Tabitha May formed the vanguard of the D-Day Squadron, arriving at Prestwick a couple of days ahead of the main group. Her track across the Atlantic was very clear from their excellent flight tracking app – something those old time Pan American Clippers couldn’t offer! However, she almost caught me unawares on the afternoon of May 20th as I realised she was already crossing the Hebrides. By the time I was approaching Ayr, she had run south over Bute and turned to port just east of the Isle of Arran to begin her downwind leg ‘up the valley’ towards Dalmellington. Heading north on the base leg, she turned onto final approach, following USAF C-130s to land on runway 12/30. The first Pan-American liveried DC-3 to cross the Atlantic in many years, she would be followed by another one four days later!
Tabitha May was built with the dual c/n 34378/ 17111 and rolled off the Oklahoma City line on 12th October 1945 (1). Delivered to the storage facility at Greenville Air Base, Mississippi, she joined-up with redundant C-47s returning from service in Europe. One of the last C-47s completed from original parts (as opposed to aircraft completed from unfinished C-117 parts), 34378 was allocated the USAAF serial 45-1108. Although she was spared the indignity of moving straight to the scrap facility as many of her bomber cousins had done, Tabitha May was transferred from Greenville to the Davis Monthan air base on January 31st 1946 and, from there, to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation site at Augusta on March 2nd 1946. From there, the aircraft was flown to Mineola, Long Island, New York for removal of non military-specific equipment at the Naval Air Facility (2). Tabitha May was originally due to be sold to an airline start-up but, when this fell through, she caught the eye of Jack Losse, Chief Pilot of the Colombia Broadcasting Corporation (CBS).With an exceptionally low air time of just 35.5 hours (3), she seemed ideal for use as an executive transport. She was civilianised as NC54542 by Aero Trades Inc at Roosevelt Field before operating for six or seven years for CBS’s head office in New York City. By the time CBS sold her in November 1953, she had flown around 550 hours.
(1) Basic history and timeline from JMG Gradidge’s Air Britain book ‘The DC-3 and its Predecessors’.
(2) The Naval Air Facility at Mineola was established in 1943 on Long Island at the existing Roosevelt Field with the primary function of preparing aircraft for delivery to Great Britain under the Lend/ Lease programme. In two and a half years, 6662 aircraft passed through the airfield. By 1946, the operation had been reversed and aircraft were being decommissioned and painted in civilian colours. Information from www.airfields-freeman.com
(3) This information was taken from Courtesy Aircraft Sales website when they were offering Tabitha May for sale during the 2000s and were due to take her to ‘The Last Time’ at Rock Falls in 2010. Some of the information may not be 100% accurate.
The new owner of NC54542 (N54542, post 1949) was the Outboard and Marine Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (4) who continued to operate her in an executive role.
In 1965, N54542 was re-registered N80M in the Company’s new name of Outboard Marine Corporation. She was finished in a smart red/white/blue scheme reflecting the Evinrude brand colours, and carried her new registration on the tail fin and OMC logo on the rudder. With red wing tips and blue nacelles, she must have cut a dash on her regular circuit of the US/ Canadian Great Lakes manufacturing plants. OMC also had Gulfstream corporate aircraft, one of which was registered N90M. When Tabitha May left the fleet in February 1978, she regained her old registration of N54542 and N80M passed to OMC’s second Gulfstream.
(4) Studying the C-47s of D-Day Squadron often gives insights into other historic stories. Outboard Motors Corporation was founded in 1929 by the Norwegian-American outboard designer Ole Evinrude and Stephen Briggs of Briggs & Stratton. On its way to becoming the Outboard and Marine Manufacturing Company in 1936, the added Johnson outboards and ChrisCraft cruisers. In 1956, the name changed to Outboard Marine Company, OMC, and the product range expanded to Snomobiles, trailer tents, mowers and power boats. Tabitha May’s tenure was one of prosperity but, by the 1990s, financial problems resulted in the Company being advertised for sale. Potential salvation from Detroit Diesel was missed when a highly-leveraged offer was accepted from a fund backed by George Soros. Production lines were moved, divisions sold and the Company filed for bankruptcy in 2000. Source: Encyclopedia of Chicago.
The Outboard Marine Corporation generously donated Tabitha May to their Wisconsin neighbours, the Experimental Aircraft Association. Registered on 15th February 1978 at EAA’s first home, Franklin, Wisconsin, N54542 was employed to fly HQ personnel, merchandise and passengers on missions from Franklin and their annual Fly-in site at Oshkosh. A striking new yellow and blue scheme was applied, perhaps reflecting the sky and the sun, perhaps an appreciation of Wisconsin’s Swedish heritage. When the EAA moved to Oshkosh on a permanent basis in 1983, the DC-3 was re-registered to the EAA Aviation Foundation that August. The following Spring, N54542 is recorded as being registered to Grand National Air Inc and was spotted at a number of southern airfields in the next couple of years: Addison, Texas (15/1/1986), Kendall-Tamiami, Florida (21/3/1986), Burlington, N.Carolina (3/10/1986). The colour scheme remained the same but the EAA titles and rudder logo had been removed.
