Day Three – A Test Run with the “Daks” at Duxford
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
My first thought after stepping out onto the old Royal Air Force airfield at Duxford (now, like Churchill’s War Rooms, part of the Imperial War Museum system) was “I’ve seen this before, I know it.” Not in the way that George Patton believed he’d once fought with Roman legions, but in the way that most anyone these days has “seen this before”—in the movies. In fact, I’d just seen the Duxford airfield on my flight to Iceland—in 2014’s The Monument’s Men (with a C-47 in “liberation stripes” no less!). I realized not long after that I’d also seen Duxford at length in the classic 1969 film Battle of Britain (among other times, in the scene where German bombs blow up a hangar). In both instances, it was apparent that the airfield at Duxford was sizeable indeed—and its reality didn’t disappoint.
IWM Duxford isn’t just big, it’s what I once heard one of Julia's grand kids call “Wow Big." Built into the old hangars, barracks, and other buildings that once made up the Duxford base when it was home to the first RAF Spitfire squadron and, later, the home to the U.S. Army Air Force’s 78th Fighter Group from 1943-45, it takes almost fifteen minutes to walk to just one end of the museum complex from the main entrance. Add in trying to go through a dozen buildings containing artifacts and exhibits of all kinds, and getting to one end and back can’t be accomplished all in one day. It’s as impressive an aviation museum as I’ve ever seen.
When we arrived, though, I was much more impressed by the sight of nearly thirty operational C-47 and DC-3 aircraft parked out along the length of the airfield, just on the other side of the gates dividing the field from the spectator area. This was what had initiated the entire idea for the VECTORS VFT in the first place—the gathering of these aircraft from all over the world, in one place, to take part in the 75th anniversary of D-Day remembrance events. The iconic aircraft is tied to D-Day for good reason—around 800 C-47s took part in the airborne portions of the invasion operations that day. Most ferried American and British airborne troops through the early morning darkness to parachute behind German lines and seize key bridges and crossroads before the invasion troops hit the landing beaches. Other C-47s towed gliders full of troops and equipment into the battle zone. No matter their mission—flying from 500-1200 feet for airborne ops, higher for gliders—the “Daks” (short for “Dakota”, the name the British gave the plane, while Americans called it the “Skytrain”) had to fly level under heavy fire with no defenses. Many were destroyed or heavily damaged. But enough got to Normandy and back enough times to help produce the victory that D-Day became in the event.
Seeing thirty or so C-47s / DC-3s (they are the same aircraft, just the C-47 is the military version of the plane, the DC-3 the civilian passenger or cargo version) lined up at Duxford immediately doing math in my head and imagining it in the skies overhead—thirty in front of me multiplied by about twenty-seven and that’s the number that flew that day.
Wow Big, indeed.
For an airplane and history nerd---and for a man who wrote about an alternate outcome of that day of days in 1944—this was about as good as things could get (or so I thought at the time—each day just got better). One of the planes parked out on the grass field—given the name “That’s All Brother,” was the very first C-47 to cross the English Channel in the darkness just before midnight on June 6. Each of the other planes there had their own unique and fascinating story, and we were fortunate enough to know a few of the crews of some of the planes assembled. The challenge we faced was to find ways to connect with them for the livestream in the midst of all the work they were doing to prepare for the flyovers and parachute jumps the planes would be doing for the remembrance events.
As it turned out (and as I’ll discuss in later posts), we ended up being wildly successful in this. But when we first arrived at Duxford, that kind of access wasn’t a sure thing. Each plane has a sizeable crew of pilots and support, each with a million things to do each day, their minds on keeping the planes flying and doing so safely. They all love to talk about the planes, of course, but would they do so with us?
Due to some delays in some of the team getting up to Duxford (thanks, United Airlines. Yeah, I’m calling you out for doing poorly with baggage transfers and delivery), the rest of us had time to scout out the museum, the planes parked on the tarmac, and anything else our livestream audiences might want to learn about. This proved really helpful once the whole team was together in the afternoon. As we ran tests of the livestreaming equipment—some amazingly cool stuff that I simply don’t understand but worked really well (thanks to LiveU for providing that equipment—it was dependable beyond words)—we developed a good “trial run” on that first day.
Once the stream was up, I was introduced to the livestream viewers, many of them interacting with us in real time via the Twitch function (you’ll hear us call them “Chat” collectively throughout the VFT). They all knew the VFT host, @DasValdez and our cameraman @SaberinSpace) and knew Julia from her previous VFTs with Das and Saber, but I was the newbie. Das had done a great job of giving his viewers and introduction to me by taking them through my website in the weeks leading up to the VFT, but now I was “live.” I’ll admit it—I was nervous. I’ve taught in classrooms of many sizes and in front of other large groups, but I’d never been on camera before doing so. Plus, I couldn’t see anyone, preventing me from getting a sense of “how I was doing” with the audience. This took me a little while to get used to, but Das and Saber made it easy for me to relax and participate—they integrated me into discussions, asked excellent questions for me to address about the planes around us, about the history of World War II and D-Day in particular, and about whatever else they thought I could help clarify for Chat. By the end of the day, I felt much more comfortable with the dynamic and relaxed more. Thanks to Chat for doing their part to help me settle in with all the positive feedback!
The majority of our “test day” focused on getting the VFT explained to viewers, discussing the background to the Duxford facility, and getting everyone up to speed on the history of D-Day and the role the “Daks” played specifically. We then spent a great deal of time inside one building at Duxford—the American Air Museum. Dedicated entirely to American aircraft that served alongside British ones during the twentieth century, the AAM was literally packed from floor to high curved ceiling with aircraft of all kinds. Centered around a massive B-52 bomber from the Cold War era, the AAM features all sorts of World War II aircraft, including fighters like the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang, yet another C-47, and a B-17 Flying Fortress. This gave us the perfect backdrop for establishing the historical context for the upcoming week, and it also led to interesting discussion on the stream about the existence of such a museum for American planes in Britain—a testament to British appreciation of the American contribution to Britain’s war efforts throughout the twentieth century. The tributes to individual pilots contained on exhibit placards and video kiosks were particularly moving for visitors, as were the quotes etched into the walls of the building describing various aspects of the American experience in working with Britain as a staunch ally.
Our pacing through the museum was relaxed and fun, and it became clear fast that we all had a fantastic working dynamic together. This filled us with optimism and excitement as we closed down the test run and found our way to our hotel and to a sorely needed bit to eat at the end of the day. We all knew the next two full days at Duxford would be full of flying aircraft demonstrations and unknown numbers of opportunities for excellent on-camera material, but we knew we could only plan so much in advance. We had to be ready to adjust from moment to moment depending on who we could find to interview, what challenges the weather might present us, whether the IWM would let us film unhindered, and other factors. We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know yet, but we trusted we’d get our chances.
And oh, how we did. The following days gave us those chances and so much more. My next post will cover some of those head-shaking moments, so come back again soon.