May 9, 2019, © Leeham News: D-Day is June 6, 1944. The start of the Berlin Air Lift is June 24, 1948.
The Historic Flight Foundation (HFF), located at Paine Field, Saturday afternoon embarks on a multi-week trip from Paine to England in its historic Douglas DC-3.
The trip includes 54 flying hours, event and rest stops along the way and rendeveouing with 30 more DC-3s/C-47s, D-Day events in France and Air Lift events in Berlin.
HFF’s DC-3 didn’t participate in the European theatre of war, but it is an historical airplane. It was in the Pacific theatre, operated by CNAC, a Chinese airline in which Pan American World Airways had a financial interest. The airplane is decked out in period Pan Am colors.
For HFF founder John Sessions, this trip is especially significant. He was nearly killed in the crash of another HFF plane he was piloting last August at the Abbottsford Air Show. His left leg was amputated below the knee.
Now fitted with a prosthetic lower leg and foot, Sessions returned to flight status just a week ago after going through flight testing, including on the DC-3.
HFF will hopscotch across the upper US to Oxford (CT), where it will meet other DC-3s and C-47s (the Army designation) heading to Europe.
While in Oxford, final training for the trans-Atlantic flights and airplane checks will be performed. The formation of transports will follow the wartime route to Prestwick, Scotland and Duxford, England. Stops along the way will be in Goose Bay and Greenland.
In England, more DC-3s and C-47s will join up until there are about 30 in total, Sessions tells LNA. This is the largest collection of these aircraft in decades.
After going to France for D-Day ceremonies, the group will fly to Berlin for celebrations for the Berlin Air Lift.
The Air Lift began June 24, 1948, after the Soviet Union blockaded ground access to the wartime Germany capital. After World War II, Germany was partitioned, with England, France, the US and the Soviet Union taking over parts of the country. Berlin was also partitioned. Access was through the Soviet sector of the country.
Soviet Premier Marshall Stalin figured that by blockading Berlin, withholding food, coal and suppliers from West Berliners, the Western Allies would withdraw, turning all of Berlin over to the Soviets.
Stalin misread the resolve of President Harry S Truman, France and the UK, and the resolve of the West Berliners.
For the next 11 months, the Western Allies flew a steady stream of transports and cargo aircraft into the besieged city. In the end, Stalin blinked and withdrew the blockade.
Preparing HFF’s DC-3, its crew, members and passengers, was no small undertaking.
“For the plane, we analyzed the risk,” Sessions said. “The one area where we thought we might be a little prone to failure was the carburetors. When the plane was restored, the engines and accessories were taken to zero time. The carbs were not. These have an old style diaphragm that were prone to failure. We overhauled them.”
HFF is taking its own spares, including relays, generators, starters and each kind of cylinder the ancient Pratt & Whitney engines require. Authorized mechanics are making the trip to fix the airplane en route if something fails.
“We have have tools to make key repairs. We made a kit of all kinds of fasteners,” Sessions said. “We will join many other airplanes with a high level of talent, so there should not be a problems. We will train at Oxford for four days and more at Goose Bay before heading for Greenland.” Iceland is also an intermediary stop.
The group of airplanes with their passengers and crew will be over the Atlantic for hours. Piston engine flying, as well as instrumentation, is far different than today’s advanced jets and avionics. The people need to be ready for anything, including ditchings.
They will undergo survival training, using emergence suits, life preservers and kits and egress of airplane, Sessions said. There will be proactive formation flying training as well.
Once in Europe, the group will engage in wartime events, such as parachute drops, ceremonies and speeches. David Hamilton, the only surviving US pathfinder from D-Day, will be on the trip.
After completing D-Day events, the group leaves June 9 for Berlin. Unfortunately this large number of DC-3s/C-47s will not be participating in the Paris Air Show, which begins June 17.
One of the Berlin airports that was key to the Air Lift, Templehoff, has been closed—much to the chagrin of historians. Sessions says there are hopes the Berlin authorities will reopen Templehoff for this event. Otherwise Tegal Airport, the other key Air Lift field, will have to suffice.
For Sessions, this series of events is a milestone.
In August, he was piloting a de Havilland Rapide, a twin-engine biplane that was an early passenger airliner which had been restored in 2017 and acquired by HFF. Four passengers were aboard for a ride in the historic aircraft.
Just after liftoff, a major gust of wind caused the wing to tip into the ground. The plane crash. The cockpit was crushed.
Sessions stumbled out an applied his own belt as a tourniquet to his left leg. His foot had been severed in the crash. His quick action probably saved his life on the scene. Complications from his injuries a few weeks later nearly took his life.
His passengers suffered varying degrees of injuries, but all survived.
Sessions’ spirit never wavered, however. He told friends via Facebook posts of his plans to return to piloting as soon as possible.
His is not a unique circumstance. Others who lost limbs returned to licensed flying. Session did, too, after a battery of psychological and physical tests. His final check ride, just last week, included an engine-out scenario on the DC-3 in which he had to stomp the rudder with his left leg with prosthesis.
He was cleared to be a pilot in command.