Inland aviation buffs restore D-Day plane just in time for Normandy re-enactment
Rachel Rose recalled the day her husband Steve was asked to fly a World War II-era plane named the D-Day Doll this June during the 75th-anniversary celebration of D-Day.
“He said his heart almost stopped. He couldn’t believe it,” Rose said. “I’m just really thrilled for him. This is history.”
Moments earlier, the C-53D Skytrooper twin-engine troop transport had taken off from Riverside Municipal Airport on Wednesday, May 8, launching a weeks-long tour of the United States and Europe. More than 40 family members, friends and military-aviation fans watched “the Doll” leave.
“Listen to the music of those engines,” said Chris Clarke of Rialto. “Isn’t that the sweetest sound?”
Clarke is director of the World War II Southern California Aviation Museum, which is operated by the Inland Empire Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. The wing has been prepping the 76-year-old war bird for the occasion.
As the olive-green aircraft sporting the logo of a woman strapping on a parachute rose above the runway, chief pilot Steve Rose, 66, of Anaheim Hills and copilot Bill Prosser, 64, of Murrieta, steered right and headed for Tucson, Arizona.
The plane — which dropped paratroopers during the historic June 6, 1944 operation — was due to make several stops on the way to France, said Prosser, the wing leader. It was scheduled to visit Kansas City, Missouri, Louisville, Kentucky, Dayton, Ohio, and Oxford, Connecticut, before crossing the Atlantic to England later this month.
On the afternoon of June 5, the day before the actual anniversary, the plane will join other historic aircraft from North America and Great Britain and fly across the British Channel. They will team up in a D-Day re-enactment featuring people parachuting over Normandy, Prosser said.
“We’re taking her back,” he said. “We decided that it deserved to go back to where it fought, in its own right, for the freedoms that we enjoy today.”
About 250 jumpers are expected to take part in that re-enactment, with about 20 hopping out of the D-Day Doll.
That wasn’t the plane’s original name.
“We don’t know what its name was back then, if it had a name,” Prosser said. “But we know that she did three missions that day.”
The plane dropped paratroopers in two missions, he said. In the third, the plane pulled a glider filled with Army troops that landed behind German lines.
Rose said he expects to get goose bumps thinking about the reenactment of the drop.
With “all the other airplanes ahead of you, the paratroopers coming out, I just imagine that it’s just going to be a thrill, one of those things that happen only once in a lifetime,” Rose said.
“This was exactly what they did in the war — except we’re not getting shot at,” he said.
Brian Wiswell, 59, of Murrieta, a member of the Oklahoma-based WWII Airborne Demonstration Team, is among those who will be jumping.
Wiswell said a “static line” connected to a cable inside the plane will trigger chutes as jumpers step out the door 1,000 to 1,500 feet above the ground. He said they will jump in what was a British drop zone during the war, an area of farm fields near the city of Caen.
Wiswell has made 63 jumps in his life, but this likely will top them all.
“It’s a pretty unique experience,” he said.
Inland Empire Wing member Randy Kim, 70, of San Bernardino, is going to miss that part.
“I would have loved to see all the paratroopers come out,” Kim said.
But, he said, “We’ll catch up with the Doll the next day at Caen.”
Kim said the plane will be on display several days, and he will fly with D-Day Doll as she tours Europe the next few weeks.
“I couldn’t pass that up,” said the Vietnam War vet who served 22 years in the Air Force.
While it is important to remember sacrifices World War II veterans made, it’s also important to remember contributions of the winged workhorses, said Clarke, the museum director.
“That plane is a veteran, too,” Clarke said. “She deserves to go.”
But sending her to the 75th anniversary was no small commitment, requiring an engine overhaul and myriad other repairs.
Prosser, a retired airline pilot, said the wing has raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We went through an extensive restoration starting about two years ago to get it ready for Normandy,” Prosser said. “She’s been repainted to the paint config that she was in 75 years ago.”
Before Wednesday’s takeoff, Prosser showed a visitor the plane’s interior. Upon entering, he pointed and said, “18-year-old kids went out that door.”
Then Prosser showed off the cockpit.
“This is her as she was in 1944,” he said.
The big exception to the original metal and mechanical instruments, he said, was a pair of plastic boxes containing modern GPS navigational equipment.
Prosser said the plane is 68 feet long with a 95-foot wingspan, can hold 800 gallons of fuel and has a range of 8 hours. It flies 150 mph to 160 mph.
The C-53D Skytrooper was built for the Army Air Corps by Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica in July 1943.
The Inland Empire Wing obtained the plane in 2001.
“At that time, would you have ever dreamed that this thing would be going back to Normandy?” Clarke asked.
“No,” replied Steve Robb of Riverside, a wing volunteer.
Clarke said he had one word to describe the upcoming adventure: “Incredible.”
As the time drew near to launch the adventure, pilots and crew members hugged and kissed loved ones, then climbed aboard “the Doll.” Ground crews spun the engines one at a time, each spewing a cloud of blue-gray smoke as it appeared to clear its throat.
Robb said he just loves old planes.
“They cough. They spit out fire,” he said. “They have personality.”