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.
Last August, Sentimental Journey – a beautifully restored and meticulously maintained Boeing B-17G – made a stop in Seattle as part of its 2022 summer tour. I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with the crew during their weeklong stay at Boeing Field, and even got to tag along on the flight up to Arlington, Washington. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime experience! As expected, the flight was incredible… but it was seeing the countless volunteers use this piece of living history to honor, educate and inspire, that really left a lasting mark on me.
Sentimental Journey was built by Douglas Aircraft Co. in 1944 and today is one of the top attractions at Airbase Arizona, the 10th unit of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). Formed in 1978 and based at Mesa’s historic Falcon Field, Airbase Arizona today ranks as one of the largest CAF units in the world. In addition to its seven flying warbirds, Airbase Arizona is home to a world-renowned museum housing roughly a dozen combat aircraft, hundreds of artifacts and countless stories.
Imagine my delight when the unit invited me to speak at their annual awards banquet in January. That in and of itself was so exciting, but when I learned that the banquet would be taking place the same weekend as ground school, it was a done deal. CAF members from all over the U.S. travel to Arizona for this yearly training, which is mandatory for the pilots and crew who operate the airplanes, but open to all members. I knew I’d be in for a weekend full of learning, networking and most of all… fun.
My husband Scott and I arrived in Phoenix late Friday morning and spent the afternoon exploring the city. That evening, we headed over to Airbase Arizona, where the first thing I noticed was the unit’s C-47, Old Number 30, resting out on the tarmac. The airplane is painted in a stunning desert camo, and since we arrived during peak golden hour, it was as though the sun was a spotlight shining exclusively on the iconic warbird.
We then made our way to the maintenance hangar where dozens of people had gathered for a barbecue. The smell of burgers and brats permeated the air, and the huge building reverberated with laughter and conversation. I immediately spotted Sentimental Journey in the middle of the hangar where it was undergoing routine maintenance. I made a full circle around the bomber – it was surrounded by all types of tools and equipment and was missing its number four engine. It was odd seeing it in such a vulnerable state. We then made our way toward the back of the hangar to see the unit’s N2S-3 Stearman and SNJ (T-6) Texan before heading back outside to get a closer look at the C-47 and the B-25, Maid in the Shade. We stuck around for another hour or so, catching up with old friends and making plenty of new ones, before turning in for the night.
On Saturday morning, I got my first look at the museum, which is adjacent to the maintenance hangar we had been in the night before. Featuring more than a century of aviation history inside a 30,000-square-foot hangar, it was quite impressive. I was fortunate to get a behind-the-scenes tour with an incredibly knowledgeable docent, and was then “set free” to explore on my own and go shutter-crazy with my camera. The whole facility was bustling – the museum with visitors and the maintenance hangar with all of the crew in town for training. Scott spent the first half of the day hiking, and the two of us reconvened that afternoon for a little R&R before returning to the museum for the awards ceremony.
Just seeing the podium where I’d be speaking nearly brought tears to my eyes, as the backdrop was a massive floor-to-ceiling (and we’re talking tall, hangar-height ceiling!) picture of “5 Grand” – the 5,000th B-17 built after Pearl Harbor. What’s funny is that I actually had a photo of “5 Grand” in my presentation, though luckily it wasn’t the same one. Earlier in the afternoon I had noticed all the tables and chairs set up for the event. Of course, at that time all the seats had been empty, so it looked pretty unintimidating. However, that evening as folks started to trickle in and seats began to fill up,reality set in… I was about to get up there and tell my story to 120 people. All at once I was overcome with excitement, energy, confidence and a healthy amount of nervousness.
The story I told began with how I got into aviation. I talked about how my parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the 1980s, and how my dad served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 30 years. I talked about my “Aha!” moment in 2016 when I was walking near MSP airport and an airplane took off right over my head, and I suddenly became hooked. I talked about my love of storytelling and how I started The Great Planes and eventually landed a job with The Boeing Company. I talked about our team, Historical Services, and the great work we do and the incredible value we bring to our stakeholders. And then, last but certainly not least, I spent most of my time talking about my journey with the Commemorative Air Force over the past few years, focusing on my most recent experience with Airbase Arizona and Sentimental Journey.
The presentation went wonderfully. And just as I was stepping down from the podium, my friend Mike Garrett, tour director at Airbase Arizona, called me back up there to present me with a beautiful scale model of Sentimental Journey. It was such a special moment, and one I won’t soon forget.
Afterwards, I got to chat with so many people… some simply thanked me for my talk, others told me about their deep family roots at Boeing. Some were mechanics and some were pilots. There were older folks and plenty of younger ones, too. Many were local to Arizona, but quite a few people had flown in from other parts of the country. In fact, I met one gentleman who was visiting from the U.K. – talk about dedication! Despite our different jobs, our varying ages and our diverse stories, there was one common denominator: our passion for aviation history.
One of the last people I spoke to that evening was Brian Churchill, the pilot who flew “Sentimental Journey” on the Seattle to Arlington flight I took last summer. I had mentioned him during my presentation, as his family is inextricably linked to that airplane. Both his brother, Dale, and his late father, Dick, had flown it. In fact, Dick was on the crew that brought the bomber up to Seattle in 1985 for the B-17’s 50th anniversary.
