I haven’t slept much during the night and the dawn is now peeking over the horizon in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. My stomach is churning with excitement and trepidation. Today is the day: I am about to take my first flight in a C-47. And it’s not just any C-47. This one has “That’s All Brother” emblazoned on the nose. It’s arguably the most famous and important C-47 that’s still airworthy.
To understand the significance of the aircraft, you need to go back to June 6, 1944. On that day, Lieutenant Colonel John Donaldson piloted “That’s All Brother” across the English Channel, the lead aircraft in a formation of 800 C-47s which dropped more than 13,000 paratroopers into the first actions of D-Day.
After serving on D-Day, as well as in Operations Market Garden, Repulse, and Varsity, the airplane returned to the United States and was sold into the civilian market in 1945. It changed hands several times in the following decades and its historical significance was eventually lost. It was finally sold to be scrapped.
Fortunately, two historians from the United States Air Force discovered that this historic airplane was lying in a boneyard in Wisconsin. The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) acquired the airplane, and, with the help of a large group of donors and volunteers, was able to restore it to flying status.
Like the young soldiers back in 1944, I walked across the grassy airfield in Oshkosh toward the waiting lines of C-47 aircraft not knowing what to expect. I’m greeted by two Colonels from the Commemorative Air Force who are clearly proud of their charge and anxious to tell its story. After the obligatory safety briefing and the opportunity to meet the pilots, I settle in for a a day of formation training in preparation for the upcoming D-day 75th anniversary celebrations.
The main purpose of this day is to hone the formation skills of the wide diversity of owners and aircraft that are coming together to form the D-Day Squadron, the American contingent, of the Daks Over Normandy events. The majority of the pilots are retired military and this is evident from the thorough and comprehensive pre-flight briefings. Large aircraft formation planning and execution is something that I’m acutely familiar with and this briefing is familiar and makes me comfortable. They discuss every manoeuvre that is to be practiced and contingencies should there be an unplanned event.
As one would expect, the inside of the aircraft is pristine and looks like new. In the rear, it has been restored to almost the same condition it would have been when it left the factory in the 1940s. The flight deck is a different matter. Upgrades in this area include a GPS, new transponders with ADS-B, and radios.
We start as a formation of five aircraft and taxi for individual departures in the early morning sun with thousands standing by to watch and take pictures. I feel extremely privileged. The hum of the engines increases and we start to accelerate, before I know it the tail is up and we are now really gathering pace. Rather than the more familiar rotation of an airliner, the C-47 smoothly eases away from the earth and the gear is selected up.
Having flown in many military transport aircraft as both pilot and passenger, I was prepared for a noisy and bumpy ride as we departed Oshkosh to join the larger formation over the plains of Wisconsin. But the aircraft was surprisingly quiet and had very little vibration. Indeed, flying in the C130K was far less comfortable than this ride.
We departed towards Central Wisconsin Airport as a 5-ship formation and then the work began as the pilots brushed away the cobwebs of formation flying. As in any formation, the lead pilot provides the stability for the other aircraft to formate on that aircraft. The other pilots focus on watching a defined set of references that ensure they keep their designated position within the larger formation. This is a skill that requires practice, especially with larger aircraft where small changes in formation are exacerbated, often leading to a “wave” effect as each aircraft adjusts to the small inputs of the lead plane.
The C-47 is an exceptionally agile and stable platform on which to formate and it’s very responsive at higher speeds. Over the course of the morning, we practiced echelon formations, streams, and diamonds. Within a few hours, we were able to work on tighter formations and slick changes.
It was at this moment that we realized we would need to carry out one of the contingencies about which we’d been briefed. We were due to land at Central Wisconsin Airport, where the aircraft would recover and refuel and where they were also to be the guests of honor at a veterans event being held at the airport.
“Tico Bell,” one of the aircraft in the formation, was recovering and unable to get confirmation that its left gear was all the way down. As briefed, the remainder of the formation landed. But “That’s All Brother” joined “Tico Bell” to try to give visual reassurance that the gear was in fact down.
We carried out several visual inspections, getting very close to Tico Bell and using the expertise of the CAF pilots and engineers onboard our aircraft to offer advice. Despite several attempts, the hydraulic and manual lowering failed to over-centre the gear and lock it. With only a small amount of reserve fuel onboard, the aircraft was now in a critical situation and minutes away from an emergency landing.
As a last resort, the pilots elected to place the gear under the extreme “G Forces” of several severe pull up events. Thankfully, this resulted in the gear locking down and the aircraft was able to land safely with only a few minutes of fuel remaining.
The rest of the afternoon practice was uneventful and we returned to Oshkosh as a formation of 7 aircraft in stream to a rapturous welcome from the huge crowds.
It is rumoured that CAF has spent over $4M on the compete restoration of “That’s All Brother” but they go to great lengths to emphasize that the historical significance of this aircraft is priceless.
That’s All Brother will lead the C-47 formation over the coast of France once again this June , nearly 75 years to the day after it made its first journey. I feel extremely privileged to have been given the opportunity to be a small part of its journey.