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  • Writer's pictureLudo Mennes

2020 D-Day 75 years “Flying for a greater cause”

C-130J of the 86th AW with invasion stripes and original code on take off from Cherbourg 6th June 2019


With the world in a collective lock down due to the Covid-19 virus and hardly any flying activities at all it is hard to imagine that on 5th May 2020 the Netherlands was liberated 75 years ago from the German Nazi occupation. Ironically all celebration and remembrance activities had to be cancelled due to the battle against Corona. What we have now are the memories of days gone by...

In June 2019 Northern Skies Aviation spent 4 days in Normandy to attend the activities around the 75th anniversary of the D-Day commemoration.

The Ranville war cemetery with 2560 graves of D-Day victims

Several venues were visited such as the famous Pegasus bridge and the official dropping of paratroopers of the 16th Air Brigade over Sannerville in the British zone, under the watchful eyes of HM Prince Charles.

The famous Pegasus bridge, on the right side behind the flags only 30 meters from the bridge the gliders landed

On the same day the official para drop at Carentan in the Utah Beach zone also took place. Carentan was an important city during the fights in 1944 as it was the connecting point between the beaches of Omeha and Utah. However the city was heavily defended by German forces including by one of their best regiments the 6. Fallschirmjägerregiment. It took the Allies 4 days to conquer the city with considerable losses.

Major Winters monument near Sainte Marie-du-Mont

On the early morning of 6th June 1944 around 22,000 American, Canadian and British paratroopers of the the 82nd, 101st and 6th Airborne Divisions were dropped over Normandy. Under Operation Neptune the paratroopers had to secure both the eastern flank (Sword Beach) and the western flank (Utah Beach).

One of them was major Dick Winters of the now famous Easy Company in the series Band of Brothers, to whom a monument is dedicated.

It is his quote that we used for our article in dedication to all men and women who fought for our liberty and gave their lives.

“Wars do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men”, major Richard D. Winters, Easy Company, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

The US Army hosted a Forward Operating Base at the race court of Carentan with 4 CH-47F Chinooks and 8 UH-60 Blackhawks during the commemoration festivities. The helicopters were used for liaison duty and flew people from and to the different official venues such as the American war cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer.

UH-60M Blackhawk hovers to its landing spot at the Carentan Hippodrome

CH-47F Chinook of the 1st Cavalry Air Brigade from Ft Hood, Texas hovering over the race court at Carentan

Other highlights of our visit were the Daks over Normandy event at Caen-Carpiquet Airport and the visit to Cherbourg-Maupertus Airport, center of the USAFE team responsible for the massive airdrop on 9th June at La Fière near Sainte-Mère-Église.

Radar equipped C-47 Skytrain "that's all brother", led the formation of 800 aircraft during D-Day dropping 13,000 men

C-53 Skytrain "D-Day Doll", a veteran of D-Day, Normandy and Market Garden, Arnhem

The Daks over Normandy event at Caen Carpiquet Airport was planned to host over 40 DC-3 Dakota and C-47/C-53 Skytrain aircraft from all over the world. In the end 24 aircraft made the journey first to Duxford in the UK and crossed the North Sea on the late afternoon of 5th June.

A special group of 15 Daks from the USA, the so-called D-Day Squadron, flew the original North Atlantic ferry route used during WWII via Greenland and Iceland, named "Blue Spruce".

Even though the organization at Caen wasn't as professional as the visitors would have wanted , still the sight of so many old veterans was magnificent and very rare!

C-47 Skytrain at the Merville battery, which was taken in the early hours of 6th June 1944 by British paratroopers

Caen-Carpiquet Airport was also the place on 6th June were president Trump would arrive to attend the festivities in Normandy. He would land at Caen on the morning of 6th June and fly straight to the war cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer for a commemoration service together with the French president Macron.

As always the presidential aircraft had arrived days before (4 MV-22 Osprey and 2 UH-60 Blackhawk). The necessary material was flown in by multiple C-17s.

C-17A from McGuire AFB taxies to the Caen platform on the evening of 4th June 2019

MV-22B Osprey basking in the evening sun at Caen 4th June 2019

Unfortunately president Trump left the VC-25A 'Airforce One' in England and flew in with a VC-32, still a lovely aircraft.

