The C-47 known as “Whiskey 7” has flown many important missions in its 77-year history.
It was among the lead aircraft during the early waves of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, dropping 17 paratroopers near the French village of St. Mere Eglise, Normandy.
A few years after World War II, the plane took part in the Berlin Airlift, dropping food, water and medicine to citizens of West Berlin, a response to the Soviet blockade of land routes into city.
In 2014, members of the National Warplane Museum, which owns “Whiskey 7,” flew the vintage warbird back to Europe for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day invasion.
On Saturday, the plane led another important mission. “Operation Thanks from Above” was a day-long mission to honor and show support to medical and essential works and first responders serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two flights – one in the morning, another in the afternoon – covered some 600 miles from Geneseo to Buffalo and then Geneseo to Syracuse.
“It’s history making,” Don Mastin of Avon said from a vantage point along Horseshoe Boulevard between the Erie-Attica Trail and the Barilla pasta factory as he waited for the “Whiskey 7” and the P-51 Mustang called “Mad Max” to arrive.
“It’s hard to imagine,” he said, “that the whole world is affected by this virus and how quickly it has changed everything.”
In Avon, more than 75 people had gathered – spread out between a parking lot adjacent to the Barilla plant and across the natural, park-like setting toward the Erie-Attica Trail parking area. Others took up spots along Horseshoe Boulevard as it wrapped around the plant.
The open space allowed for clear views as the planes approached from the north. Perhaps, more significantly, the location also allowed room for ample social distancing by the public. Many people also wore face masks.
Mary and Brian Moon of Fairport drove to Avon in their gleaming blue 1965 Plymouth Fury III and picked a spot in the then-empty parking lot outside Barilla. They correctly thought the location would likely be less crowded then areas around the Rochester hospitals that were part of the mission.
“We thought it’d be a nice chance to make a road trip with the beautiful weather,” said Mary Moon, who, with her husband are both essential workers. She maintains medical buildings, and he is a maintenance mechanic for an assisted living facility.
Nigel Perrott of Hornell was very interested in seeing the flyover and given its purpose he thought it was “a good reason to be out.”
He drove up from Hornell looking for the best place to see the flyover and thought the flat, wide open space near the Barilla plant would be an excellent place to view the vintage planes on their trip.
Lauren Peck of Avon said she thought the salute was “a great way to honor the workers.”
Rebekah Crasinski of Avon and her children ride bikes often around the trail. Saturday was a perfect day for a ride, she said, “and we love to see the old planes,” said Crasinski, whose husband is a health care worker.
Flyovers have occurred nationwide as a way for aviators to support and encourage their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Warplane Museum’s flight – called “Operation Thanks from Above” – was no different. The flights flew over hospitals, Veterans Affairs facilities, downtowns, and parks in Western New York, the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, Central New York, and along lakes Erie and Ontario.
“It is in recognition of the sacrifices that they have made taking care of people for two months,” said Todd Cameron, director of flight operations for the museum..
The mission covered some 600 miles and about six hours of flying time. The morning flight started at Geneseo and visited the Buffalo area, Niagara Falls, Batavia and Rochester, before making two passes around the Barilla factory about 12:20 p.m.
In the afternoon, the flight – with a different crew piloting “Whiskey 7” and accompanied for a time by a third plane, a Navy trainer – followed a route that include Dansville, Canandaigua Oswego, Syracuse, Auburn and back to areas in the Southern Tier that had been missed in the morning due to weather. The afternoon included a second flight.
Peter Treichler was one of the “Whiskey 7” pilots on the morning mission. From the sky, the crew could see the people who had come out – on the ground and hospital rooftops to see the planes.
“The turnout for this event was just incredible,” said Treichler, a Strykersville resident who flies professionally for a major airline. “We flew over several hospitals, the air force base in Niagara Falls, and everywhere there was a lot of people out and enthusiastic for this event.”