Brian said he enjoyed my presentation, and asked what Scott and I had planned for Sunday. I told him we were going to drive down to Tucson early in the morning to visit Pima Air & Space Museum and Saguaro National Park. He casually responded with, “Oh… I was going to see if you wanted to go for a fly in the T-6.” My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. “Why are you doing this to me?” I asked.
In retrospect, I probably could have toned down the emotion and responded with a bit more grace, but I couldn’t help but stress over the unthinkable dilemma I was suddenly faced with: stick to our original plans, knowing Scott was really looking forward to seeing Saguaro, or toss those plans out the window and go for the flight of a lifetime. “I can’t,” I told him. “I really, really wish I could… but I can’t.” Brian said he’d take me up next time I was in town, and we parted ways.
Before leaving the museum, Scott and I chatted for a bit with Mike and his wife Thayer. Mike worked at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing for more than 35 years and was my first point of contact last spring when I learned that Sentimental Journey would be coming to Seattle that summer. He and I met in person for the first time last July at Georgetown Brewing just north of Boeing Field. He told me all about Airbase Arizona and the incredible history of “Sentimental Journey,” and provided me some helpful reading material so I could get up to speed on this impressive warbird I was going to fly on a few months from then. Mike is incredibly knowledgeable, which I suppose is to be expected since he is an aerospace engineer. He held some very high ranks at Boeing, retiring as Director of Commercial Airplane Aviation Security. In addition to his work at Airbase Arizona, he serves as a docent at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where he lives during the summer months.
When “Sentimental Journey” was up here last August, I was able to reconnect with Mike and had the pleasure of meeting Thayer. The two of them are so kind and were hugely helpful to me as I worked to get “all the shots” I wanted of the B-17. And during our time in Arizona, the two of them made us feel right at home. While the four of us were chatting that evening, I casually mentioned Brian’s offer and everyone (even Scott!) told me I absolutely had to do it. Just about an hour after I had sadly declined his offer, I reached out to Brian to ask if the offer still stood. It did.
We returned to Falcon Field the next morning, except this time we were headed to one of the famous World War II hangars. Falcon Field was formed in 1941 as the No. 4 British Flight Training School (BFTS). Roughly 2,500 British pilots trained there, as did many American pilots. They’d typically start out in the rugged Stearman PT-17 biplane before progressing to the Vultee BT-13 or the North American Aviation AT-6 (“Texan” to Americans and “Harvard” to the British). Sadly, 23 Royal Air Force pilots died in training accidents during the four years the school was operational, but their legacies live on today thanks to nonprofit organizations like the Wings of Flight Foundation.
Formed in 2007 by Brian and his brother Dale, Wings of Flight is dedicated to preserving the history of the No. 4 BFTS. They maintain and fly a number of World War II airplanes and work to promote and educate others on the importance of what took place at Falcon Field in the early 1940s. Their hangar is awe-inspiring, with two T-6 trainers, a P-51 Mustang, and multiple Stearman biplanes, among other aircraft. And dotted all along the walls are historical photos and informational placards describing the airfield’s history. I walked the length of the hangar several times – I was like a kid in a candy store.
Before I knew it, I was standing with Brian on the tarmac next to his AT-6C, which was beautifully painted in South African colors. It was about 60 degrees outside, with blue skies and bright sunshine – a perfect day for a fly. When Brian told me we’d do a “couple rolls,” I honestly thought he was joking. He wasn’t, as I later found out. We got inside, put our headsets on and Brian started up the engine. We taxied to the end of the runway, then Brian said, “Here we go!” Before I knew it, we had sped down the runway and gently lifted off the ground. We made an incredible turn right over Airbase Arizona, where I saw a decent crowd of people looking up and waving at us.
We continued out into the mountains and Brian said, “You want to fly for a bit?” I quickly and nervously responded, “No… thank you, though.” Then a voice inside me said, “Annie, are you CRAZY?” I got back on the headset and said, “Actually, yes I want to fly!” My feet were too far from the rudder pedals, so I was only using the stick, but boy was that fun. After making a few turns, Brian took over the controls again and I began mentally preparing myself for these… “rolls.”
Brian said it would be so gentle, that if I were holding a glass of water, it probably wouldn’t even spill. And to my surprise, he was right! We did the first roll and I just laughed and laughed and laughed… it was so fun. We did another, and another, and another, for a total of four. I was having the time of my life, and in that moment I got a bit sentimental and really couldn’t believe how far I’d come.
Believe it or not, just seven or eight years ago I was terrified of flying. The phobia came about after a traumatic encounter with severe turbulence a few years earlier, and it just got worse and worse. In fact, it had gotten so bad that a single bump would put me in hysterics. I’d cry almost uncontrollably and start looking around the airplane to see how everyone else was reacting to the fact that we were most certainly “going down.” I had to do something. And that’s when, perhaps by some divine intervention, I had my “Aha!” moment in Minneapolis. I started counseling for my anxiety and began immersing myself in all things flight – hanging out at the airport, reading books, watching documentaries… the list goes on. Before I knew it I had gone from afraid, to unafraid, to unabashedly obsessed with flight. I started flying at every opportunity… in big planes and small planes and yes, in recent years even in World War II bombers. And now here I was in 2023, in the backseat of a 1941 T-6 doing barrel rolls.
