'Night Fright' – A unique link to D-Day
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
We are delighted to have a very special project review for you in this latest edition of our blog, as we bring you a report from a busy hangar at Coventry Airport, one which is currently home to one of the most ambitious and truly fascinating restoration projects to be progressing anywhere in the world. With grateful thanks to the ‘Night Fright’ C-47 Restoration Project team, we were allowed access to their facility on the site of the old Baginton Aerodrome and given a quite breath-taking insight into this momentous project, something really special in the world of historic aviation.
With trusty camera in hand, we will be bringing you full details of how the project came about, the history of this C-47 airframe and what the ultimate aims of the team are for this beautiful aeroplane. As we were allowed unrestricted access to the aircraft, we will also be providing a photographic update to the project, which in turn will also act as an interesting snapshot of a restoration which is surely destined for worldwide acclaim and an aircraft which will become an Airshow favourite in the years to come. The vision of a relatively small group of dedicated and extremely driven people, we will also see how authenticity is their driving force and how this work has led them to locations all over the world in the search of actual wartime C-47 parts.
Cultured airliner turned flying war winner
Although starting out as one of the world’s first truly effective airliners, the strength of the design of the Douglas DC-3 allowed it to be developed into a war winning fighting machine. This unique C-41A (pre-war DC-3A VIP transport) took part in the 75th Anniversary of D-Day ‘Daks over Duxford’ event in 2019
It seems a little strange that an airfield which was involved in the production of some of Britain’s most famous aircraft types should now be the home of a project to restore and American aviation classic to its former wartime glory, a project which has benefitted from international media attention over the past seven years. Surely, there can be few aircraft in the history of aviation able to boast the significant reputation enjoyed by that of the Douglas DC-3 and its military derivatives. This revolutionary aircraft was responsible for establishing comfortable and reliable passenger air travel throughout the United States in the 1930s, as well as attracting significant interest from the US Army who recognised its potential in a military role.
As America watched Europe and the Far East descending into conflict in 1939, they quickly realised that they would need an effective aircraft to transport troops into combat areas and resupply their forces wherever they may be operating. It was decided that a military version of the rugged and reliable Douglas DC-3 would be the ideal solution to this significant problem. As these aircraft began to roll off the production lines, they were also proving to be of great interest to the British and following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, the Douglas C-47 was made available to British and Commonwealth air forces under the Lend-Lease programme, and in quite significant numbers. Indeed, the demand for this war-ready variant of the DC-3 proved so great that the established manufacturing facilities at Santa Monica simply could not cope and the government immediately constructed a new facility at Long Beach. Unfortunately, there was no let-up in demand for this essential aeroplane and even this increased capacity was struggling to cope, so a third factory, this time in Oklahoma City, was constructed by the US government, specifically for the production of military variants of the Douglas DC-3.
The proposed military variants of the DC-3 were thought so important to America’s ability to wage war effectively, that an army engineering team was assigned to the Douglas Factory during the development of the aircraft, ensuring that the alterations to the standard DC-3 (Douglas Sleeper Transport) made the aircraft as militarily effective as possible. In October 1941, the US Government decided to adopt the British system of identifying their aircraft with a name – the reason for this was to mask the development of new aircraft from prying enemy eyes and prevent information falling into their hands. The Douglas C-47 was given the rather fitting name of ‘Skytrain’, the first US Army aeroplane to be given a name in this manner. The first flight of the C-47 Skytrain took place on 23rd December 1941 and between 1941 and 1945, the Douglas Corporation built over 9,200 examples of this magnificent aeroplane.
The military variants of the DC-3 differed from their earlier civilian airliner forebears in a number of ways, but perhaps most noticeably by the addition of a large two piece cargo door, located at the rear port side of the fuselage. It also had reinforced flooring to cope with the rigors of military service and the main cabin floor was also tilted upwards slightly, to make this area parallel to the ground during the critical loading process. The fuselage seating arrangements consisted of fold down metal and canvas benches down both sides of the fuselage and each window had a rifle grommet installed, to allow the Skytrain’s occupants to provide suppressing fire, should it be required.
