The invasion of Normandy, also known as D-day, was one of the most horrific days in history, but it was also the beginning of the end of a horrific war — World War II. Most of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who died on that day remain nameless in the history books. The same is true for the airplanes that led the heroic efforts.
The attacks came from several fronts on that fateful day, with ships dropping troops on the beaches of Normandy and airplanes deploying droves of people and ammunition from the skies. Once the war was over, most of those aircraft were destroyed or recommissioned, and their historic significance evaporated like the fuel that burned in their engines. Even some of the most notable airplanes fell into the shadows of the past.
There were many types of aircraft used in the massive attack on Normandy, as chronicled in the August 2014 issue of Flying by Robert Goyer, in his article “The Planes of D-day.” The first wave was, by many accounts, a group of more than 800 C-47s deployed from England shortly before midnight on June 5, 1944. The C-47 convoy dropped around 13,000 paratroopers from the skies in the early morning darkness on June 6. Leading the massive group of Dakotas was an airplane named That’s All, Brother, flown by Lt. Col. John M. Donalson, commander of the 87th Troop Carrier Squadron. Donalson had chosen the name as a message to Adolf Hitler that his tenure of tyranny was about to end.
After its service in the military, That’s All, Brother switched hands between about a dozen owners. It was modified to a DC-3 configuration and eventually dressed in a Vietnam-era paint scheme, says Joe Enzminger, from the Central Texas Wing, based in San Marcos, Texas, where That’s All, Brother calls home today. Its D-day history was all but forgotten. However, through a string of recent serendipitous events, this historic ship will once again return to Europe to lead a large formation of Dakotas from England to France next year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-day.
In 2007, That’s All, Brother was owned by Darrel Massman, of Waupaca, Wisconsin. Vintage-aircraft pilot Doug Rozendaal, who has flown DC-3s and C-47s for about 30 years, had trained the owner, but he had parked it for several years in Casa Grande, Arizona. Eventually, Massman sold the airplane to Basler Turbo Conversions at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The only trace of the airplane’s historical significance was its serial number: 42-92847.
Rozendaal and Massman ferried the plane from Arizona to Oshkosh and parked it outside Basler’s hangars. There, it was put in a boneyard and slated for a major turbine conversion.
“I flew the airplane in there not knowing the history of it, but still, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a little tear in the eye,” Rozendaal says. “I had flown the airplane quite a bit when Darrel owned it, and I thought, That’s the end of it. It will be chopped up and become a turbine.”
Basler’s turbine conversions take approximately 45,000 man-hours to complete, says Basler’s president Randy Myers. The old radial Wright Cyclone or Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines are swapped out for Pratt & Whitney PT6As, which are wrapped with composite nacelles and spin shiny new five-blade propellers. The fuselage is stretched, structural reinforcements are made, and the fuel, hydraulic and electrical systems are modified, among other things. At the completion of Basler’s STC’d conversion, the DC-3s and C-47s emerge as BT-67s.
Basler sells the turbine Dakotas for around $8 million, Myers says, with some variations depending on selected options. Many are put into special-use service by various government services domestically and internationally. Others are used for charter services, cargo and other private uses.
While the manufacturing of DC-3s and C-47s ended in the mid-1940s, Rozendaal claims that, for some applications, there is still nothing that compares to the converted heavy taildragger. “There is no other airplane out there that will do what a turbine DC-3 will,” Rozendaal says. “It’s a 200-knot cruise airplane that will hold 10 to 12,000 pounds with lots of cubes, and you can land it on gravel or snow with skis. It literally has no peers.”
Being such a major undertaking, Basler completes only about four BT-67s per year. Once an airplane is converted, there is no turning back; only about 30 percent of the original airplane remains, Myers says.
Somewhere around 10,000 DC-3s and C-47s rolled out of various Douglas factories in the 1940s, though no more than a couple hundred are flying today, by most estimates. Myers says there was no lack of conversion candidates at the time serial number 42-92847 arrived at Basler, and the airplane remained in the boneyard.
While the airplane awaited its new fate, U.S. Air Force historian Matt Scales inquired with Myers if serial number 42-92847 might be in his inventory. Scales was initially researching Donalson, the pilot, Enzminger says. Scales told Myers about the airplane’s history, and he sent some historical images of the airplane, but that’s as far as the discussion went at that time. Eventually, That’s All, Brother was slated for conversion.
But just before the conversion started, a local reporter who was working on a story about Wittman Regional Airport and its businesses contacted Myers. The call came shortly after Scales had sent the images, so Myers told the reporter: “There’s probably a better story to be told. It’s the airplane that was the lead plane into Normandy.” The reporter was easily convinced and published the article, including some of the images Scales had sent to Myers. “From there, the phones were blowing up all the time with people wanting to buy the airplane or donate to the airplane,” Myers says.
“It wouldn’t have been too much longer and we would have started taking that airplane apart,” Myers says. “We were probably within six months of disassembling the airplane. So it was perfect timing.”
One of the organizations that contacted Myers about That’s All, Brother was the Commemorative Air Force. The organization negotiated a deal with Basler in 2015 to make the airplane look like it did when it left the Douglas factory and began its trek over the Atlantic to Europe.
CAF volunteers often do a lot of the restoration work on their airplanes, and they do a terrific job. “Miss Mitchell was restored entirely by volunteers at the CAF Minnesota Wing, and it is an absolutely magnificent B-25,” says Rozendaal, who has been highly involved in CAF for years.
“That’s All, Brother could have very easily been cleaned up, and we could have done some work on the electrical system and started flying it,” Rozendaal says. “But we’re upping our game, I think that’s fair to say. If you look at the Red Tail P-51, or Fifi, or the CAF Southern California Wing B-25, they’re really nice airplanes.”