That evening on the flight back to Seattle, I got a little emotional. Our time in Arizona was just fantastic, but it went by much too quickly. I wasn’t ready to leave. But the good news is, that wasn’t “goodbye,” it was just, “see ya later.” I’m so grateful to the Commemorative Air Force and to Airbase Arizona for providing me this opportunity. Being able to speak to such a distinguished crowd was both thrilling and humbling. A special thanks to Mike and Thayer, too, for your overwhelming kindness and for making me feel right at home in Arizona. And to Brian, your selflessness and the work you’re doing at Wings of Flight is so inspiring. And I’m so glad I took you up on that offer. And to all the other dedicated and passionate individuals I had the pleasure of meeting at Airbase Arizona that weekend, thank you for all that you do.
It hit me when I was driving home from Everett yesterday. Southbound on I-5, I was just passing Boeing Field in Seattle when I suddenly felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. I gasped for air as my mind began to race… it was like my brain was a film reel playing nearly 60 years of history at lightning speed. My lip quivered, my brow furrowed and I started sobbing.
Just an hour earlier, I watched the 1,574th and final 747 lift off into the sunrise with its new owner, Atlas Air. I photographed it all… pushback, engine startup, the water cannon salute, taxi, takeoff, and the grand finale: a low pass that ended with a pronounced wing wave as she climbed and climbed, growing smaller and smaller, before fading away into the morning sky.
Over the past couple months, I’ve attended all of the major milestones for this very special airplane: rollout, high speed taxi test, first flight, return from paint, delivery ceremony and flyaway. Even before that, I visited the Everett factory on numerous occasions to watch the plane being assembled. I touched it. I stood inside it. And throughout it all, I maintained an almost stoic demeanor. I was aware of the history I was bearing witness to, but for reasons still unknown to me, I was practically emotionless.
Up until yesterday, there was always a “next” milestone. But, like a ton of bricks, it hit me. I suddenly realized there wasn’t anything left. The 747 had become a legacy airplane program, and our job at Boeing was – for all intents and purposes – done. I lost it.
I’m often guilty of “golden age thinking” – a notion that’s outlined in one of my favorite movies, “Midnight in Paris.” It’s the belief that an earlier time period was better than the one one’s living in today. For me, that usually means the 1930s or the 1960s – both have unique elements of glamour and simplicity. Don’t get me wrong, I am more than content with my life and firmly believe that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, but I actually find it strangely satisfying to “reminisce” about the days of yore, even when those bygone times aren’t ones I myself actually lived in.
Those who know me well, know that I’m an emotional person. But as a historian, I think that actually works in my favor. I become so attached to different stories – the 747, for example – that they become a part of me. It’s like they’re my own memories – things I lived, not things I learned.
I can hear the legendary Joe Sutter pleading for more engineers after Boeing executives asked him to cut 1,000 from his team. I feel the energy, the drive and the determination of all 50,000 Incredibles, working around-the-clock and stubbornly refusing to leave the factory. I can smell the dust, hear the machinery and feel the vibrations of new construction as the world’s largest building takes shape around me. Some people know the promise this airplane holds, but most don’t understand the profound impact it will have on aviation… on humanity. I am there, watching the first 747 come to life.
I’m eternally grateful to everyone who came before me… those who designed and built the airplane, and those who documented the history, preserved the artifacts and told (and retold) the stories. I’m so proud and honored to be part of the team tasked with carrying forth this truly incredible legacy, and can assure you I’ll do my very best to do this story justice for decades to come. To the legendary Queen of the Skies: Our world shrunk and our hearts grew because of you.
On July 28, 2022, Ukrainians celebrated “Statehood Day” as a national holiday for the first time. Coinciding with the holiday, Ukrainian aircraft designer, manufacturer and service company Antonov announced the naming of nine aircraft to honor the heroism and resilience of the Ukrainian people following the invasion by Russia earlier that year. The aircraft involved include seven An-124s, one An-128, one An-158 and one An-178, all of which are named after fallen cities.
The An-124 Ruslan has been a frequent visitor to Paine Field Airport in Everett, Washington, as of late, where it’s been delivering large parts to The Boeing Company. The planes have typically flown in before dawn, quickly unloaded their cargo, and departed mid-morning. However, one of the massive freighters flew in mid-afternoon yesterday during some outstanding winter light. It was on the ground 2-3 hours and departed just before sunset. And let me tell you… our local community of aviation enthusiasts showed up in full force.
Yesterday’s aircraft was UR82008, “Be Brave Like Okhtyrka.” And while these large Ukrainian jets have always been known to draw a crowd, there’s something different now that the country and its people and their freedom have been attacked. To all Ukrainians: your bravery is nothing short of awe-inspiring.