Treichler, who has been involved with the Warplane Museum for about three years, said he “figured there would be some people out,” but once his phone started filling up with text messages he realized the buzz that surrounded the event across much of upstate New York.
“The response to this is really kind of overwhelming,” he said after the morning flight. “I think people are really excited and supportive of it. And I think they’re excited to get outside and to get things moving again.”
Foggy weather did alter the flight plan in the morning. The mission bypassed parts of the Southern Tier, returning as part of the afternoon flight. And the initial pass over Attica was skipped, but the planes returned on their way back from Buffalo.
“We really wanted to get out to show the airplanes off and interact with all the people on the ground,” Treichler said, noting that in Attica, fire departments, essential workers, and other first responders lined the streets. “We did not want to disappoint people.”
Response from the ground
Attica Mayor Nathan Montford said the village appreciated that the flight made a second flight over Attica.
“I’m at a loss for words over how thankful I am for the pilots ... to come back like they did to put on a show for the village of Attica,” Montford said. “They flew over the top of the prison. They did a figure-eight throughout the village. The kids were able to get out and enjoy them. For that, I’m very happy.”
After the first flyover, Montford said it was important for people to keep their spirits up.
“We’re fighting a lot of things right now. We’ll keep fighting for everything, but look at the positives we got out of this, too — the amazing first responders that showed up here, people interacting,” he said. “That’s what this stuff’s all about with the essential workers. It’s a positive thing, even though we weren’t able to see them (the planes).”
In Batavia, VA Deputy Police Chief Bill Scribner, who was there with other officers to put up the department’s garrison flag, watched the planes go by.
“There was quite a crowd out there and good turnout to support the essential workers and support the flyover,” Scribner said. “I think it was a great event to honor the essential workers, to honor the VA and the work that it does.
The VA Police Department normally raises the flag on days such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day to recognize veterans.
“We thought today we would bring it out and honor the veterans and honor the staff that are working very hard,” he said.
VA Western New York Healthcare System Public Affairs Specialist Terry McGuire, also there for the flyover, said there were a lot of VA lodge residents, nurses and other staff standing on the lawn as the planes flew overhead.
“We at the VA Western New York Healthcare System are very appreciative of the flyover,” McGuire said. “Thanks for the National Warplane Museum with vintage World War II aircraft. The COVID crisis is connecting us in a way not seen since World War II.”
Richmond Avenue resident David Barone was able to see the planes fly past while he was in his backyard.
“It was nice to see the big one and the smaller plane behind it. It was nice that they did that,” Barone said.
Barone said his daughter works in dietary services at Rochester Regional Health United Memorial Medical Center in Batavia and his daughter-in-law works in a doctor’s office in Williamsville.
“It was impressive. It was impressive to see a vintage war plane,” he said. He said the flyover was patriotic, with the World War II planes flying over the VA facility, leading him to think of the veterans.
A symbol of hope
The two flights would visit more than 80 locations.
Whiskey 7 was intended as a symbol of hope. With the flyovers, pilots said they were hoping to inspire workers.
“People are ready for some good news,” Cameron said. “So for us to use an airplane that is already associated with hope, sacrifice and patriotism, we want to take it aloft and give them something to smile about.”
For some, seeing the plane is an emotional experience, Cameron said.
“Every time that we fly this airplane, we are thinking about the 17 paratroopers in the back on D-Day. We are thinking about the goodwill that we brought to the Berlin Airlift, and the lives that were saved,” Cameron said. “We are really focused on honoring that legacy.”
Chief Pilot Chris Polhemus has flown Whiskey 7 many times. He said honoring the plane’s legacy is now more important than ever.
“It is a symbol of freedom and what America is all about,” Polhemus said.
“When we sit up front and put out seatbelts on, we always take a moment and look out the window,” Polhemus said. “We typically will look at each other and say ‘Can you believe that we get to do this?’ ”
Staff writer Brendan McDonough contributed to this story. Includes reporting by Brian Quinn of The (Batavia) Daily News.