Marking the continuing restoration of Douglas C-47A 42-100521 ‘NIGHT FRIGHT’, this image clearly shows the opening for the cargo door which identified the military variant of this magnificent aeroplane
To aid with navigation, the aircraft also benefited from an astrodome on top of the fuselage, just behind the cockpit area. Other differences from the original airliner configuration included a slightly increased wingspan for military variants and a reduced internal fuel capacity, down from 882 gallons to 804 gallons, although the aircraft could be fitted with as many as eight 100 gallon ferry tanks for long distance flights. An inclusion which would prove invaluable during operations in support of D-Day, most Skytrains were also equipped with a robust glider hitch, which was positioned centrally at the very back of the fuselage and usually hidden behind a removable protective heavy canvas tail cone. A specialist paratrooper variant of the aircraft was designated C-53 and named ‘Skytrooper’ and aircraft operated by British and Commonwealth air forces went on to be known as Dakotas.
Even for an aircraft which possessed impressive pedigree such as this, it wasn’t all positive. The Skytrain would have a number of less than flattering nicknames attached to it during its military service, such as Gooney Bird, Dumbo and Old Fatso – not very complimentary for an aircraft which proved so important. Perhaps the most poignant nickname it attracted was ‘Vomit Comet’, a name given to it by paratroopers, presumably due to the severe buffeting they were forced to endure in the moments immediately prior to arriving over their designated drop zone.
‘Night Fright’ – The project
This truly historic aeroplane is currently being restored to as close to her 6th June 1944 configuration as possible, a unique aviation link to this momentous day
The subject of historic aviation is made all the more fascinating in part due to the fact that every restoration project will usually have its own unique story. The one surrounding the ‘Night Fright’ project begins with the former airfield site at Membury, in Berkshire and its current owners, Walker Logistics, a modern distribution and warehousing business. After the war, the airfield and its facilities were taken over by local businesses and used as commercial premises, which is how the site was later acquired by the Walker family. In addition to renovating and upgrading the existing hangar facilities, certain members of the family began to take a keen interest in the wartime history of the site, particularly the important role it played during the final twelve months of conflict.
Construction of a new airfield site at Membury began in May 1941 and continued right through to it opening some fifteen months later. It was originally intended that the airfield would be used by the RAF to train crews as replacements for expected heavy losses as the war progressed, however, this never proved to be the case and the airfield was allocated for use by United States Army Air Force units.
Known as airfield US Station 466, Membury was constructed with two main runways, but was of unusual layout, as high ground at its eastern end prevented the runway from being extended in this direction, as would normally have been the case. The site included four T2 hangars, a control tower and a collection of workshops, outbuildings and accommodation blocks to facilitate a base population of around 2500 people. The airfield was home to various units during WWII, including the training and operation of photo-reconnaissance and observation squadrons and aircraft types such as Tiger Moths, Spitfires and Mustangs.
In 1943, the 6th Tactical Air Depot was stationed in the hangars at Membury, who were tasked with assembling, inspecting and testing Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters under repair, before dispatching them back to front-line squadrons. The following year, the 436th Troop Carrier Group arrived at the station with their distinctive Douglas C-47 Skytrains, an aircraft which would make a significant contribution towards eventual Allied victory during its time at Membury. Between June 1944 and the end of the war in Europe, Membury and its squadrons would play a major role in delivering paratroopers to combat areas in Europe, in addition to evacuating casualties and delivering tons of ammunition and supplies. With around 90 C-47s based at the airfield in support of D-Day and later Operation Market Garden, the Battle of Arnhem, it must have been a busy place to be stationed during this period when the Allies were on the offensive in Northern Europe.
A fascinating wartime image showing the distinctive nose artwork which was added to the aircraft whilst she was based at US Station 466 Membury
With the current owners now fully aware of the wartime history of their former airfield site and one of the family members being a highly experienced commercial pilot with warbird experience, they soon began to think that bringing a C-47 back to the site would be of huge local interest and potentially, a unique piece of living wartime history for generations to come. From these initial ideas sprang more ambitious plans to restore a C-47 to flying condition and to operate it from a restored section of the original airfield runway. The ultimate achievement would be to secure an aircraft which actually flew from the airfield during WWII, but surely this was just too much to hope for.
Once news of the project and the Walker Family’s intentions began to circulate within historic aviation circles, they were soon put in contact with a specialist sourcing company, who began scouring the globe for a suitable aircraft. Initially, their brief was to locate an aircraft for static restoration and future display at the Membury site – the only stipulation was that if at all possible, the aircraft would have flown from the airfield during the Second World War. The project took on an exciting new dimension when discussions turned to the possibility of an aircraft suitable for restoration to airworthy condition – with Charlie Walker being a commercial pilot and with the historical and educational possibilities not being lost on him, this quickly became the preferred option.
