Where Honest Vision Was Born

We’d traveled to Santa Monica on the day before, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the DC-3’s first flight. Because the weather on the actual day, December 17, 2010, threatened low clouds and rain, we planned to fly with a friend in Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, a C-47 based in Paso Robles, on the afternoon of the 16th, from the Santa Monica Airport at 3:30 pm, to match the time that Carl Cover first took a Douglas Sleeper Transport to the skies in 1935.

But we had time to kill—a dangerous thing for a pilot crew—so I told my pals Dan and Matt that we’d drive down San Vicente Boulevard, so that we could see the house that Donald Douglas had designed and built, in 1927, for his family. Well, what we *could* see of it, hidden behind its long stucco walls.

We parked and walked along the sidewalk to the front gate, which had been braced with the Olde English style lamps that Doug favored. I peered through a crack…you couldn’t really see a thing from the road. “Should we see if anyone’s there?” said Dan. I hesitated. It never occured to me to ring the bell, to disturb whoever lived there. But it was early afternoon on a weekday—so in my mind, no one was likely to answer.

But someone did. And introducing himself as the house manager, the man asked what we wanted. Dan told him we were in town to celebrate the DC-3, that we knew the house as Doug’s own. And next thing we knew, the gate parted, opening onto a drive down which strolled Douglas, the kind estate manager, who offered to show us around.

I was stunned, not believing our luck. Jim Douglas, Doug’s son, had told me that he hadn’t seen inside the house since it was sold, following his parents’ divorce, in the mid 1950s.

We walked past the rose garden and around the back into the living room. The house was overjoyed with Christmas decorations, lending it a timeless, enchanted feeling. Douglas detailed the restoration work that the owner had completed—she was a native to the neighborhood, and most everything in the house was still original, as the only intermediate owner died without any money to remodel or fix things up.

He introduced us to the kitchen, the dining room, and the lounge, complete with its own pine-clad bar set into the wall. He showed us where the fallout shelter had been, and where Doug’s shop once stood—it was now an intimate movie theater, where once Doug had built models and tinkered with inventions with his children.

Finally, we stood in what had been Doug’s study, and I took in its somber, yet inviting warmth. I imagined his books lining the shelves—knowing that he kept special ones locked away in a hidden cupboard. I asked Douglas if he’d found it, and he smiled. Yes, and he showed us where it was—exactly where my eyes had been. It was the most logical place, but somehow, also, it made sense to me in a different way. I understood a little bit more that day about the man who led his company to create the DC-3.

He came home to his study each day during those years between 1932 and 1936, when the development of the Douglas Commercial line hit full stride, and came to a milestone with the entry into service of American’s first DST in 1936. Douglas had set out a leather-bound folder on the desk, with Doug’s initials (DWD) embossed in gilt on the front cover. Inside were a series of professional photos, shot dramatically in black and white—they were staged for an issue of Architectural Digest that neither Douglas nor I have been able to locate. These were used to help the owner restore the home to its period state.

But more so than that, they confirmed that where we stood resembled very closely the home in which Doug lived while the DC-3 came to life in the factory over in Santa Monica’s Clover Field municipal airport. I breathed in every bit of those rooms that I could, knowing that someday I would write more about this intriguing man’s life.

That was eight years ago, of course. So this year, I’m proud to wish a Happy 83rd Birthday to the DC-3, and raise a toast to 2018 during which that biography, “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story,” came to life.

The Douglas C-47 Miss Virginia at Oshkosh 2018. Photo by Stephen Yeates.

Happy 80th, Darla Dee

On October 29, 1938, a DC-3-227A, c/n 2054, rolled out of the Douglas Aircraft factory in Santa Monica, California, on a beautiful autumn day. Nothing of particular note on her entry into service–except for where she was bound. She’d soon be put on board the deck of a ship bound for Antwerp, Belgium, where she’d be reassembled and put into flying condition. Reborn as HB-IRO, she’d fly for Swiss Air until the war shadowed Europe and she detailed to that effort.

Her early life, for Swiss Air, as HB-IRO

After World War II, she returned to the United States, where she flew as a corporate transport, until Ozark Airlines snapped her up in the late 1950s, and christened her “N143D.” She flew around the Midwest for several years, until she retired from airline flying in 1968. Academy Airlines, a cargo operation in Griffin, Georgia, put her back to work in the 1970s and 80s, and she trained new pilots to the joys of large tailwheel flying–and the life of the freight dog.

N143D during her days flying cargo for Academy Airlines

Since 2001, she’s had an easier life, back to training full time, then, beginning in the summer of 2017, providing lift for skydivers in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She visits airshows from time to time, sponsored by Gold Seal Ground Schools–but her favorite thing has to be showing kids what flying history looks like. You can read more about her story in “Together We Fly: Voices From The DC-3,” and more about how Donald Douglas led the team that developed the Douglas Commercial aircraft line in “Honest Vision: The Donald Douglas Story.” Happy birthday, Darla Dee!

N143D showing a beautiful wing at Oshkosh 2017. Photo by David Parlee/ASA 2018

Museu do Ar: A Dakota For Portugal

A palpable sense of honor hangs in the air of the voluminous display hangar at the Sintra Air Base in Portugal. Just north of Lisbon, the air base hosts the nation’s air force training academy, as well as its flagship museum, the Museu do Ar (Museum of the Air, in Portuguese).

Within the main hangar and its neighbors, hundreds of noteworthy, historic, and inspiring aircraft stand waiting to help inform the curious—and the young—of the history of aviation in Portugal, and its influence on the world. Though those outside Portugal often equate its exploratory prowess with its efforts on the seas, its forays into the air—and the annals of history—began in the early days of aviation itself, and grew to prominence in the golden age of aviation, before World War II, and post-war, as Portugal used airplanes to tie together its former colonies in Africa.