On 3/8/1987 N54542 is reported to have passed to H.A.G.Inc (5) and, just over a month later on 9/9/1987, she passed to Warren Basler’s organisation back at Oshkosh for what would seem to be a long, if intermittent, ownership. It is possible that the operators prior to September 1987 only leased Tabitha May from the EAA and that subsequent recorded operators leased her from Basler Flight Services. Either way, she continued to ply the skies in EAA blue and yellow colours for a further few years.
(5) H.A.G Inc might have been sales agents as they are recorded as keepers of N74542 for only just over a month. Alternatively, they may be Hag Inc, owners of a bar in Hudson, Wisconsin.
In February 1988 N54542 was ferried to California by Dan Reid, a pilot who had connections with Basler and was now due to become Director of Operations for National Park Airways of Burbank. California Air Tours was the holding company for National Park and, under the ownership of Mike Suzuki had specialised in arranging tours of the Grand Canyon for Japanese tourists. Operations had been inaugurated with 9-seat Cessna 404s and Piper Navajo but the arrival of Tabitha May enabled a move to 30-seat configurations under the FAA Part 135 air charter regulations. Passengers were embarked at Burbank’s Martin Executive Terminal for the 2-hour flight to the Grand Canyon with steward and guide facilities provided by a Japanese steward. The flights operated all year round in all weathers and sometimes had to divert from Grand Canyon Airport to Kingman in Arizona. N54542 continued to operate in the blue and yellow colour scheme and carried ‘Air Grand Canyon- Yosemite’ titles.
Mike Suzuki’s son, Keisuke Suzuki, estimated that 15,000 Japanese tourists a year used the service which accounted for 95% of Japanese demand for Grand Canyon sightseeing flights from Los Angeles (6).
California Air Tours aimed for expansion and, in June 1988, purchased a second DC-3, N8042X from Ken Martin’s Audi Air in Fairbanks, Alaska. Unfortunately, upon departure from Petersburg, Alaska, on its delivery flight, the pilot’s control column chain snapped and the aircraft was ditched in the Pacific. The crew were rescued by fishing boat and the DC-3, although later salvaged, never made it to the CAT fleet.
N54542 moved to California Air Tours ownership on 7/8/1989 and she was briefly joined by K&K’s C-47 N7043N (currently N47E, Miss Virginia) on lease in November 1989. Maintenance Director Brad Babic confirmed in January 1989 (6) that aircraft reliability had been excellent since Tabitha May’s arrival, with only one incident experienced (7). However, the arrival of N7043N in autumn 1989, normally considered to be the low season, might have been due to maintenance issues within the fleet. It could also have reflected the Suzuki’s plan to increase the route network to include San Francisco and Las Vegas. The expansion never occurred and Air Grand Canyon operations ceased by 1991. N54542 had returned to Basler control by then with registration to Basler Flight Services (oddly, quoted as being of Bakersfield, California) pending on 1/6/1990. Records show her as being acquired by General Aviation Services of Wheeling, Illinois on July 2nd 1990 but, by August of the same year, she was back at Oshkosh. Registered to Basler & Basler at Oshkosh on 10th June 1991, she was photographed there on 5th September 1991, still in her blue and yellow colours. A further change of ownership was recorded on 23rd January 1992 with Rosier Inc of Pawnee, Oklahoma, given as the new owners. Basler very likely retained some influence and she was photographed at their Oshkosh facility in 1994 wearing a smart new white colour scheme with red coach lines.
(6) Information from Los Angeles Times, January 19th 1989.
(7) On December 7th 1988 a hydraulic line broke on Tabitha May while landing at Burbank and pilot Dan Reid let her roll to a halt.
