Day Five-Best Seats in the House
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
There’s nothing quite like an amazing seat to a major event--being front row center for a favorite band’s sold out show; sitting right behind home plate at a baseball game; having the center seat in an IMAX theater where the sound acoustics wash perfectly around you as you sit at the perfect distance from the screen. Sitting in First Class on a long airplane flight is its own unique brand of Awesome, as is happening to be in the right place at the right time to run into someone famous. Whatever and wherever it may be, having the best seat in the house is often what helps make those events the ones we remember most--having the special “best” seat knocks them up a notch or two (or ten) in the memory file that is tagged “Always Remember These.”
Day Five of the VECTORS VFT, our third and final day at Duxford, was one of those times. Because once again, Julia pulled a rabbit out her hat and got us into literally the best place to watch the day’s activities, which were many. There were the expected elements like the C-47 practice runs for the next day’s parachute drops into Normandy, but there were also several unexpected moments that we had a front row seat to witness. It made for a continually surprising and supremely gratifying final day at Duxford, one that had us shaking our heads in amazement and inspired us for our trip to France the following day.
As it had been the day before, we started our streaming day on the Twitch front page again; this meant that we had to have something unique and engaging underway from the moment the stream went live. The previous day during our visit with Gene Vizetti, the co-pilot of the Heritage Flight Foundation’s DC-3, Julia had arranged for us to start our day back at that same aircraft before it powered up to take part in the practice for the parachute jumps. So when we arrived at the airfield fence, she got us right onto one of the shuttle buses that took air crews out to the assembled planes. Other than the four of us, there were only two other people heading out to the planes--two gentlemen we didn’t know and, frankly, who didn’t really look to be in the mood to talk to us (must’ve been the camera and our out-loud airplane geekery).
Right as the bus pulled away, we noticed a (big) problem--the Heritage Flight DC-3 was powering up its engines for flight! Saber and I noticed it first, and the muttered exclamations that followed may or may not have been too family friendly. But somehow, in the midst of what could only have been thirty seconds of murmured consternation, Julia managed to not only get our two fellow passengers to talk to her, but secured an invitation for us to “hang out” for as long as we wanted at their DC-3, the “Clipper Tabitha May” out of Washington DC. As it turned out, the two men were its co-pilot, Eric Bretthauer, and its chief pilot and owner, Robert Randazzo. Das, Saber and I couldn’t figure out how Julia pulled that all together so quickly, and under later questioning all we got was a shrug and and all-knowing grin in response.
Our new hosts couldn’t have been more accommodating; they let us stay out at the aircraft for the next five hours. That sounds like a long time, and it is, but so much happened in those hours that they flew by; it was tough then--and now--to keep track of it all. The Clipper Tabitha May, as it turned out, had been grounded for a couple of days with engine trouble, and so the crew was in the process of repairs. They invited us to film their upcoming engine tests, and in the meantime, offered us lawn chairs from their cargo hold to use so we wouldn’t have to stand the entire time. This wasn’t only amazing generosity, but it also gave us the perfect way to enjoy our vantage point--an unobstructed view of the entire length of runway at Duxford and the skies around it. We were the only four people (besides the air crews) on the entire field with such a vantage point--the other 9,996 daily visitors were about a hundred yards away behind the fence line. We had to dodge rain drops a few times--even hiding out in a huddled mass under the plane’s wing at one point--but that didn’t damper anyone’s spirits or hamper the footage at all. Saber could pretty much film from anywhere near the plane out onto the runway and the skies above the field. Saber perfected the art of filming while holding various unofficial yoga poses--at one point, he squatted under the rear stabilizers with one leg out to the side like a baseball catcher to keep his balance. He has a call sign already, but that day he earned the nickname “Pretzel”.
What Saber captured was beyond amazing. We filmed two engine tests up close, from just under the wing. No commentary really was needed on those, though the noise would’ve drowned it all out anyway. After that, the Clipper Tabitha May crew graciously gave us several hours of their time to go over the history of the plane, took us on a tour of its gorgeously restored interior, and recounted their long Atlantic crossing to England and the various stops along the way--including a harrowing approach for landing in Greenland. Robert Randazzo then took us through his personal story of his love for the DC-3 and his purchase and restoration of the plane.
Outside the aircraft, we took advantage of the lawn chairs and sparkling water to keep our fatigue and thirst factors low. Among the many highlights we caught that day over the field, two stand out. The first was when our followers on Chat spotted a massive bird strike during the takeoff roll of a T-6 Texan. We all missed it in real time (though Saber thought he saw something hit the propeller and / or wing of the plane as he filmed), but within minutes we had clips from Chat and our moderators showing at least several birds hitting the Texan. The birds look to have been simply sitting in the path of the rollout and just didn’t flee fast enough. It wasn’t something anyone reveled in, and certainly it was a relief that the incident had no effect on the plane or pilot, but it was definitely a sight we didn’t expect to see from such a close distance.