VC-32B on final approach to Caen-Carpiquet on the morning of 6th June 2019

Cherbourg-Maupertus Airport

On 7th June Cherbourg was visited for an interview with the Mission Commander Major "Shag" Vanderneck of the 86th AW, Ramstein Airbase, Germany, about the commemoration activities. Unfortunately due to strong winds the rehearsal flight had to be cancelled, still we had the opportunity to visit the participating aircraft.

The following article has been written for publication in Air International Magazine. Enjoy!!

86th AW C-130J in the parking area at Cherbourg with three other aricraft

"Flying for a greater cause"

“Wars do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men”, major Richard D. Winters, Easy Company, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. In the week of 6th June the Normandy coast in France was the center point of commemoration as the world stood still to remember the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day. In the early morning of 6th June 1944, 75 years ago, around 22,000 American, British and Canadian paratroopers jumped over Normandy under Operation Neptune. The paratroopers had the crucial task to secure the flanks and approaches of the landing beaches in Normandy in the assault against the Germans. The British and Canadian paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division had to secure the eastern flank (Sword Beach) in Operation Tonga. The American paratroopers of the 82nd (Mission Boston) and 101st Airborne Divisions (Mission Albany) covered the western flank (Utah Beach). To remember the brave men who jumped into the night, many aerial commemoration activities were organised in Normandy differing from fly-overs, to paradrops and a large gathering of C-47 Dakotas at the Airfield of Caen-Carpiquet.

C-130s return from their presidential flypast on 6th June

USAFE During the commemoration week Cherbourg-Maupertus airport on the Cotentin peninsula was the center of all American aerial activities. Overall responsible was major ‘Shag’ Vanderneck of the 37th Airlift Squadron (AS), 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Airbase, Germany. The 37 AS, currently flying the Lockheed C-130J ‘Hercules’, participated in the invasion and dropped paratroopers at Sainte-Mère-Église. The village became well-known for the paratrooper John Steel, who hang by his parachute on the church tower for several hours. The squadron flew at that time with the Douglas C-47 Dakota as the 37th Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS), with the squadron code ‘W7’ painted on the C-47s. For this occasion all four participating Hercules aircraft from Ramstein received the same Invasion black and white stripes and the original code on the fuselage.

Major Vanderneck was very honoured to be the overall airlead in the joint taskforce 75 and point of contact for the USAF in Europe (USAFE). The taskforce was led by the US Army as the invasion 75 years ago was also led by the US Army. Major Vanderneck explains: “five years ago I visited the commemoration activities with my family and was really impressed. After returning from the Weapon School at Nellis AFB in July 2018 one of the first things my commander said to me, ‘Shag’ you will be my mission commander for the D-Day 75 commemoration, which makes me really proud. For a C-130 pilot usually the Army is the customer, however as D-Day was a US Army invasion, they are leading the commemoration, they set the stage. It is our job to support it in the best possible way.”

For the different commemoration activities during the week a record of 44 fly-overs with American aircraft involved were planned. These ranged from a single ship fly-over to the official fly-over on 6th June at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in the presence of both the American president Trump and French president Macron. The largest performance however was planned for Sunday 9th June at La Fière near Sainte-Mère-Église. A massive airdrop involving 980 paratroopers dropped from 18 aircraft from the United States, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Romania. Except for a French Transall, all aircraft were C-130s.

Planning process

Putting his pride into action major Vanderneck started talking to people who had been out to Normandy before finding out what the commemoration activities exactly would entail and learn from their issues. These issues ranged from budgeting to air controlling frequencies and airspace management as the aircraft would fly partially in British airspace during the joining of the different flights. Major Vanderneck started forming a core team consisting of himself and his chief of tactics, captain Gibson, who developed the entire aerial operation. In April his mission planner captain Forsyth, responsible for the paradrop on 9th June, joined the team.

The first planning conference took place in September in which the US Air Force Europe worked together with the US Army, US embassy in France and French authorities. The French authorities were both cooperative and decisive as they requested for the final plans no later than March 2019. Major Vanderneck started informing the allied Forces in November/December during the initial planning conference, checking whether they would participate with paratroopers and had an aircraft available. For example the Germans supplied paratroopers for the jump but were unable to provide air capacity.

