THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING
WITH THE PILOT OF A LEGENDARY PLANE
20 years ago, a handful of hobbyists saved an unusual plane from wreck : the Douglas DC3. This aircraft was built in 1943. It took part in the Normandy Landings, the Berlin Airlift, it belonged to an African dictator and carried a bunch of french officials. Since 1991, the association France DC3 takes care of this old plane. TARGO met Gabriel Evêque, the pilot of the machine.
With his leather jacket and his old cap stuck on his head, Gabriel Evêque gets closer to a huge plane flanked by two big propellers. At 83 years old he is almost as old as the plane. The retired man has been a pilot for 50 years. Now he dedicates himself to his passion : looking after the beloved Douglas DC3 standing behind him. Today, the historical plane lies in a hangar in a Parisian airport. The pilot is about to inspect the plane for today’s flight, an aerial meeting in Blois in the center of France. An usual day.
Between the man and the machine, it’s an old story. “One day, a friend told me : there is a DC3 which is being sold for nothing and it might be taken apart if we don’t do anything. So with a few others, we got together and we bought it” says the pilot. “We were mad, completely mad.” Since 20 years, the organisation France DC3 takes care of this unique piece.
The aircraft has an outstanding history. It was built for the United State Army Air Force by the Douglas Aircraft Company in California. On 5th March 1943, the aeroplane leaves the plant with the ID number 42–23310. During the same year it takes off to Europe. Its destination is England. Its mission, Operation Overlord.
“It was towing a glider, and was boarded by around thirty paratroopers, says Gabriel. its target was to drop everybody on the city of Sainte-Mère-Église.” During the operation, it was targeted by german artillery. Hit but not down, it manages to get back to its base in England.
While inspecting the plane, Gabriel stops at the back of the aircraft. Near the tail, the after-effects of D-Day are still visible to this day. Three small riveted plates cover three bullet holes. “Underneath, there are 5 centimeters large holes” says Gabriel.
In 1944, the Douglas was sent back to the frontline, at first for the Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion in the south of France, and a second time for Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. Each time it gets away without a scratch. “It’s a warrior” says the pilot.
In 1948, it’s called up again by the British Air Force, it becomes a part of the Berlin Airlift during the blockade by the Soviets. Once its mission is accomplished, the French Air Force acquires it. Under the french flag the plane is used to carry VIPs. The plane has seen some of the top senior officials of its time. “When we look at its logbook, we can see that De Gaulle used it a lot, says the pilot. Mitterrand used it as well when he was Secretary of the Interior.” During two decades, the plane belonged to France. Then it was gifted to Jean-Bedel Bokassa by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
The self-proclaimed emperor of Central Africa was a megalomaniac, he registered his plane with his initials : TL-JBB. A few years after his fall the plane came back to Europe, passed from hand to hand before being left abandoned. It owes its salvation to the pilots and the mechanics of the association France DC3 who put it back together.
Today the plane has been repainted to Air France colors, which gives a little financial help to the association. The old warrior only flies when the weather is right, during memorial events or air shows. “We do around twenty flights with it each year, says Gabriel. But if we wanted to, we could fly around the world with it.”
At Orly, the take off time is coming. The pilot does one last check of the plane. “Everything is clear” he says to Gérard, his flying mechanic who is also retired. Two alarms start ringing and both doors of the hangar open. A small truck pushes the planes out in the open. At the same time a huge jet aircraft stops in front of his elder. A few meters and two different times separate them.
Gabriel, his co-pilot Jean-Claude and Gérard the mechanic take place in the cockpit an hour late on the schedule. Since the 40s the cockpit hasn’t changed much : two big steering wheels, thrust levers and navigation systems. Only the basics. “Everybody has a memory with this plane. And we have to admit it has a great face, it looks funny. It looks like it’s smiling.”
After quick call with the control tower, the Douglas slowly moves to the runway. The cabin rattles, and the aircraft accelerates. At full speed the motors are purring. Carefully, the plane takes off and gains altitude. The plane won’t go faster than 300 kmph and won’t go higher than five thousands meters.
“At the helm, it’s really physical. In this plane, there is a noise, a smell and sensations that go all the way to your hands and your feet. Whereas today all the planes, like everything else, look the same. They all fly at the same height, at the same speed.” Inside the plane, it’s hot and it smells like a mix of oil and gas. “Sometimes we flew in awful weather. The plane was going up then down. It was impossible to control. The passengers were throwing up from the take off until the landing.”
Today the weather is nice, and after an hour of flying the runway of Blois’ airport is on sight. “This plane needs to be piloted until the very last minute, you don’t always know how you’re going to end up.” Carefully, both wheels touch the grassy track, then the tail goes down et the wheel of the drift touches the ground. After a quick u-turn the plane enters its parking spot and the motors stop. Behind the safety barriers, onlookers are already gazing at the machine.
After 70 years, the DC3 still has a bright future : “with some care, it could easily fly for another century” assures his pilot Gabriel.