Vintage WWII war plane stops in Steamboat on way to Wisconsin airshow
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Pilot Barry Fait took off from Yampa Valley Regional Airport on Friday morning, in a vintage Douglas C-47 war bird named Virginia Ann, for a sentimental flight to South Dakota on his way to Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The Virginia Ann was headed for the annual AirVenture Oskosh, featuring vintage, experimental and exotic aircraft.
The civilian version of the C-47 is the DC-3, which was flown for many years after the war by airlines and cargo haulers.
In 2013, the Steamboat Pilot & Today shared the story of Moose Barrows, another legendary airman and part-time Steamboat resident, who flew a DC-3. Barrows described how he was flying over Mount Werner in 1981 with the late Paul Poberezny when one of the two engines on their DC-3 failed.
Fait, a part-time Steamboat Springs resident, owns the plane that has historic significance as one of 400 similar planes that took off for Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during World War II. Fait most often flew this specific aircraft during the war in Europe.
“To be fair, any pilot has a fascination with these airplanes,” Fait said. “I’m just the present curator of a plane that’s had a lot of history. This one was built in 1943 in time for D-Day.”
The Virginia Ann was one of the planes that delivered American soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division behind the German fortifications on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, Fait said. It was Lt. Col. Willis Mitchell who flew the Virginia Ann across the English Channel to France on D-Day and only on that day.
Yampa Valley Regional Airport Director Kevin Booth, a retired military pilot, confirmed that Mitchell was leading a 31-ship formation of C-47s carrying the 2nd Battalion of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. The actual parachute drop occurred at 2:32 a.m. on D-Day.
Mitchell received a Purple Heart in acknowledgement of the wounds he suffered on the mission, and he didn’t fly the plane again, Fait said.
Fait’s stop in South Dakota was planned to drop-in on the son of the pilot who flew the Virginia Ann most often during the war in Europe.
The long flight is well within the aircraft’s range.
“I get well over 1,000 miles (on a load of fuel). It’s more a question of how long you want to sit there,” Fait said. The airplane “tops out at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. You feel a lot more turbulence. We don’t bother with oxygen.”
Anyone who wants to experience a vicarious but visceral facsimile to what it must have been like in the aircraft as it crossed into France that fateful morning can find it in one of the early openings of Band of Brothers.
For Fait, the satisfaction he derives from flying the old plane comes from the connection to the pilots and paratroopers who went to war in it.
It’s not the thrill of flying it,” Fait said. “The thrill comes with thinking about the ghosts. The 507 had one of highest rates of casualties. You can’t help but feel eery flying (the Virginia Ann). It starts you thinking about the 19- and 20-year-olds who flew in it.”
That’s part of the reason Fait is already looking forward to D-Day celebrations in 2019, when he hopes his plane will be among about 23 whose pilots are currently intending to return to Normandy to recall that fateful day in June.
“It’s probably the last big celebration for that event,” Fait said.
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in June after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.
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