The second highlight was something that, later, took on a life of its own on Reddit. As we filmed the takeoffs of about a dozen C-47s / DC-3s for their parachute jump formation practice, Saber spotted something odd and potentially serious--one of the DC-3’s had lost power in one engine. The plane peeled away from the formation and began the process of returning to the field. Through his camera, Saber could see the idle propeller had been feathered by the pilots to reduce drag. He and Das then recounted their conversation the previous day with Gene Vizetti, who had gone over with them on camera exactly what to do in the cockpit if an engine failed. Vizetti had made clear that the plane could fly quite well with one engine, so while the situation in front of us needed to be taken seriously, we also knew that an engine out landing is something these pilots train for to the point of mastery. Knowing this, we all marveled at the skill of the pilots and the stability of the plane as they executed a perfect approach, and our conversation about it on the live feed was relaxed and casual. The plane landed without any difficulty. Within minutes, recorded clips from our stream of the incident emerged on Reddit--and exploded into a pointless (and, I have to say, amusing) controversy. A number of users who weren’t watching the stream at all, and likely knew nothing about it, excoriated “the commentators” for being so “nonchalant” about “a bunch of people in a plane who are in danger and about to die and are probably terrified.” The views multiplied into the tens of thousands during the day and overnight, and the comments reached hysterical levels of outrage and disbelief at how callous we were as we watched the plane descend. Of course, what became equally funny were the comments of Chat users and others who came to our defense and pointed out that it might help to, you know, listen to what was actually said in the clip; all Das was doing was pointing out exactly what Gene had said the previous day and why there was no reason to be overly alarmed. It was a revealing lesson for me in how something--anything--can unpredictably just blow up via social media and chat sites and bring in people who are much more likely to shoot their mouths off and ask questions (or listen) later. That said, it was pretty cool to see so many people take an interest in what we’d covered. (Watch the clip of the engine out landing here)
Once we’d bid farewell and giggled excitedly about all we’d just seen, we moved off the field and headed over to one of the main exhibit areas of IWM Duxford--the AirSpace building, which houses a massive collection of historic British aircraft from the First World War through the First Gulf War. Highlighted by the world’s first supersonic Concorde aircraft, a massive Sunderland flying boat, and the famous Lancaster bomber from World War II, the AirSpace building rivals any similar space in the world for its size and the quality of its collection. It also houses the Airborne Assault Museum, which covers British military paratrooper history from its inception in 1940 to the present day. Of particular interest to us were its two large planning maps of the British landing zones in Normandy for D-Day. Each the size of a wall and topographical down to the smallest details of farmhouses, tree copses, and farm fences, the maps were used for numerous briefings for the British assaults behind Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches on D-Day. Seeing them up close was a treat, and yet another moment where the events of the past felt closer than ever before.
We weren’t done with British paratroopers. Adjacent to the main AirSpace gallery is a large temporary exhibit space that, on this day, contained a large collection of World War II era artifacts from the British airborne forces that parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. Various reenactors and collectors displayed their artifacts and discussed the history of various units with visitors, and at the far end of the gallery near the exits to the airfield sat the assembly areas for the paratroopers who would jump the following day into Normandy as part of the commemoration events there. We interviewed several reenactors, then conducted an interview with an active-duty American army paratrooper who would be jumping the next day. This turned out to be one of those fortuitous moments for us, as he told us that he’d be taking part in the jump into Sannerville, France, a village town within what had been the British attack sector. As we were heading over to Normandy the following day, we decided to make Sannerville our first stop for the next day’s stream. As I’ll write about in my next post, it turned out to be an extraordinary broadcast for us.
By the end of our final day at Duxford, we were all thrilled at what we’d covered and ready to get to France as quickly as possible. We’d delved extensively into the aircraft, the units, the history, and the ramifications of what happened on D-Day, and we shared our audience’s excitement to visit the places where those events occurred. We packed up and headed back to London for a quick overnight rest before heading to France in the early morning hours. As Das put it, we were prepared while also being flexible, ready to make adjustments on the fly if necessary. The uncertainty and challenge of it all produced stress of the best kind, and we all felt confident we’d continue to find success as we had at Duxford. So, we took a deep breath, all with Julia’s comment on the train back to London on our minds:
“Holy moly--we will be in Normandy tomorrow….”