In April 1995, Tabitha May was re-registered N1944H and joined Era Aviation in Fairbanks, Alaska, with 16,500 flying hours to her credit. Era was a long-established Alaskan company which, formed as helicopter operator Economy and Rotor Aids in 1958, had grown into Alaska’s largest regional airline (8). Era of the 1990s combined charter services, the helicopter business and fixed-wing flying (Convair 580s and Dash 8s) with airport operation. The two DC-3s were purchased for operation by a new division, ‘Era Classic Airlines’. Alaska has a considerable tourist industry as an important port-of-call for cruise liners and Era felt that the ideal way to see the landscapes of Alaska was by air at a sedate pace. The first aircraft purchased was registered N1944M and was delivered in October 1994. Tabitha May, now N1944H, followed the next spring and the two aircraft were christened ‘Spirit of the North’ and ‘Spirit of Alaska’ respectively. Both were extensively refurbished, ’44M retaining a natural metal finish and ’44H receiving a red/ black Era cheat line over her earlier white fuselage. The Classic Air division employed its own team of mechanics and both aircraft received upgrades to the avionics equipment and had extra sound proofing and decorative 1940s-style interiors fitted. Seats on the aircraft were marketed to cruise ship operators and also offered directly by Era. Passengers were treated to flights of around 90 minutes duration over one of four 200-mile routes visiting Prince William Sound, the Harding Ice Field, Lake Chakachamma or circling Mount McKinley. Weather often decided which route was selected and the aircraft would generally depart each afternoon at 16:00 or 19:00 (9). The 21-seat configuration offered good visibility through the scenic windows at a flight level of around 1000′. Air stewardesses dressed in 1940s style costumes and served champagne while passengers enjoyed muted big band music to accompany the navigational commentary from the flight deck. The C-47s were also available for ad hoc charter flights and occasionally took over from a Twin Otter on scheduled services.
The terms of Era Classic’s licence restricted the DC-3 operation to summer flying between May 1st and October 31st, which clearly restricted the revenue-earning capability. During the first winter season, Era flew the two aircraft south to Deer Valley Airport, Phoenix, with a view to operating charters over Tabitha May’s old stamping ground of the Grand Canyon and Lake Tahoe. However, the year-round high temperatures were, perhaps surprisingly, found to be unsuitable for Era’s plans and future winter breaks were utilised to maintain and upgrade the two DC-3s. Era planned to operate the historic duo well into the 21st century but the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers brought new regulations which destroyed the business. Requirements, including blast-proof cockpit doors, would have been too expensive to implement and led to the two DC-3s being withdrawn from use and, at the end of the 2003 season, flown south to Reno’s Stead Airport in November 2003. They had been the last two DC-3s flying passengers in the USA on a part 121 Air Carrier Certificate. At the time, total time on Tabitha May was around 17,700 hours.
(8) Economy Helicopters was formed in 1948 and merged with Rotary Aids in 1958. the helicopter operation continued to grow and was purchased by Rowan Drilling in 1967 to bolster rig crew change operations. A change of ownership in 2004 saw fellow oil and gas conglomerate Seacor purchase Era and the company is today (2021) amalgamated with North Sea giants Bristow helicopters.
(9) The Era operation is described in detail in an excellent article by Ron Kosys in Propliner #80, Autumn 1999.
Former airline pilot Robert S.Randazzo formed the Precision Manual Development Group in Virginia in 1997 with the aim of writing manuals and add-on software for the flight simulator market. By the early 2000s, the company had moved its office to northern Nevada – well placed to observe aircraft movements at Reno’s Stead Airport. The Era aircraft were sitting at Reno for around 5 years giving Robert Randazzo ample opportunity to walk around N1944H and formulate his plans to acquire a DC-3 for restoration to Pan American colours. In May 2008, the two aircraft were registered to Delaware companies N1944M LLC and N1944H LLC and flown to Greater Rockford Airport, Illinois, still in Era colours. The DC-3s were advertised for sale by Courtesy Aircraft, a sales agent which specialised in historic ex-military aircraft and had sold prodigious numbers of P-51s and Texan AT-6s during the 2000s. The market for the two C-47s was focused on freight operators and private collectors. While N1944M had a full cargo door, N1944H retained her airstairs and was not immediately attractive to freight operators. N1944M also had a D-Day history and was sold in 2009 to the Lyon Air Museum in Orange County, California.
In July 2010, N1944H was taken to the ‘Last Time’ DC-3 fly-in at neighbouring Rock Falls, Illinois.
A new CofA was issued on 1st January 2011 and, by July, she had been noted at both Reno and Oshkosh. Robert Randazzo’s company PMDG eventually bought her in November 2011 and, by April 2012, had applied to change her registration to N33611 in preparation for the application of the Pan-Am scheme (as NC33611). The original bearer of registration NC33611 had been lost in a non-fatal take-off accident at Port of Spain in 1942. The office base of PMDG moved from Nevada to Virginia in 2012 and Tabitha May accordingly moved from Reno to Stafford Regional Airport. Extensive restoration work was carried-out in 2012 with most major systems stripped-down and rebuilt. The engines weren’t in good condition and her years in the desert sunshine had led to some weathering. The old C-47 was flown to Ogden, Utah, for repainting in her Pan American colours by Straube’s Aircraft Services.
