LA FIERE, France – Nearly 1,000 paratroopers dropped out of the sky in Normandy on Sunday – but this time they did so in peace, instead of to wrest western France from the Nazis as they did during World War II.
Drawing huge crowds who braved hot weather and lined the historic landing area at La Fiere, the aerial spectacle re-enacted the drama of the Normandy landings and served to cap commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Among the planes ferrying paratroopers for the event was a restored C-47 U.S. military transport plane that dropped Allied troops on the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise – a stone's throw from La Fiere – on June 6, 1944. And the pilots who originally flew it took the controls again last week, 70 years later, remembering their experiences.
Sunday saw dozens of veterans escorted down a sandy path to a special section to watch the show alongside thousands of spectators – most of whom lined two sides of the field. Others took shelter in the shade as the lack of wind caused the sun to beat down hard.
Planes including the C-47 aircraft flew by loudly overhead several times, with two dozen military paratroopers – from countries including the U.S., Britain, France and Germany – jumping with each passage.
They were scenes reminiscent of the pivotal event, when around 15,000 Allied paratroopers were dropped in and around the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise on D-Day. It became the first to be liberated by the Allies and remains one of the enduring symbols of the Normandy invasion.
Veteran Julian "Bud" Rice, a C-47 pilot who participated in the airdrops of Normandy on D-Day, watched the show.
"It's good to see 800 paratroopers jump here today, but the night that we came in, we had 800 airplanes with 10,000 paratroopers that we dropped that night, so it was a little more," he said.
Rice flew in a C-47 aircraft earlier in the week, similar to the one he flew on D-Day. With him was veteran pilot Bill Prindible, with whom he watched the show.
"Very impressive," Prindible said. "You just have to imagine there'd be a squadron of 72 aircraft, 36 aircraft going by every time one of those guys went by."
At the invitation of the French government, this restored Douglas C-47 – known as Whiskey 7 – flew for the festivities and released paratroopers as it did when it dropped troops behind enemy lines under German fire.
The plane has almost as a rich a story to tell as the pilots who flew it.
Although the twin-prop Whiskey 7, so named because of its W-7 squadron marking, looks much the same today as it did on June 6, 1944. It looked very different when it arrived at the National Warplane Museum in western New York as a donation eight years ago. It had been converted to a corporate passenger plane.
The museum's president said that for its restoration they had to take out the interior because it then had a dry bar, lounge seats and a table with a map of the Bahamas.
And it has moved with the times – now sporting two GPS systems to keep the aircraft on course.