Two additional conferences - the main and final planning conference - were planned in January and April. After the main planning conference the core team built a brief based on the input and send it out to give the participants the chance to prepare themselves. During the last conference all countries involved were present with representatives. The list of pilots was provided not earlier than the end of May due to the operational commitments of the participating squadrons. All planning conferences took place in France as it was the host nation and its representatives could easily provide the relevant information for example about airspace and airfield capacity.

C-130 tail of an aircraft from Little Rock, Arkansas

Major Vanderneck arrived in France on 29th May to prepare the arrival of the aircraft and personnel. Although the 37th AS with four aircraft lead the charge, it received help from units like the 39th and 41st Airlift Squadrons (two aircraft) at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, the 61st and 62nd Airlift Squadrons (three aircraft, codes Q9 and E5) at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, the 96th Airlift Squadron (two aircraft, code 6Z) at Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station, and the 123rd Airlift Wing, Kentucky Air National Guard (two aircraft). A number of aircraft present from former WWII units received their letter-number code for the occasion and some aircraft were adorned with the black and white invasion stripes.

C-130J of Dyess AFB, Texas landing at Cherbourg, in the back a C-130J of Ramstein is visible

Cherbourg number one choice Due to the number of participating aircraft all allied aircraft and five American C-130s were based at Evreux airbase. Cherbourg has a military ramp with only eight spots, although it was decided to park another C-130 at the taxitrack. The civil ramp was kept open for visits of high ranking officials and commercial aircraft. The decision was made to keep all J-models at Cherbourg and all H-models at Evreux airbase.

UC-35A of US Army Europe departs Cherbourg after picking up a high ranked officer

As major Vanderneck explained:” lack of space at Cherbourg was the main reasons to split up, however we want to show our presence here in Normandy. For us Cherbourg has for a long time been our main operating base to show the French people that we remember the same way as they do, as the memories of the invasion are still extremely vivid.” In the afternoon of June 6, C-130H with serial 92-3284, of the 96th AS ‘Flying Vikings’, AFRC, flew from Evreux to Cherbourg, bringing all the aircrews for the inbriefing by ‘Shag’. The inbriefing provided the participants the necessary information about the scheme of manoeuvres such as take-off times, re-joining point over the Channel, load plans, drop zones etc.

A shot of the 7th June briefing, telling the crews that the flight is cancelled due to strong winds

One of the most important things to discuss was the situation when visibility drops to zero due to changing weather conditions, the so-called in adverted weather penetration. Only the American aircraft have the Station Keeping Equipment on board, which allows the aircraft to remain in formation despite low visibility. The decision for this flight was made that all aircraft would turn away under a certain angle and fly at a certain altitude to create deconfliction both in lateral and vertical spacing.

C-130H of the 96th AS "Flying Vikings" on take off back to Evreux Airbase

Take away The rehearsal flight, which was planned on Friday June 7, was cancelled due to strong winds, which would make landing potentially unable. Despite the cancellation all crews were briefed again on Saturday at Cherbourg to inform them with the latest updates. The drop on Sunday went through according to plan. All paratroopers boarded the airplanes at Cherbourg airport. The first wave of US aircraft departed around 10 o'clock in the morning and then waited for an hour in the holding until the second wave of aircraft landed from Evreux to take the remaining paratroopers on board. The rejoining of both formations took place over the Channel and the formation dropped the paratroopers in six rounds successfully over La Fière.

Major Vanderneck was very pleased that everything worked out according to the plans made. Asking for his most important take away, he responded ”Keep it stupid simple! The more aircraft involved, the more people involved, the more ideas there are. The final plan is a result of an iterative process by all crews involved. However it is my strongest belief that the flight plan should be kept as simple as possible for maximum safety and zero discussion about interpretation.”

Utah Beach, Normandy 6th June 2019

Northern Skies Aviation would like to thank the Royal Netherlands Airforce, Major Vanderneck of the 86th AW and Mrs Beavers-Rapp of the USAFE Public Affairs for their help.

Lest we forget

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects ands enhances the freedom of others", Nelson Mandela

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