Colorado pilot Barry Fait stood in the shade provided by the hulking left wing of Virgina Ann, an over 20,000 pound Douglas DC-3 aircraft that soared above Normandy during the Allied invasion of Western Europe on June 6, 1944.
“You can’t help but fly this thing and think about who was in it and what it did,” he said, turning toward the olive green body.
“Basically what we do here is hope the young generation asks, ‘what is this thing?’”
The Virginia Ann was parked at Columbia Airport, on a short pit stop at the conclusion of an international tour commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It attracted the attention of the adults — every pilot, plane enthusiast and a group of helicopter medics.
“It’s a piece of Americana history here,” said Chris Miller, owner of Springfield Flying Service at Columbia Airport. “Even if it wasn’t the D-Day anniversary, it’s still an amazing trip. For them to be here at Columbia, it’s a treat for everybody.”
Fait, of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and the other pilot of Virginia Ann, his son, Coleman Fait of Newport Beach, were in Columbia for little more than a day to visit with Miller, an old friend, before their last stop in San Jose.
On Wednesday, they planned to fly Virginia Ann to San Jose International Airport to meet a 97-year-old veteran who flew the aircraft in 1945.
“Every time I step in there, I get goosebumps. In flight there’s a lot of time to think about that stuff. To keep her going — that is the goal, that is the mission,” Coleman Fait said.
The father-son duo described themselves as the “current curators” of the aircraft. On the ground, they provide history lessons and anecdotes during their trans-national and trans-Atlantic journeys to reenact World War II-era military aircraft operations.
“The primary use of this thing is flying to airshows,” said Barry Fait. “But most pilots, they have a hankering for this. They're not that hard to acquire, but the hard thing is keeping them going.”
The Virgina Ann was built in Long Beach and inducted into the U.S. Army Air Force in September 1943. It was named for the wife of the pilot who normally flew the aircraft, but not the one who flew it during D-Day, Barry Fait said.
It was selected by Colonel Willis Mitchell to lead the 61st Troop Carrier Group with four squadrons, the 14th, 15th, 53rd and 59th — a total of 72 C-47s carrying soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne — to drop American paratroopers during D-Day, also known as the Battle of Normandy and Operation Overlord.
The Virginia Ann typically carried about 30 to 50 people.
Barry Fait said two paratroopers from Virginia Ann were killed on arrival, and the leader of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment who was on the craft was captured by the Germans on June 8. On debrief documents for the aircraft, Barry Fait also learned a person accidentally discharged a firearm during the operation.
The anniversary brought the Virginia Ann and other military aircraft on a procession of events throughout France and Germany to commemorate the D-Day invasion with reenactments of paratrooper drops and squadron flying.
The trip began on May 5, when the Virginia Ann set out from Flabob Airport in Riverside. Next they flew to Oxford, Connecticut; Presque Isle, Maine; Goose Bay Airport, Newfoundland; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Prestwick, Scotland and Duxford, England.
Before Duxford, the Virginia Ann flew with 15 C-47s that all flew in D-Day. After Duxford, the squadron grew to 26 veteran D-Day aircraft.
“All these have some type of history to them,” Coleman Fait said.
“It’s a big deal to get even three of these airplanes together,” added Barry Fait. “It will never happen again.”
The Virgina Ann has an average flight time of about seven hours or about 1,000 miles. It is identified on the nose by “X5”, which means it was part of the 59th squadron, and on the rudder the “J” identifies the radio sign and “330647” for its military serial number.
June 6, the anniversary of D-Day, was initially planned as a day of rest for the squadron, until they were notified they would be among the civilian aircraft cruising Omaha Beach out of Caen while President Donald Trump visited French President Emmanuel Macron for a commemorative event.
The Virginia Ann landed in three sites in Germany — Wiesbaden, Fassberg and Menningen — and visited Venice and Aosta in Italy after that.
On the way home, they took the same route until they reached Maine. From there, it was on to New York, then an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a quick stop in Steamboat Springs to pick up Barry’s dog and wife, then Idaho, Seattle and finally, Columbia.
The father-son pilots see their stewardship of the Virginia Ann as a passion project for history borne out of a hobbyist’s love for flying.
Barry Fait said his uncle whom he never met, Kennth Fait, was killed during an aircraft training mission in a twin-engine bomber during WWII.
His first toy when he grew up in Southern California was an airplane.
“I don’t know where the love of aviation starts,” Barry Fait said. “You have to have that passion to start in your blood.”
Flying, added Coleman Fait, “feels exceptional.”
Whether the father and son are taking off from Columbia or Caen, they follow the same procedure.
They sit beside each other in the nose of the plane, Barry Fait on the left, his son on the right. A daunting array of controls, dials and gauges are ahead of them. They don their headsets and Coleman reads from a pre-takeoff checklist before they move.
Barry Fait calls it “CIGAR”: controls, instruments, gas, airplane secure, run-up.
When the plane is in motion, Barry handles the controls and stares ahead through the windshield. Coleman has his head down, minding the gauges for temperature, pressure and fuel. A deep rumble, a roar, from the radial engine sounds in the cockpit.
At 85 knots, they rise from the ground. Ideally, there’s no talking as they ascend.
“Until you get to 1,000 feet, you’re hoping nothing happens,” Barry said. When they get there, “you breathe. It's still a 75-year-old airplane. You’re hoping for the best.”
Virginia Ann was involved in resupply and transporting the injured in the days following D-Day.
It went on to participate in the failed Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands and the successful Operation Varsity in Germany.
The plane was decommissioned after the war and lived out the majority of its career as a civilian and commercial transport plane for PanAm and Piedmont Airlines.
Barry Fait estimated the craft earned a few hundred hours flight time during the war and about 16,000 during its commercial tenure.
Now, it logs about 50 hours of flight time a year.
Before Barry acquired the aircraft in 2012, it was painted with a red stripe. It now has the same livery it wore on D-Day.