After an intensive period of searching, several likely candidates were identified – all they had to do now was to confirm the history of each aircraft, find their current whereabouts and check if their owners were willing to sell. One of the aircraft discovered was actually found for sale on a popular auction site and following further investigation, it was found that Douglas C-47 N308SF was currently being stored at Walnut Ridge airfield, Arkansas. Although the aircraft had been flying commercially since the end of WWII, it is interesting to note that Walnut Ridge proved to be the destination for many US aircraft returning from overseas deployment at the end of the Second World War, in its capacity as a storage airfield, more commonly referred to as a boneyard. In an unusual twist of fate, further research showed that this airfield proved to be the first US home of C-47 N308SF following her return from service in Europe during WWII.
Taking the information already gathered about this airframe, a respected Membury Airfield historian was asked if he could shed any light on the C-47 they had found in Arkansas and if it indeed had any links with former US Station 466. What he discovered was truly astonishing and has since ensured that this project is regarded as one of the most fascinating anywhere in the world. In December 2012, he discovered that N308SF was none other than Douglas C-47A 42-100521 ‘NIGHT FRIGHT’, an aircraft which had indeed been based at Membury during WWII and had actually completed two missions from the airfield on D-Day.
With restoration works now well under way at Coventry Airport, it is to be hoped that ‘Night Fright’ will soon be able to take to the air once more in the not too distant future and to perhaps make her emotional return to the former Membury airfield site
This was just the discovery the team had been hoping to make and they immediately made plans to fly out and see the aircraft and hopefully to secure it for this ambitious project. With this done, the aircraft was flown to Florida, where her restoration could commence, under the guidance of a specialist company. In early 2016, ‘NIGHT FRIGHT’ was dismantled and shipped to the UK, arriving at her new Coventry Airport home in March 2016, where a concerted attempt to get her back in the air, in as near to wartime configuration as possible, could begin. The initial target was to have her flying by the summer of 2019, so she could take part in the D-Day 75th Anniversary commemorations, however, the meticulous nature of this restoration dictated that this would prove an unrealistic target. Nevertheless, they do say that good things come to those who wait and in aviation terms, we are all in for a treat with this project.
History of a true D-Day aviation veteran
Manufactured at the Douglas Long Beach plant in California during October 1943, this C-47A-65-DL was one of many destined to transport Allied forces to victory, during the latter stages of the Second World war. Following acceptance by the USAAF, the aircraft was allocated the serial number 42-100521 and assigned to 79th Troop Carrier Squadron, 436th Troop Carrier Group – along with her squadron mates, her immediate future would be in the war-torn skies of Europe.
On 27th of December 1943, the aircraft departed Morrison Field, Palm Beach bound for England, flying the Southern Ferry Route stopping at Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, then Atkinson Field, British Guyana, Belem in Brazil and on to Recife’s Iburia Field where they prepared for the long crossing to Ascension Island. They reached Ascension around New Year’s Day 1944, with their next destination being Roberts Field, Liberia, which was significant, as it was the first destination on the eastern side of the Atlantic. From there it was on to Refisque, near Dakar then Marrakesh, before flying across the Bay of Biscay to RAF St. Mawgan in Cornwall – this leg of the journey was particularly hazardous, as they were desperate not to attract the attentions of marauding Luftwaffe Junkers Ju88 heavy fighters, which were extremely active in this area. They would have relished the opportunity to have a go at a large formation of American transport aircraft bound for the UK.
The aircraft arrived at its new ‘English home’ at Bottesford in Nottinghamshire on 7th January 1944, where it became part of the US 9th Army Air Force’s newly created Troop Carrier Command. Assigned to the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing, the 436th Troop Carrier Group was made up of the 79th, 80th, 81st and 82nd Troop Carrier Squadrons and they were going to be kept busy during their time in England. At their time of arrival, the aircraft’s crew consisted of Pilot 1st Lt. William K. Watson, Co-pilot 1st Lt Frank Bibas, Navigator 2nd Lt Arthur E. Thornton, Crew Chief T. Sgt Owen W. Voss and Radio Operator S/Sgt Robert S. McKnight. There was also one other member of the crew who had less onerous, but no less crucial duties to perform, ‘Hap’ the Cocker Spaniel, or as he was otherwise known, ‘General Happiness’. Hap arrived with his owner, Frank Bibas when the crew met at Fort Wayne, Indiana to collect the aircraft and he would go on to fly on many missions with the crew. Clearly not normal military practice during wartime, Hap’s mission status appeared to have been overlooked by higher authority, presumably as he was viewed as a vital ‘good luck’ member of a hard working C-47 crew. He survived his air force secondment and returned home to America with his owner at the end of the war.
