Number One’s three-blade prop begins to turn-cough-turn. The engine whines, whines, then belches out clots of smoke as the big Wright Cyclone thunders to life. Joe Colmer, 93, feels the rumble through the metal seat. He grips the wooden cane, his ever-present companion since he stepped on a land mine on patrol in Germany during World War II. He looks out the square window at all the people watching the DC-3. The years fall away.
He’s back in the war, sitting hip-to-shoulder with 27 other air-landing GIs in a British Airspeed Horsa troop glider, about to be cut loose to glide to a landing near Sainte-Mère-Église, the infamous post-D-Day battle of June 6, 1944. At 27, Joe is the “old man,” a seasoned three-year vet of nearly all the major campaigns of World War II.
The Horsa rides the other end of a tow line from a C-47 Dakota, the military version of the immortal DC-3 that will become a prime symbol of dependability, hope and victory across 75 years of military and civilian aviation. But to Joe Colmer, the transport ship makes a mere background overture to the terrors of battle looming ahead. He only wants to do his job, then someday walk again under the big tree, through the white fence and up the front porch of home. The Dak is the airplane that’s going to help him—and thousands more—get there.
Legendary today, a legend even in its own time, the DC-3 and all its variants and nicknames—C-47 Skytrain, C-53 Skytrooper, Dak or Dakota, Tabby, Spooky gunship, Puff the Magic Dragon, The Doug and, most universally, the Gooney Bird—still serves, if in ever-diminishing numbers, around the globe. Seventy-five amazing years have passed since Donald Douglas huddled with lead engineer Arthur Raymond in Santa Monica, Calif., to bring forth the design.
In 1939, under the shadow of the European war, near the end of recovery from the Great Depression, Americans bought newspapers for two cents, gas for a dime a gallon and hamburger meat for $.14 a pound. Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt to propose an atomic bomb, the World’s Fair and LaGuardia Airport opened in New York, television broadcasting began, and Gone with the Wind was one of several big film hits.
And if you could summon the sawbucks ($264—one-third the price of a new car!), you could join a privileged few to fly coast to coast on a new American Airlines Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST), a luxury train-style version of the plane that would revolutionize air travel: the Douglas DC (for Douglas Commercial) series. The DC-3 almost overnight made everything that had come before obsolete. On the AA flights, drinks and excellent meals were served to the 14 “guests,” along with sick bags for the routine turbulence encountered just 8,000 feet above sea level! And after lights out, the plane’s captain walked the aisle to check on everyone’s comfort. Another world indeed.
Number Two roars to life. Deep, thrumming vibrations shake Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu’s memories to their core. A lifetime ago she flew as a WASP for a cause, for a way of life that endures to this day but for her devotion and that of her comrades at arms. There has never been a generation like them. Pray there never need be another to go through what they went through. But they heard the call, they went, and they saved the world. And a DC-3 runs through the heart and soul of all of them.
Up in the cockpit, Dan Gryder pushes the big, ball-knobbed throttle levers forward. The throbbing builds to a shaking rumble as N143D leaves the air-show ramp at Whiteside County Airport, Sterling/Rock Falls, Ill. He has spent more than a year of his life summoning every flying DC-3 in America. Around half of all flying American Gooney Birds have answered the call.
The historic gathering, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Douglas DC-3 aircraft, attracted the attendance of pilots such as Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, who once flew as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flight instructor.
Bee Haydu feels the vibration in her very bones, and she’s 24 again, living one day and one flight at a time as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flight instructor.
More than 16,000 DC-3s were built. The type almost singlehandedly created the air travel industry. When America entered the war, the beefed-up C-47 version went to war, too—more than 10,000 of them, in all the major combat theaters.
For 75 years—the official birthday is December 17, 1935—movies and documentaries have showed Gooneys dropping hay bales to starving cattle in a blizzard, carrying paratroopers into combat and wounded soldiers back home, spraying a withering hail of minigun hot lead into Southeast Asian jungles, airlifting vital supplies for the Berlin Airlift, crop dusting and so much more. The Gooney Bird endured for several key reasons: reliability, easy maintenance, low operations cost and overall profitability.
Dan Gryder, veteran Delta 777 copilot and DC-3 owner, took up the challenge of celebrating the ageless transport. “We kicked the idea around of a big 75th anniversary celebration five years ago at a 70th reunion,” he recalls. “That’s where the seed was planted for me.”
The idea grew in the intervening years, thanks to that other hat he wears: as the premier DC-3 flight instructor, a task he’s happily undertaken since he bought N143D in 1999. “I’d bump into DC-3 people all the time, so I started a list. I personally know most DC-3 owners and pilots on a first-name basis—I probably trained half of them!”
Gryder is a genial, high-energy, blue-jeans guy who wanted to impart the same informal quality to The Last Time event. “I figured if we could get around 35 airplanes, that would represent half of all the DC-3s still flying in America. And I wanted to keep it free for the public to come out and enjoy these wonderful ships.”
Gryder began raising funds for the airplane side of the event, wisely handing off-the-ground logistics to local community volunteers, who responded with fervid enthusiasm—hundreds of them—with numerous fund-raisers, food and lodging arrangements, vendor booths and even an authentic Army reenactment group that set up a World War II camp.
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 window…to 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.