MUKILTEO — Three pilots are preparing to take off from Paine Field in a vintage airliner this weekend, bound for France’s Normandy region for the 75th of anniversary D-Day.
The trio will skip across the continental United States in the Historic Flight Foundation’s DC-3. Their choice of aircraft is significant. Aviators used the military version of the DC-3, the C-47, to spearhead the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, flying over the English Channel to drop paratroopers behind enemy lines. The 1944 offensive was a turning point in World War II but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives in the weeks that followed.
The Historic Flight aviators plan to carry a distinguished passenger across the Channel on June 5: David Hamilton, the only surviving pathfinder pilot from D-Day. The day after that, much of the world will converge on Normandy to commemorate the battle.
“It’s going to be a global-scale event with heads of state from many countries,” said Historic Flight president John Sessions, one of the pilots. “Really it is a tribute to our Greatest Generation while we still have a few of them left.”
The first of many legs in the journey is set to begin Saturday, during an all-day, D-Day-themed festival to kick off Historic Flight’s flying season. The scheduled departure from Paine Field is 3 p.m. Two other Historic Flight pilots will trade off at the controls with Sessions: Gene Vezzetti, a career airline pilot who lives in Enumclaw, and Bill Mnich, a Navy fighter pilot and Boeing test pilot who calls Powell, Ohio, home.
The fact that Sessions plans to join them is amazing in itself.
In August, Sessions crashed another plane from his collection, a rare 1930s-era de Havilland Dragon Rapide, during the Abbotsford Airshow in British Columbia. The pilot and one of his four passengers suffered serious injuries, the other three minor ones.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued a final report into the crash in March.
Sessions lost his left leg below the knee but was determined to walk, run and fly again. The Federal Aviation Administration on May 1 cleared him to resume his pre-accident flying activities.
“My first phase of recovery was a little slower than I wanted,” he said last week.
The propeller-driven DC-3 was popular in the late 1930s throughout the 1940s. It flies many times slower than a modern jetliner, has a shorter range and lacks a pressurized cabin. There will be plenty of stops to get to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s long, but we have so many wonderful things along the way,” Sessions said. “I don’t think we’ll be bored at any stage.”
They expect to arrive in Oxford, Connecticut, north of New York City, after about two days. There they plan to rendezvous with other U.S. aircraft headed across the Atlantic.
On May 18, they intend to join a dozen or more other C-47s for a demonstration flight around the Statue of Liberty.
From there, the itinerary includes stops in Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland. The schedule allows slack for weather.
The final segment will take them to Duxford Airfield near London, where the American squadron plans to fly with 15 European C-47s for several events from June 2–5.
After crossing the Channel, the historic fleet has the chance to join anniversary activities in Caen, France, from June 5–9.
“It’s very likely we’ll never see an event like this again,” said Moreno Aguiari, director of the D-Day Squadron, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, in a news release. “And it’s for a very good reason. There are only a few members of the Greatest Generation still with us, so we wanted to put together the most significant tributes we could to honor their sacrifice and commitment. These tributes will start here and extend all the way across the Atlantic.”
That’s not all.
From France, the U.S.-based pilots plan to press on to Germany to re-enact another heroic feat in aviation history: the Berlin Airlift.
Sessions called it “one of the great humanitarian airlifts of all time.”
After World War II, Germany was occupied by the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. So was Berlin, the capital, though it remained surrounded by the Soviet sector in East Germany.
In June 1948, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin shut down ground access to the western part of Berlin. The Allied countries soon coordinated a massive and near-continuous air convoy to supply necessities to more than 2 million people isolated in West Berlin. Stalin lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949.
“It’s considered by me and many others to be the beginning of the Cold War and the first victory of the Cold War,” Sessions said.
The DC-3 was the main workhorse during the initial months of the Berlin Airlift, he said.
By the end of June, the Historic Flight pilots might be taking the DC-3 back home. Or they could keep it overseas a bit longer and return for Flying Legends, a major festival at Duxford Airfield in July.
For Sessions, D-Day has deep significance for family reasons.
Accompanying him on his trip will be his brother, Michael Sessions, a Marine Corps special forces veteran who has hundreds of parachute jumps to his credit.
That’s not all.
Their father, Myron G. Sessions, was a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division who parachuted behind Utah Beach before the D-Day landing. He was wounded in the combat that ensued for more than a month. Sgt. Sessions was awarded a Purple Heart for the injuries he received during the invasion of France.
D-Day celebration at Paine Field
Visit Historic Flight Foundation on Saturday for the opening day of flying season.
Activities are planned from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., including flights by vintage planes, live music and special presentations.
Address: 10719 Bernie Webber Drive, Mukilteo, 98275.
More info: 425-348-3200