Adding real character to this project, this original wartime image features the crew of ‘Night Fright’, including their additional four legged crew member, ‘General Happiness’
The 436th TCG did not stay long at Bottesford, but were to find a new, more permanent home at RAF Membury, between Swindon and Newbury in Berkshire from 3rd Match 1944 – US Station 466.
On the 19th of April 1944, 2nd Lt James H Hardt arrived in England from the US and was assigned to the 79th TCS becoming Bill Watson’s Co-Pilot in 42-100521. Hardt would fly as Co-Pilot with Bill Watson for the majority of the war, with the two becoming very good friends. During the build-up to the invasion of France the 436th took part in many training missions and simulated practice operations, such as the review of the 101st Airborne Division for Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower, which took place on March the 23rd at Welford Park. Nine aircraft from each squadron took part, one being Frank Bibas’ aircraft which dropped members of Fox Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment on to the designated drop zone.
Throughout the following month the Group took part in several training missions, usually carried out at night, with one such mission being ‘Exercise Eagle’. At the end of another training mission, the C-47s started to peel-off to land when a red alert was sounded as a result of enemy aircraft activity in the area. All lights on the airfield were immediately extinguished, leaving the pilots to hold in the dark and consider their options, whilst all the time scouring the night sky for other aircraft, particularly those with hostile intentions. In what must have been a hair-raising few minutes, a decision was taken to allow aircraft to land, but without the aid of runway, perimeter or aircraft landing lights – thankfully, all made it back safely.
It was at around this time that all of the Douglas C-47’s of the 436th TCG would have been given a squadron identity code, which was painted on both sides of the fuselage just aft of the cockpit. Codes applied to the Membury squadrons were ‘S6’ for the 79th Troop Carrier Squadron, ‘7D’ for the 80th, ‘U5’ for the 81st and ‘3D’ for the 82nd . Each C-47 within each squadron would also be given a unique tail letter to act as its radio call sign. Our subject aircraft 42-100521 was given the tail letter ‘D for Dog’ which it would keep for the remainder of the war – I wonder if this had anything to do with General Happiness, or was just a fortunate coincidence? At around the same time and prior to commencing D-Day operations, the aircraft also gained its distinctive nose art ‘Night Fright’, which was a play on words from Antoine de Saint–Exupéry’s book ‘Night Flight’, which was a particular favourite of Bill Watson.
A rather important restored section of the aircraft. Aft of the cargo doors, this section of the C-47 would have housed a toilet and wash basin, features which will be included in a project where authenticity comes as standard. The paratroopers on D-Day eve would have more than likely been racked with nerves, but their huge kit packs would have prevented them from using these facilities on the night, as they would not have fit through the door
With the long anticipated invasion of Europe now imminent, there were some new arrivals at Membury airfield in the last few days of May – the paratroopers of the famous 101st Airborne Division ‘Screaming Eagles’, members of the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and a detachment of the 326th Airborne Medical Company. These men would be putting their lives in the hands of the crews of the based C-47s, but would have trained exhaustively for the historic mission which lay ahead of them. All would take part in detailed briefings to give them information regarding flight routes, timings, drop-zones and known enemy anti-aircraft gun locations. Significantly, on 3rd June, base personnel were given orders to paint black and white stripes around the rear fuselage and wings of their aircraft.
With so many aircraft in the air at the same time and with this high possibility of friendly-fire casualties resulting not only from other aircraft, but from ground and seaborne anti-aircraft fire, D-Day planners called for ‘invasion stripes’ to be painted on the majority of Allied aircraft, by way of identifying them to friendly units. For everyone involved in this momentous day, the situation was clear – ‘if it ain’t got stripes, shoot it down’. In order to prevent German spies and reconnaissance aircraft from discovering the black and white secret, the plan was a matter of the utmost secrecy and only divulged in the days immediately prior to invasion, increasing an already hectic workload for airfield personnel.