A new starboard engine was fitted at the end of May 2013 and the port unit during the first week of June. Resplendent in the new colour scheme, she was rolled out of the hangar on June 11th and took to the air for the first time as NC33611 the following day. In July, Robert Randazzo flew Tabitha May (she is named after his daughter) to Reno to show her to ex-Pan American Captain Larry Hunsberger, a guiding light in Randazzo’s airline career and inspiration for the DC-3 restoration. By September, NC33611 was visiting west coast airfields at Monterrey, Sacramento and Sonoma County before returning to Reno for the races.
In October 2013, Tabitha May headed to her new home in Virginia at, firstly, Leesburg, and then Fredericksburg Stafford Airport. By November, Tabitha May was visiting Florida with a flight to Myrtle Beach. Registered to PMDG Flight Operations LLC at Alexandra, Virginia on 28th February 2014, she was ready to start air show visits during the next season with appearances at Manassas, Virginia; Naples, Florida and Leesburg. The arrival of the immaculate DC-3 and its equally dapper Pan-American uniformed crew was an event wherever she went. In 2016, the team visited the EAA Airventure at Tabitha May’s old home of Oshkosh where she picked-up a couple of awards. Plans began to develop for the 2019 Atlantic Crossing in time for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and, after extensive preparations, NC33611 touched down at Prestwick on the evening of May 20th 2019, the first of the D-Day Squadron to cross the Atlantic.
NC33611 Tabitha May’s journey with D-Day Squadron.
Tabitha May’s journey to Normandy followed a slightly different timetable to the rest of D-Day Squadron with no congregation at Oxford Waterbury Airport. Instead, she was thoroughly washed and laundered at her home base of Manassas, Virginia, and, on May 13th, loaded ready for the transatlantic flight. The initial plan was to fly to Boston, Massachusetts after departing Virginia but, with thunder forecast, NC33611 took off from Manassas on May 14th, overflew the District of Colombia and then headed directly to Montreal, Canada. The following day, the team made the short hop from Dorval to St.Hubert, Quebec, where Planesavers Mikey McBryan has recently been rescuing 271 Squadron D-Day veteran FZ668/ C-FDTD.
Departing St.Hubert on May 16th, Tabitha May flew to Goose Bay where she waited for a couple of days while the weather improved. The crew then flew from Goose to Narsarsuaq on May 18th and onwards to Reykjavik on 19th. After interviews with Icelandic TV, a rather gusty departure has Tabitha May en route to Scotland. The initial plan had been to arrive at Wick but weather conditions made Prestwick a better bet and, after 5 hours and 12 minutes in the air, Tabitha May completed her Atlantic Crossing when she touched down in Scotland.
The following day, she was in the air again heading south on the 2-hour flight to Duxford. To celebrate the arrival, the team donned their Pan American uniforms for photographs for Facebook and Twitter. The following few days were spent at Duxford with flying days on June 2nd, 3rd, 4th and, finally, the 5th plus a bit of engine maintenance on June 4th. The Normandy ‘invasion’ on June 5th was followed by commemorative flying on 6th June and the weather standby at Caen on June 7th.
Following the D-Day commemoration flights, Tabitha May once again departed from the route followed by the other Squadron aircraft. Departing Caen at 09:45 on 10th June, she flew to Paderborn-Lippstadt in Germany where Robert Randazzo and his team met with the staff of Aerosoft Gmbh. In the afternoon, Tabitha May flew on to Munich where she made an overnight stop. The arrival is documented on U-tube. The C-47 and her crew were welcomed with great enthusiasm by the Lufthansa technical department and the airport controllers. By 13th June, Tabitha May had transited to Dole, near Dijon in France where she was due to enjoy some maintenance at the Aero Passion facility. Following remedial work to the engines, NC33611 took a test flight on June 18th before fuelling up with 800 gallons of avgas for the next day’s flight to Prestwick. The journey to Scotland went well on the 19th and Tabitha May flew on to Reykjavik the same evening. The next leg, to Narsarsuaq in Greenland, was flown on 20th June. the following day she departed Greenland at 11:25 but the weather conditions soon demanded a stop at Goose Bay for more fuel. 250 gallons was embarked from the diminishing supplies at Goose in a stop which lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes. En route for the USA at 17:23 local time, Tabitha May reached Bangor, Maine at 19:48: on home soil.
Her return to base at Manassas, Virginia saw a new round of maintenance commenced prior to her being offered for sale with just under 18,000 flying hours total time. The price mentioned by Aero Solutions was originally just under $ 1 million but, more recently, offers around $795,000 have been sought.