Time Machine

I imagine that time travel would be a pretty cool thing to experience. This past weekend I flirted a little with time travel at “World War II Weekend,” staged at the Reading Regional Airport in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. There, several hundred living historians (a.k.a. “reenactors”) got together to represent American G.I.s, German infantry, French resistance, and many other groups for the benefit of the history minded of this millennium. The authenticity was astonishing to the extent that the very sight of the “Krauts” in person and up close produced in me a chill—broken only when these 1940s apparitions, precise in every detail, tall, square shouldered, in gray-green uniforms and helmets, would sneak a peek at a smartphone.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

U.S. paratroopers check an all-important equipment check before their jump.

What makes a guy enact a paratrooper jumping out of a plane at 1,500 feet to provide an audience of thousands a sense of what it was like to see a flock of C-47s overhead if you were in France in 1944? The sense I got from it was, these guys of the Airborne Demonstration Team love the history that much. I also realized that the 1944 fellas were up in the air for several minutes over enemy territory as they floated to earth and impersonated clay pigeons for marksmen on the ground. There’s bravery, and then there’s paratroopers.

You learn things by experiencing history up close that you wouldn’t or couldn’t from reading about it in a book or watching a movie. You know me: I don’t feel I can write about a physical location without being there; this time the physical location was inside a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, a 74-year-old heavy bomber of the type that pulverized Germany from 1943 to 1945. James Stewart and other characters in my new book flew in these growling monsters so I had to too. Thank God I’m not writing about those paratroopers.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The last flying B-24 Liberator, Diamond Lil, and crew wait on the tarmac.

It’s always sobering to fill out a form that asks for “next of kin” before one of these adventures, but the truth is these planes crashed when they were new, and Diamond Lil is the last of her kind, the final flying Liberator in America. I love to fly in vintage bombers. The cabins are unpressurized because of the gun ports, and the engines are louder than you can possibly imagine. It rides like a 20-ton bucket of bolts, just as it did through the war. It is magnificent!

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

For luck.

Which brings me to the topic for today, which is not Diamond Lil but another gal. It’s about a chance encounter, the kind where you glimpse someone and feel a primal rush and think to yourself, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. Well, it happened right there on the runway during my pre-flight briefing as I stood by the wing of the B-24. I turned around and saw her and thought to myself, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m committed to Diamond Lil, because there she is.” Across the runway, a vintage gleaming silver DC-3 had just landed and taxied to a stop. Right. Over. There.

The conflict raged inside me as the captain of Diamond Lil went on with his safety briefing. Yah, yah, sure, skipper. Whatever you say. I was too busy replaying in my head a DC-3 landing in Las Vegas, weary passengers, a final takeoff and ascent. Eyewitnesses seeing and hearing a plane on an unusual heading…

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Helloooo, beautiful! First glimpse of the Douglas DC-3 that had landed right behind me.

You’d be proud of me, people: I got my head together and wrung every minute out of my flight inside Diamond Lil, from engine run-up through an airborne exploration of the ship, from flight deck to tail gun and then a landing that felt like the worst pothole you ever hit in your car.

An hour later I was inside that DC-3, which was configured as a C-47—the design most used in helping to win World War II. But whether used for passengers or cargo, they were all stamped out the same and so stepping inside this 1945 model was exactly like stepping inside TWA Flight 3.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Looking forward from the tail of the Douglas DC-3/C-47.

Passengers had to be made of sterner stuff back then. Today, I grouse if an infant is on my flight on a 737 or Airbus—and I’m talking if an infant is anywhere inside the roomy cabin so its screaming little voice will bounce off the fuselage and disturb my experience. Well, not a problem in 1942. You’d never hear the little bastard with two 1200-horsepower engines five feet from you, one pressing in from the left, and one pressing in from the right. You wouldn’t hear anything in the unpressurized cabin but an urgent, purposeful growl at somewhere around 110 decibels. It’s not like Carole Lombard could chat with her afraid-to-fly mother during the trip west to offer consolation. Even screams from mouth to ear wouldn’t convey a message, so you sat there in a cabin smaller than your average trolley car, stuffed Kleenex in your ears, and took it.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Inside the DC-3 (here configured as a C-47 for cargo). For passenger travel there were three seats across, two on the left and one on the right, with an aisle between. Not exactly roomy. Folks, this is the entire cabin.

So, I went inside the DC-3, talked to the people, took some pictures, exited, came back again, took some video, walked all around it… I knew my followers would find the experience interesting so I tried to document to give you the best look you may ever have at the plane that hit the mountain. One of the many benefits of time travel.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Landing gear as it’s supposed to look.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Landing gear (right) with other pieces of DC-3 on Mt. Potosi in 2012.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the interior shot of the DC3. It is tighter than I imagined. I believe the seating configuration as a passenger plane was three seats across, right? Two seats, aisle, one seat. That must’ve been the narrowest aisle. I think about stewardess Alice Getz maneuvering down the aisle and assisting everyone in the small space of this loud, bumpy flying machine. On a good day, it had to be challenging. On that January 16th with exhausted passengers and luggage piled high, Alice Getz definitely earned her keep. I’ve no doubt she was taking care of them to the very end.

  2. I didn’t realize that it would have been so loud onboard and so there goes my fantasy that there were consolatory chats during the many hours traveling. It must have been utter hell.

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