You may not know, for example, that the Portuguese were among the first to cross the Atlantic—years before Lindbergh’s solo flight—as they sought passage to Brazil from Europe. In fact, the aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral made the first crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922, flying in segments from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro using three different Fairey III biplanes.

But among the museum’s proudest airplanes, looking over all of its fleet, my pick must be the Douglas C-47A Dakota. She forms the center of an exhibit that not only tells the airframe’s story, but also the story of TAP, the airline of Portugal, and those that flew her.

When a group of volunteers looked around for a Douglas DC-3 or its equivalent military model to restore in honor of TAP’s 70th anniversary in March 2015, they couldn’t find an example that had actually flown for the airline. All had been withdrawn from use or otherwise lost. Instead, the group found the C-47A used by the DGA (Direcção Geral de Aviação), the former authority governing aviation in Portugal. Its Douglas construction number, 19503, last carried the registration CS-DGA.

To reflect the dual purpose that the airplane would have in the museum, the group decided to give her two faces: one, the airmarkings of the DGA to suit her original mission, and the other, the classic TAP livery, to glorify the history of the airline. On the TAP side of her tail, she carries the registration CS-TDE to signify “Transporte” “Dakota” and “E,” the fifth letter of the alphabet, as she was refurbished to resemble the fifth airplane in the TAP fleet.

Inside and out, a team led by current TAP captain Carlos Tomaz bestowed great care on her refurbishment. Tomaz would dearly love to return her to flying status, but for now she serves as an educational platform and living part of history central to the museum. Periodically, the group hosts “Dakota Talks” to share stories from her past, and those of the other DC-3s and C-47s operated by Portuguese airlines, military, and governmental agencies.

The Dakota at the Museu do Ar in Sintra, Portugal, displays TAP vintage colors

For more information on the Vintage Aero Club and the Dakota restoration:



D-Day Squadron: 2018

Every airplane tells a story, both as you approach it, through its lines, its condition, its patina of paint, as well as in flight, by the weight of the cargo and mission it has borne.

Every airplane that flew during the Normandy Invasion, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, executing any number of the individual missions of the day, carried far more than that. They carried their men inside, whether pilot or maintenance chief, paratrooper or glider crew on a string. On board one of the Douglas C-47s that flew that day, even to this day, you can smell the sweat and the fear and the hope that this long shot would work.

Every airplane tells its own piece of a greater story. So to bring more than three dozen of them together for the 75th anniversary of that fateful day means more than just a sum of the logistics and collaboration, the pride and even vanity of accomplishing yet another transatlantic crossing in a classic warbird. That’s why, come 2019, the gathering will feature everyone’s collective effort, as C-47s such as Placid Lassie, operated by the D-Day Squadron (an arm of the Tunison Foundation based in Georgia), make the once—now twice–in-a-lifetime trip.

Daks Over Normandy staged a gathering of D-Day airplanes at Cherbourg in June 2013 to commemorate 70 years since the invasion. While poignant and well-received, the experience that the person on the ground and outside the airport fence could have with the airplanes and their crew lacked the engagement that the organizers hoped for. Restrictions at the French airfield made it nearly impossible for folks outside the flight crews to visit the airplanes, to see them up close, to smell, touch, and even taste the stories emanating from within.

To solve this missed opportunity, Daks Over Normandy and its partner organizations plan two parts to the 2019 event. The first will bring the North American based aircraft over the pond into Duxford, England, via the northern route, currently planned to depart from the Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut and fly via Presque Isle, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador; Bluie One West (now Narsarsuaq airfield, in Greenland); Reykjavik, Iceland;  Ireland, and then on into England. While lighter aircraft with less range make the crossing all the time, doing so requires not only a lot of investment ($75,000 to $100,000 per airplane) but also logistics such as staging enough avgas at Narsarsuaq to service the series of C-47s and DC-3s with their large fuel tanks. Even so, the participating airplanes will make the trip in flights of 3 to reduce the load on the single fuel truck stationed there.

The second event recreates the invasion itself, in modern form, with the aircraft departing the south of England for the Normandy coast on the eve of the anniversary itself for fly-bys and parachute drops in France over the following days. While in France this time, the aircraft will base out of Caen, and total 36 in number, including aircraft planning to come in from as far as South Africa.

Placid Lassie may be known to folks as Union Jack Dak, for the UK flag it wore on its fuselage following its initial  a few years back. In her wartime livery, she flew in all manner of operations in the European Theater during the war. She’ll be joined by Virginia Ann, a C-47 from California, a veteran of Market Garden as well, and the Liberty Foundation’s C-47 that was used to recover parts from Glacier Girl in Greenland’s ice—among many others.

The founders of the D-Day Squadron plan more events around and following the anniversary commemoration, starting with a formation flight near Manhattan prior to the crossing, and a visit to Berlin to honor those who served post-war in the Berlin Airlift. ”We’ll start in war and finish in peace,” said Eric Zipkin, chief pilot for the group. And, if all goes according to plan, about 10 of the airplanes will fly to Oshkosh 2019 to close the chapter—and continue the D-Day Squadron’s continuing mission of education and outreach. To this end, the D-Day Squadron is recruiting one veteran and one student from each of the 50 states to experience the D-Day flyover in France.

As we remember D-Day today, in 2018, preparations have long been underway for next year’s extravaganza. While the organization actively seeks sponsorship and likely has key players on board by the time you read this, you too can help to support their mission. Visit ddaysquadron.org for more information.