D-Day operations for ‘Night Fright’
Now back in the UK where she helped to launch the Allies ‘Great Crusade’ into occupied Europe in June 1944, she will soon be returned to how she looked as paratroopers were being loaded into her cabin hours before the start of D-Day
The C-47s of the 436th were assigned to fly two ‘serials’ into Normandy on D-Day. Serial #9 would be executed by the 79th and 82nd Troop Carrier Squadrons, delivering the 1st Battalion 502nd PIR, whilst the 80th and 81st TCS would fly Serial #10 carrying the 377th PFAB and the 326th AB Med Co into Normandy. Due to the heavy loads which needed to be carried for the 377th PFAB, which included their field guns and ammunition, the 85th TCS from the 437th TCG over at Ramsbury airfield were sent on detached service to the 436th and assigned as a third squadron for Serial #10.
The original planned departure day was to be the 4th of June, however, a stormy weather front forced a 24 hour delay - Operation Neptune finally got underway in the late evening of June 5th 1944. Para-packs were assembled ready to load on to the six racks beneath each aircraft, with the packs containing the component parts of broken-down field guns, ammunition, explosives, firearms and other essential equipment for war. Other packs including wheels for the howitzer field guns were loaded into the aircraft themselves, ready for the troopers to push out when the green light was turned on over the DZ.
On the 5th of June, shortly before departure for ‘Mission Albany’, General Eisenhower and 101st Airborne Division Commander General Maxwell Taylor visited Membury airfield and the troops who were about to embark on their ‘Great Crusade’. Eisenhower visited all five airfields of the 53rd TCW that day to rally the troops but when he saw the blackened faces and the number of weapons and knives each paratrooper carried, he knew that the men of the Screaming Eagles were itching for a fight. ‘Night Fright’ flew as Chalk No 20 in the first of the two serials which took-off from Membury at 2300 hours on the night of 5th June, carrying elements of 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, arriving over the DZ ‘A’ near Saint-Germain-de-Varreville at around 0108hrs on 6th June 1944. The flight crew on that fateful night were Pilot; William Watson, Co-pilot; James Hardt, Radio Operator; Robert McKnight, Navigator; Arthur E. Thornton and Crew Chief, Owen Voss.
Upon reaching the western coast of the Cherbourg peninsula, low cloud made staying in tight formation difficult especially with German anti-aircraft fire becoming heavier the closer they got to the Drop Zone. The navigators onboard the lead aircraft skilfully directed the other aircraft in the formation and they successfully dropped the paratroopers, mostly over DZ ‘A’. After a relatively uneventful return flight, the Group’s aircraft all returned to Membury by 0353hrs.
Walking in the footsteps of heroes. It is humbling to think that whilst I was allowed to inspect the current state of this historic restoration, I was standing where the men of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment would have been sitting on the night of 5th/6th June 1944
A second sortie, ‘Mission Elmira’, was planned to take place in the late evening of D-Day. Serial 32 consisted of two CG-4As and forty-eight Horsa gliders towed by Douglas C-47s of the 436th TCG, departing Membury airfield at 2037hrs (Double British Summer Time). They were scheduled to meet the Mustangs of the 363rd Fighter Group’s over St. Alban’s Head, before taking a bearing for the onward route to LZ ‘W’ between St. Mere Eglise and Carentan. The gliders carried members of the US 82nd Airborne Division’s 319th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, the 307th Airborne Medic Company, ‘A’ Company of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion and the 82nd Airborne Division Artillery. Unfortunately, as the mission unfolded, many of the gliders were released prematurely, which caused some to land in or close to German-held territory at around 2300hrs as the sun was close to setting. Many of the gliders and C-47s encountered extremely heavy ground fire from the German-held territory, which forced three aircraft from Serial 33 to ditch in the Channel on their return – these aircraft were being flown by crews of the 435th TCG, operating from Welford airfield.
Miraculously, all the C-47s of the 436th TCG made it back to Membury, even though a great many had sustained damage from the savage ground fire they encountered – ‘Night Fright’ herself sustained around one hundred separate hits, which put her out of service for the next four days whilst she underwent repairs. The Group’s glider pilots were not so lucky, with several men being either killed or injured during the landing operations. Between June 9th and 13th, the 436th carried out a number of further sorties, towing CG-4As needed to resupply troops fighting in the area of St. Mere Eglise.
After undergoing repairs, Night Fright returned to post D-Day operations, carrying out resupply missions, medical evacuations and freight-moving flights during the rest of this historic month.
