Betsy to Heavens

The Douglas DC-3 is universally recognized as the greatest airplane of its time, and many would argue it’s the greatest airplane of all time. The all-metal low-wing monoplane was the height of luxury when it entered service in 1936 with American Airlines. And by the end of the decade, 90% of airline passengers were flying on a DC-2 or a DC-3. In fact, the DC-3 was the first airplane in history to make money simply by flying people.

When World War II broke out, the DC-3 was quickly adopted by the military as the C-47 Skytrain (the British called it the Dakota). Major differences included a strengthened floor and a large cargo door. Douglas built more than 10,000 C-47s at its Southern California and Oklahoma City plants. A number of civilian DC-3s were pressed into military service as well.

During the war, the C-47 was indispensable. It’s perhaps best known for its role on D-Day, when an aircraft named “That’s All, Brother” led more than 800 C-47s in the largest seaborne invasion in history. The planes dropped thousands of paratroopers on the beaches of Normandy, beginning the liberation of France.

“That’s All, Brother” is one of roughly 100 DC-3/C-47 aircraft still flying today. In fact, it was the first one I ever set foot on. Back in September 2020, the famous airplane — operated by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Central Texas Wing — paid a visit to Spirit of St. Louis Airport on its way to Washington, D.C., for the flyover commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. 

I’ve been fortunate to catch a couple other C-47s in flight over the years, including one used for aerial imaging and even one of the famous Basler BT-67 turboprop conversions. But I knew…. I just knew that one day I wanted to fly in one myself.

Well, that day finally came last month in beautiful Auckland, New Zealand. I had been in Australia for almost three months on a work assignment to learn about Boeing’s nearly 100 years of heritage in the country. My husband Scott flew out to meet me on the tail end of the trip, and the two of us ventured to New Zealand for a brief  vacation before returning to the U.S.

I had done a bit of research on scenic flights around Auckland, and when I found Fly DC-3 New Zealand, I knew it was “the one.” Of course, the fact that we were going to fly on a commercial aviation time capsule was reason enough to book this particular flight, but when we got to know the couple who runs the operation… that was just the icing on the cake (let’s make it a vanilla slice).

Geoff Cooper is the airplane’s chief pilot. The retired Air New Zealand Boeing 777 captain used to fly the C-47 with the Royal New Zealand Air Force. His wife, Jessica, leads the cabin crew — the same job she did years ago, also with Air New Zealand. And let me tell you… they do everything right.

Passengers start their experience by walking into an authentic World War II hangar at Ardmore Airport, about 30 minutes southeast of Auckland. There they are greeted by cabin crew dressed in 1940s style uniforms with music from the era playing and nostalgic artifacts on display. They enjoy coffee and snacks while listening to a preflight briefing, then step outside the hangar and onto the tarmac, where beautiful Betsy awaits. 

One of more than 5,000 C-47s built by Douglas in Oklahoma City, Betsy entered service with the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1944. In 1959, the plane was delivered to Philippines Airlines where it remained for more than a decade. In the 1970s and 1980s, it flew with a variety of Australian airlines before coming to New Zealand in 1987.

Today, Betsy wears the beautiful colors of the Royal New Zealand Air Force No. 42 squadron and is just about the closest thing to a time machine that exists in the world today. I had been looking forward to this flight for at least 6 months, so when the day finally arrived, I was over the moon with excitement.

The morning of the flight, Geoff and Jessica kindly offered to pick me and Scott up from our hotel, since we didn’t have a car. When we arrived at Ardmore, it was rather dreary — gray skies, misty and hovering around 60 degrees — but that didn’t matter. To me, Betsy shone brighter than the sun.

We got to watch the pilots do all their checks and Scott even rode along for the engine run-up. Then we were given free rein — it was time to go shutter crazy. Passengers began arriving about an hour before the flight. You could feel the excitement within the hangar once everyone had arrived. With close to 30 passengers, it was a full flight.

We boarded and got a safety briefing, and before we knew it we were ready to go. By that time, the sun had begun to peek through the clouds — it was a seemingly perfect day. The two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines purred as we taxied and roared as we powered down the runway. Seeing the prop vortices from inside the plane was one of the coolest aviation-related experiences I’ve had to-date.

When we lifted off the ground, it was sheer magic. To simultaneously defy gravity and travel back in time… what more could an airplane enthusiast / aviation historian ask for? Unfortunately, Betsy’s main landing gear wouldn’t retract, meaning our flight was cut short. But to be honest, that didn’t matter to me one bit. The most important thing is that we landed safe and sound. Plus, we still got to experience the flight of a lifetime.

To Geoff and Jessica… words can’t express how grateful I am to have met the two of you and to experience flight in your beautiful bird. I will always look back fondly on that morning when Betsy took us away from the real world, and up to the heavens.

3 thoughts on “Betsy to Heavens”

  1. Great article about a great airplane.
    I , too have flown on this DC3….great memorable experience.
    Hope you made it down the the Air Force museum in Christchurch…. They have one of the RNZAF VIP DC3s in their display hangar…. Which co incidentally, I had the privilege to fly for a bit from the right seat in the mid 1970s when I was in the Air Cadets (ATC) and the aircraft made a trip through Rotorua where our ATC squadron was based.


  2. There are also several static DC3s displayed around NZ…. the McDonalds DC3 in Taupo, the Cookie Time one in Mangaweka …. Both of which you could lunch onboard and “ pretend “ you were flying…… and an agricultural DC3 in Rukahia , near Hamilton…converted for aerial application of super phosphate fertilizer in the rolling hill country.
    The DC3 / C47 had a strong presence in the NZ aviation scene.


  3. Absolutely beautiful! The video is an especially lovely touch. (The one that caused me to proclaim “Oh, that’s [redacted] beautiful!” aloud.) I’ve gotten the great fortune to have some really unusual transportation experiences over the years, and your ride on the glorious Gooneybird absolutely looks like one of them. Sticking that on my bucket list in the sooner rather than latter slot. Thank you for sharing this! 🙂


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