David C. Henley: 78-year-old troop carrier is still flying

This still-flying, 78-year old C-47 “Skytrain” cargo and troop carrier, which is often flown at the Reno Air Races, is one of the prime aircraft exhibits at the Palm Springs Air Museum in the Southern California desert.

This still-flying, 78-year old C-47 “Skytrain” cargo and troop carrier, which is often flown at the Reno Air Races, is one of the prime aircraft exhibits at the Palm Springs Air Museum in the Southern California desert.

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When I visited the Palm Springs Air Museum earlier this month to see its collection of historic aircraft, my first stop was a still-flying, 78-year-old two-engine cargo and troop carrier that served during three wars and has a captivating connection to northwestern Nevada.
Spending a day at the museum with my son, Dave, who took the photo that accompanies this column, we learned that the ancient aircraft, a C-47 “Skytrain” that saw both combat support and combat in the Pacific and European theaters of World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars, is the military version of the iconic DC-3 civilian passenger airliner developed by the Douglas Aircraft Corp., in the late 1930s. Following its service in the U.S. Army Air Forces, which in the late 1940s was renamed the U.S. Air Force, the aircraft was subsequently flown by the air forces of Great Britain, France, Belgium and Israel before declared surplus in 2001 and then acquired by the Palm Springs museum in 2003, according to Frank L. Castner, the museum’s volunteer librarian.
As Dave and I examined the airplane, which was built in 1943, we saw that it was named by its first crew “What’s Up Doc?” and painted on the aircraft’s nose was the cartoon character Bugs Bunny who always asked “What’s Up Doc?” in the long-running cartoon series which began in the late 1930s. But what particularly intrigued us was a small plaque attached to the plane’s outer fuselage which reads, “Dedicated to the memory of Hunter Lopez, Reno, 2021.” Lopez, we were informed by Castner, was a 22-year-old U.S. Marine Corps lance corporal and rifleman from Indio, a town near Palm Springs, who was one of the 13 U.S. service members killed by radical Islamic State suicide bombers at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan during the frantic air evacuation of U.S. citizens, embassy personnel and Afghanis who had worked for the U.S. government before the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan two and a half months ago.
Lopez, whose mother is a Riverside County deputy sheriff and his father is a sheriff’s department captain, was mourned and honored in ceremonies throughout the Palm Springs area and by flyovers of museum aircraft including the C-47 “Skytrain” which has frequently been flown at the Reno Air Races and was praised in a recent Popular Mechanics magazine article as “one of the coolest planes at the Air Races” where “over 100 aircraft droned, whined and roared over the high desert floor.”
My old friend Frank B. Mormillo, a noted aviation photojournalist who annually covers the Reno Air Races and has often photographed the C-47 there and elsewhere, told me that more than 5,300 C-47s were built at Douglas plants between 1943 and 1945, and they were in the inventories of the U.S. Army Air Forces, the U.S. Air Force, and in the air forces of many allied nations. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps did not use the C-47 designation, instead designating the aircraft as the R4D, he added. According to Mormillo, who often travels throughout the United States and overseas on assignments for military and commercial publications, the C-47 is “one of the most versatile aircraft ever built. It has been fitted with gun turrets to serve as a gunship, it has been used to insert paratroopers behind enemy lines, it has been fitted with skis to land on ice and has been converted into a medical transport to carry wounded service members on litters to hospitals.
“In fact the aircraft is so versatile that it can even land on dirt roads. It was, and still is, one of the greatest aircraft ever built. Many C-47s are still flying as civilian and cargo air transport in Canada, Africa and Latin America. Some in the United States have been turned into homes and restaurants. When production of the C-47s eventually came to a close, and aircraft builders pondered the design of its replacement, they came to the conclusion that the replacement should be the C-47. What a wonderful plane it was and still is,” he said.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


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