'Night Fright' battles on
An awesome demonstration of Allied air power, this was the scene at US Station 466 Membury prior to launching ‘Operation Varsity’, the largest Allied airborne assault of the war
Although ‘Night Fright’ and the C-47s of the 79th Troop Carrier Squadron had only entered the war at a relatively late stage, they were to make an invaluable contribution to Allied victory once they arrived in England. Clearly, preparations for D-Day and the successful delivery of her brave airborne troops on the 6th June 1944 would prove vital if this long awaited invasion of Fortress Europe was to succeed, but once their initial objectives had been secured and the landing beachheads began to spue men and equipment into Northern France, the work of the C-47 crews continued apace. The resupply of troops and equipment would be equally vital if the ‘Great Crusade’ was to succeed and once airfields in Normandy had been liberated and could be used by Allied aircraft, the Skytrains, Skytroopers and Dakotas of the Allied air forces could once more prove their worth.
On the flights out from Membury, the C-47s of the 79th TCS could carry men, supplies or both and on the way back, the cabin could be configured to carry stretchers for the wounded men who needed evacuation back to medical facilities in the UK. The weeks which followed D-Day would have been extremely hectic for C-47 crews, including ‘Night Fright’, as their missions were now equally vital replenishment and support flights, which were arguably just as crucial as the paratrooper drops on the night of 5th/6th June 1944.
Marking the crucial wartime contribution made by the Douglas C-47 and their brave crews, ‘Night Fright’ certainly did not rest on her D-Day laurels and would be heavily involved in several other significant operations during the final year of conflict. In mid-August and operating from bases in Italy, the aircraft took part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France, which was in itself a monumental military undertaking. Around forty eight C-47s from the 436th Troop Carrier Group towed Waco CG-4A gliders to drop zones around Le Muy, returning to Membury on 24th August.
‘Operation Market Garden’ was another massive airborne operation which required the services of 'Night Fright' and the men of the 79th Troop Carrier Squadron. An attempt to create a bridgehead in German held territory and provide a springboard for offensives across the Rhine, the plan called for the capture of nine bridges by airborne forces, which would clearly require their accurate delivery by C-47 transport aircraft, either by parachute or glider. The Germans were now becoming adept at repelling airborne assaults and Membury’s C-47s would come under heavy fire during their Market Garden support flights, losing several aircraft and aircrew during this period. Despite facing increasingly effective anti-aircraft defences, C-47 crews were relentless in bringing their cargoes of men or supplies to where they were needed most.
A C-47 heading for its assigned drop zone, complete with under-fuselage pararacks and their packs ready to be released
‘Operation Market Garden’ commitments took care of most of September 1944 for the Membury based C-47 squadrons and they would spend the next two months flying numerous resupply and casualty evacuation sorties. December started badly for ‘Night Fright’, as she suffered engine failure whilst hauling a load of diesel fuel to an advanced landing ground near Reims and had to turn back to Membury. The problem required the change of both engines and a period of respite in the hangar. Once this work had been completed, she would again play extremely active roles in continuing the offensive momentum of the Allied forces in Europe. During Operation Repulse, ‘Night Fright’ flew missions over Christmas to resupply the 101st Airborne Division who were holding the line at Bastogne, using parapacks attached to the underside of the aircraft and bundles pushed out through the cargo door.
Two troopers install a parapack into the purpose built housings under the fuselage of a C-47 Skytrain
‘Operation Varsity’ would not only be the largest Allied airborne assault of the war in Europe, but also the last and once again, ‘Night Fright’ and the C-47s of the Membury based squadrons would be fully involved. An operation which paved the way for the Allied advance on Berlin, Varsity saw ‘Night Fright’ hauling a Waco CG-4A glider into the combat zone once again, safely returning home to Membury later on 24th March 1945. The following weeks were spent flying supplies to advanced landing grounds in Europe and either evacuating casualties or repatriating former POWs on the return leg.
With the war in Europe now over the C-47s of the 79th TCS set off on their journey back to the US on the 10th of July 1945, reversing the route they had taken when embarking for England in early 1944. Their epic flight ended at Hunter Field, Georgia on the 19th July and after enjoying a well-earned 30 days leave, crews reported to the 436th Troop Carrier Group’s new base at Malden, Missouri. ‘Night Fright’ herself underwent a maintenance check at Romulus Field to the west of Detroit and was returned to the 79th shortly thereafter, but only within days of the unit’s disbandment, following the surrender of Japan. By early October 1945, the remnants of the group, including ‘Night Fright’, had been absorbed into the 434th TCG and shortly after, this aircraft which had played such an active role in the liberation of Europe was declared surplus to requirements. She was flown to Walnut Ridge airfield in Arkansas (an airfield which we have already seen plays a significant role in the ongoing story of this aircraft) for sale or disposal, thus bringing her wartime career to an end.