To completely restore That’s All, Brother before the 2019 anniversary would be an impossible feat with volunteers. Instead, a large amount of what many people joke is the number one thing that makes airplanes fly — money — was needed.
To get a quick infusion of cash, Adam Smith, who served as the executive vice president of strategic development for CAF in mid-2015, went on a whim and tried raising money through a Kickstarter campaign. The online fundraising effort reached the targeted $75,000 within days and became one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date, with nearly $330,000 raised. That success was only the beginning, and CAF has had no trouble raising money for the restoration and continued maintenance of That’s All, Brother, an effort that required and will continue to require millions of dollars.
Money wasn’t the only thing needed to turn the airplane into the magnificent flying museum that it is today. Thorough research and a tireless collection of parts and pieces were done to maximize That’s All, Brother’s authenticity. This effort was led by James Dagg, a member of CAF’s Spirit of Tulsa Squadron in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“While Basler was getting the airplane ready, those guys were finding obscure World War II parts and pieces, and basically collecting an inventory of stuff that they wanted to get installed in the airplane,” Enzminger says. “All the stuff from the cockpit back — the radio operator station, the navigator station, the paratrooper area, the bathroom — all those things they meticulously restored to June 6, 1944, condition.”
The Central Texas Wing, which is now responsible for the continued maintenance of the airplane, found separate donors for the exterior restoration: L-3 Technologies removed the old paint and repainted the airplane in its D-day paint scheme, with Aircorps Aviation adding the details. Consolidated Aircraft Coatings donated the paint.
But the bulk of the work was done by Basler. Myers says 85 percent of That’s All, Brother was restorable, with about 20,000 man-hours spent to complete the project. “We tried to keep everything on the airplane that we possibly could, but there were some parts that were corroded beyond sanding,” he says. “We used the original engines on the airplane. They were overhauled and put back on, and we installed the original propellers back on the airplane. All the airworthiness items were changed out. All the flight control cables, all the engine control cables, all the bearings, all the pulleys.” Both Basler and CAF agreed to spend the extra money and effort to maximize the airworthiness of this flying museum.
Basler also did the instrument panel, which was a special challenge in itself. “We’ve done lots of DC-3 restorations, but we put in all brand-new instrument panels and all state-of-the-art avionics. It’s all new stuff going into an old airplane. This was all old stuff going into an old airplane,” Myers says. That’s All, Brother has a full panel of early 1940s avionics for visitors to enjoy. But there are a few hidden gems. Behind a removable center panel hides a stack of Garmin’s latest and greatest glass avionics: a GTN 750 and GTN 650 GPS/nav/comm/MFD combination, and a G5 electronic flight instrument, providing the pilots with current cockpit technology, including ADS-B.
That’s All, Brother’s first post-restoration flight was on February 1 of this year. “The first flight was almost squawk-free,” Rozendaal says. “There were just some things to tweak, stuff you wouldn’t know until you flew it. Basler did a fantastic job.” The stunning restoration truly pays homage to the brave heroes of D-day.
Another piece of the puzzle in the restoration process was locating the names of the people on board That’s All, Brother during the D-day mission. All the crewmembers and some of the paratroopers have been identified. Enzminger says one of the best parts of being involved with the airplane is connecting with the family members of the men who flew on that day. Several family members saw the newly restored airplane, and some even had a chance to fly in it at AirVenture. “The first family member that I took on there was the daughter of the reserve pilot. It was a very emotional moment for her,” Enzminger says. “That’s what I think the airplane is about. It’s about making sure we keep that connection. It was a very powerful moment.”
The airplane has flown more than 100 hours since the restoration, Enzminger says, and the Central Texas Wing plans to take it to several shows around the country this year, including the World War II-themed Wings over Dallas from October 26 through 28. Prior to the show in Dallas, That’s All, Brother will participate in formation and paratrooper training with the D-day Squadron — the American group of C-47s and DC-3s that will join the 75th anniversary of D-day next year. About two dozen Dakotas will fly the famous route over the north Atlantic, stopping in Canada, Greenland and Iceland, in between long stretches over nothing but water.
“Technically, flying the airplane across the Atlantic is not that big a deal,” Rozendaal says. “The airplane’s got lots of range. They’re basically four-hour legs. You pick your weather days. The airplane flies well on one engine, so God forbid you have an engine failure, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make it. Flying the airplane across the Atlantic is nothing like it was in World War II, when you were doing it with dead reckoning and celestial navigation. It was a huge deal when it was done by 19-year-old kids in the early 1940s.”
Once in Europe, the D-day Squadron will participate in the Daks over Normandy flyover event, which is expected to gather more than 40 Dakotas to fly, once again, over the English Channel on June 6, dropping scores of paratroopers, this time on a friendly mission.
Many serendipitous events came together to dig That’s All, Brother out from the depths of history. “First of all, it wasn’t supposed to be the lead airplane. Donalson didn’t want his airplane to be modified with all the equipment needed for the lead airplane, so he picked this airplane to fly — that’s the story anyway,” Enzminger says. “We happened to have a historian who found the airplane just before it potentially got destroyed. The airplane caught the attention of the Kickstarter community and raised a lot of money. And then we happened to have a donor in our wing who took an interest in the project. That whole relationship started over dinner on a cruise, and it turned into the primary funding for this effort.”
Once the D-day anniversary events are over, CAF plans to take That’s All, Brother to various shows around the country. “The charge is to get it in front of as many people as possible and tell the story,” Enzminger says. “The airplane is 75 years old, and we think it should fly for another 75 to 100 years.”