Friday, June 3, 2016

Rex Damschroder looks to fly WWII plane to France

Kathryn's Report:

Rex Damschroder of Fremont says the layers of paint on his DC-3 tell the story of the plane's many different uses over the years.

FREMONT- Under a small hangar at the Fremont Airport sits a ragged, weathered DC-3, a plane that Rex Damschroder acknowledged has a colorful history with its prestigious military background and decades of use in various commercial pursuits.

Built in 1943, the plane earned its place in aviation history during World War II as part of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, as it transported paratroopers to northern France at Normandy.

Damschroder, the airport's operator, wants to fix up the DC-3 for a return trip to France in 2019 for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and a re-enactment of the invasion. It's a mission that Damschroder, a longtime pilot, knows will be difficult but feasible, provided he can raise the estimated $250,000 needed for the plane's restoration and trip.

"You change the engines and paint it up and it's a feasible airplane," Damschroder said.

The DC-3 that flew over Normandy with paratroopers on D-Day has been at the airport since 1988. It has lived a post-military life that's included stints as a plane for parachute jumpers and as a show plane at the Kings Island amusement park.

Damschroder said one man who had worked on the plane told him there were rumors that it had been used for drug dealing at one point.

When Damschroder's DC-3 was built, it originally was a C-53D. It was converted to a DC-3 after the war, Damschroder said, before it became part of the 8th Air Force and was used to carry paratroopers and tow gliders.

He said the plane could probably hold up to 30 paratroopers per trip.

"It wasn't built for cargo. It was just for paratroopers," Damschroder said.

Gene Damschroder, Rex's father, bought the plane in 1988 and flew it to the Fremont Airport, where it has been ever since.

In restoring the plane, Damschroder started by stripping the paint. A closer look this week showed multiple layers of paint from the plane's past, evidence of its multiple owners in the decades after the war. Damschroder wants to strip it down and repaint it in its original Army green D-Day colors.

The interior needs some work and Damschroder said he hasn't started restoring the DC-3's cockpit.

Since it's been at the Fremont Airport, the plane has sat in a hangar. Damschroder said the plane's engines are tested yearly and are in working condition.

A small trail of oil could be seen on the ground under one of the plane's engines on Wednesday. Damschroder said it was common for older engines to leak oil and that it wasn't an issue with the plane's flying capability.

"Dad actually flew the plane. It's all here and it does run," Damschroder said.

Like any plane from the World War II era, it's hard to find parts for a DC-3.

Driving home the point, Damschroder showed off a rusted rudder in his airport office that fell off the plane.

He said he drove to Topeka, Kansas, to find a replacement for the rudder.

Damschroder, a former state legislator and longtime local political figure, has been flying planes for 50 years.

As he walked around the DC-3 and described some of the paint stripping that's been done on the plane's exterior, Damschroder said there are three major challenges involved with his project: get the plane looking right, get it flying and raise the money needed for its restoration and flight to and from France.

Organizers of the flight to Normandy want to get 25 DC-3s to make the trip, Damschroder said. He described the 75th anniversary as possibly the last time a living DC-3 crew member would be alive to commemorate the D-Day invasion.

As for the plane, Damschroder said the DC-3 has no life limit, provided it receives the proper maintenance. The plane's wings don't move and it hasn't been corroded by saltwater, he said.

"It can go on for eternity, if you can take care of it," he said.

For the trip to France, Damschroder plans to fly the plane there for the D-Day re-enactment.

He said he had flown as a ferry pilot when he was younger and made 23 Atlantic Ocean crossings, ferrying planes across the ocean through Greenland and Iceland. On the 2019 trip, one of the big issues will be raising enough money to pay for the fuel needed to get the plane to and from France, Damschroder said.

After the DC-3 returns from France, Damschroder said he would eventually like to turn the plane into a local "flying classroom" where students could come to the airport and learn about D-Day and World War II.

His father was a Navy pilot, and Damschroder said the trip to France would be an adventure, as well as a way to salute World War II and its impact on American history.

"I think it was one of the largest, greatest wars of all time," Damschroder said.

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