Old warhorse continues to fly
In 1946 and now wearing the civilian registration NC65384, the de-militarised ‘Night Fright’ began service on US domestic routes, first with Northeast, but soon after with Piedmont Aviation – it was during her time with Piedmont that she was given the name ‘Tidewater Pacemaker’. After flying commercially in the US for over 15 years, the aircraft was sold to the French Navy, where she served as a navigational trainer and general communications aircraft. Arriving in France during the summer of 1963, she joined Escadrille 56S at Nimes-Garons, where she was given the serial 18984 and carried the fuselage code ‘84’.
It is fascinating to think that this aviation icon of D-Day actually spent significantly more time in French military service than she did with the USAAF during WWII. Here she wearing the colours Escadrille 56S at Nimes-Garons
When the French finally disposed of their military C-47s in 1984, the aircraft came into the possession of Basler Flight Services, who arranged to fly her back stateside. Now registered N98BF, she flew the famous wartime northern ferry route on her way back home, not stopping until she reached Texas. Reregistered once more as N308SF, she soon found herself hauling cargo in the colours of Sky Freighters Corporation and whilst she would be used as a load lugger for the next twenty years or so, she would do so under the ownership of several different companies. Underlining the brilliance of the aircraft’s original design and the strength of its construction, this warbird would spend many years transporting anything from live chickens to electrical generators all across North and Central America, in addition to regularly turning up at airfields on various Caribbean islands.
For an aircraft which possessed such a rich wartime history, it was forced to suffer the ignominy of being listed on a well-known auction site, finally coming into the hands of a company who were specialists in the dismantling and scrapping of aircraft. Fortunately and for reasons which are still unclear, this former D-Day veteran was spared the scrapman’s attentions and sat forlornly at Walnut Ridge airfield, the one she had returned to following the end of her wartime ETO service, where she awaited discovery by a group of people with a very special project in mind.
Aviation history just waiting to happen
Coming along nicely. It is testament to the excellence of the Douglas C-47 design that when ‘Night Fright’ eventually returns to the skies once more, she will potentially have many years of flying ahead of her, despite the fact that she made her first flight over 75 years ago
Having been aware of the ‘Night Fright’ project for some time and with the momentous 75th Anniversary of D-Day commemorations still fresh in my mind, you can imagine my excitement when given the opportunity to visit the aircraft recently. As I entered one of the large hangars at Coventry Airport, I knew that I was going to be impressed with what I was going to see inside, but had no idea what was about to happen from an emotional perspective. Now standing on her own undercarriage, with her nose rising majestically above all the activity going on around her, I immediately ‘bonded’ with an aircraft which is surely destined to become an aviation favourite for millions of people. Something tells me that ‘Night Fright’ is going to be viewed as the ‘People’s’ link to the heroes of D-Day and something of an aviation celebrity.
Thankfully, knowing what this aircraft has been through, it is comforting to see that she is now receiving the care and attention which she surely deserves – it is also clear that ‘Night Fright’ is now in good hands. When speaking to the people behind this project, there are two things which quickly become apparent, their unbridled passion for this fascinating project and their meticulous attention to detail. This restoration is not only about returning a truly historic WWII aircraft back to airworthy condition, it is also about making sure she will be as close to her authentic 6th June 1944 configuration as possible.
For the restoration team, this means that in addition to the significant task which lies ahead of them, they are also having to remove and repair any non-standard additions which were made during her extremely active post war career. This means making good any fixing holes which were added to take additional equipment and fabricating, or locating original components which would have been in place on the night of 5th/6th June 1944.
A ‘Night Fright’ restoration walkaround – when this aircraft has been flying on the UK Airshow circuit for may years, this will make a fascinating review of when she was undergoing restoration at Coventry and still some way from making that all-important first post restoration flight. This image shows how work is progressing on the cockpit area, including a start on the cabling which must be a daunting task for the team
More cockpit fittings, this time the restored pilot and co-pilot seats, which will be installed later during the restoration
Fuel tanks restored and ready to go. It is sobering to think that most, if not all the C-47s taking part in D-Day were doing so without the benefit of self-sealing fuel tanks – housed in the largest target area on the underside of the aircraft and with every gun in occupied Europe firing in their direction, this only serves to increase our admiration for the men who completed these perilous missions
Horizontal stabilisers restored and ready to be fitted to the aircraft. This will mark another significant and highly visual step towards the restoration of this magnificent aeroplane
The aircraft’s wings awaiting restoration and eventual fitting to ‘Night Fright’, currently stored in a separate section of the hangar
When restored, this is where the wings will be attached – now that is a process I would love to witness. Knowing how much weight these aircraft carried and the forces which must be exerted on the wings, how on earth are they going to get them to fit on here?
