag doll, all the way into the cockpit—without suffering a scratch. He and only nine of the 28 GIs crawled out of the wreck—right into the gun sights of the German Wehrmacht.

Gryder’s DC-3, wearing the red and silver livery of its sponsor Herpa, a German toy manufacturer, made its first trip to Europe in pieces on a transport boat in 1938. It wore Swiss colors during the war, carried passengers for Ozark Airlines until 1967, then served as an executive transport for several corporations. In 1974, the seats were yanked and a sturdier metal floor installed as part of a freighter conversion. The landing gear got upgraded to C-47 status, increasing gross weight to 26,900 pounds.

Gryder bought the airplane, which came with a built-in contract, to train FAA employees. Ten years later, still expecting the DC-3 flight-training business to dry up any day, he routinely fields queries and accepts new students for his DC-3 school. You can’t keep a good Gooney Bird down.

Every one of the 28 DC-types on the ground at The Last Time event had its own long, colorful history for the eager crowds to discover.

The big Cyclones pull the DC-3 onto the runway. Dan takes in the lush green heartland of Illinois, imagining the landscape hasn’t changed all that much from when his bird first flew in the year of Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace for Our Time”—mere months before Hitler’s war engulfed Europe, then America.

The Last Time went off like a skyrocket. More than 15,000 people came out to see the many Gooneys up close and climb into history through rear stairway hatches and into a rich world of elegantly restored or work-in-progress variants. With Bee Haydu in the left seat and Joe Colmer in the “troop” section, Gryder climbed out from Whiteside County Airport and looked out the behold a scene right out of the film Field of Dreams.

Below, on the interstate highway and on country roads for miles around the airport, thousands of cars lined up to see the The Last Time fleet depart for EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. Behind him, in a stunning execution of superb flight planning and pure piloting skill, 22 more Gooney Birds launched and pulled into formation to head north.

The 23-plane group crosses at 2,500 feet over Wittman Field in a tight, beautiful formation. Joe and Bee look down at thousands of planes and the huge air-show crowd. How many of them will ever know the full story of the DC-3s’ contribution to military and civilian aviation? Or of their generation’s personal sacrifices, triumphs and tragedies?

No matter. They went, so long ago. They endured. Those who made it home built lives in the free world they gave everything for. Donald Douglas’ immortal DC-3 changed the world 75 years ago. There likely never will be another airplane like her, nor ever again so many in one tight, proud, defiant formation. For Dan Gryder, Joe Colmer, Bee Haydu and the other Gooney crew and passengers crossing over, the tears well up unbidden and without shame.

Check out Dan Gryder’s DC-3 Training Ops at, The Last Time at, and Wings Across America WASP at


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