Perhaps the most iconic and highly visible aspect of this aircraft’s restoration will be to return its distinctive nose artwork to its rightful place. Currently, this space is blank, however artwork files have been produced and the design will be hand painted on the aircraft by an aircraft paint specialist, just as it would have been when first applied at Membury in 1944
Whilst this is all taking place, other members of the team spend hours scouring the internet looking for authentic parts and equipment, making contact with dealers, businesses and individuals all over the world who may be in a position to assist them in their unique aviation quest. An exercise which is both time consuming and extremely costly, this is a clear indication of how determined the team behind this project are to ensure this restoration is as much about historical accuracy as it is about retuning a wartime aircraft with combat provenance to its rightful place – in the air.
A project which has already gathered an impressive worldwide following, the ‘Night Fright’ team have been proficient in establishing both an informative web presence and active social media platforms, all of which regularly update their followers with the latest project developments. Always interesting and in many cases absolutely captivating, they have been quick to harness the power of these modern forms of communication to effectively provide updates on a project which will only gather momentum as the aircraft approaches its triumphant first post restoration flight. I am sure that many people will be planning to make their own personal connection with ‘Night Fright’ once she is unleased on the European Airshow circuit in the years to come.
As you can see from the photographs which have been used to illustrate this feature, most of which were taken during my recent visit to Coventry Airport, the restoration team still have much to do and they have a great many important days ahead as ‘Night Fright’ progresses towards completion roll-out. With the restored horizontal stabilisers soon to be attached to the airframe and work about to start on the wings, it will hopefully not be too long before the aircraft is back in one piece, even though still quite some way off a potential first post restoration flight, one which will be taking place over 78 years since she first took to the air from the Douglas plant at Long Beach, California. Having had the pleasure of meeting the team behind this fascinating restoration, I have no doubt that they have what it takes to make this aviation dream become a spectacular reality.
Creating an enduring aviation legacy
There is no doubt that once ‘Night Fright’ takes her place on the Airshow circuit, she is going to be one of the most popular historic aircraft in the world, however, her owners want her to be much more than that. As a totally authentic D-Day aviation timepiece, they want their beautiful C-47 to be a living memorial to the sacrifices of the people involved in the liberation of Europe and particularly, the men of the USAAF 436th Troop Carrier Group who would play such a vital role following their arrival in the UK.
Allowing people onboard the aircraft to inspect the inside of a Douglas C-47A Skytrain, they will be able to see in some detail exactly what the paratroopers aboard the aircraft would have seen as they prepared to be dropped over Normandy on that most famous of days, providing a unique and poignant link for current generations and many more to come. With schools and colleges in mind, it will be interesting to see how young people react when they realise that it was men not much older that themselves that were jumping into the night skies over France on D-Day, helping to ensure they preserved the freedom we all enjoy to this day.
There are also ambitious plans to create a museum at the former US Station 466 Membury airfield site, the actual airfield that ‘Fright Night’ took off from on the night of 5th/6th June 1944. This is something which will clearly enhance the authenticity of this project, whilst also producing a popular visitor attraction for the region. Crucially, it is also intended that part of the original runway at Membury will be restored, allowing ‘Night Fright’ to operate from her wartime home base, as she embarks on what will undoubtedly be a hectic Airshow and commemorative flypast career. Exciting times lie ahead for this magnificent aeroplane and the impressive team behind her. I am sure we will all be keen to keep an eye on this fascinating project in what is likely to be a significant few months in her continuing restoration story.
I would like to sincerely thank Charlie Walker and the ‘Night Fright’ team for allowing me the opportunity to visit their aircraft at this important stage in her restoration and for being so generous with their time and hospitality in hosting me on the day. I sincerely hope that this will not be the last ‘Night Fright’ restoration report Aerodrome publishes on the Airfix and Corgi websites and I am sure that I speak for every reader when I say that I wish them every success with this magnificent project and their plans to create a unique historic aviation memorial, one which will regularly take to the skies in the years to come. You can keep abreast of all the latest developments with this fascinating restoration by heading to the ‘Night Fright’ website, or by visiting the project Facebook page.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our firstname.lastname@example.org address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 23rd October, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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