A group of Australian and American pilots and engineers are in the process of recreating one of the great Allied World War II aviation triumphs. Seventy-one years after the close of hostilities, they are flying an original but lovingly refurbished 1944 Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft back over 'The Hump' — an iconic air supply route used during the war to send desperately needed men and materiel into southwestern China.
While not recreating the exact path taken by pilots flying in the war, the team of Dale Mueller (pilot, USA), Alan Searle (pilot, AUS), Larry Jobe (pilot, USA), Tom Claytor (pilot, USA) and Barry Arlow (engineer, AUS) are flying a plane christened 'Buzz Buggy' "to honor those men who served to bring victory and peace, and to the friendships between nations today that are charged with keeping [that] peace".
Their flight began in August from Bathurst Airport in New South Wales. The planned schedule included stops at Australian airfields Longreach and Darwin before heading to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and finally China. However, while flying from Bali to Jahor, Malaysia, catastrophe nearly ended the endeavor entirely. In the words of the crew:
One hour and 30 minutes into the flight, smoke appeared coming from the left engine. After 15 seconds, the engine started to vibrate severely, then fire appeared. We shut down the engine and diverted to Surabaya, 25 minutes away. Indonesian air traffic control was very helpful and we landed safely.
Finding replacement parts — of an engine no less — for a seven-decade old plane was no small feat. Nor is navigating the storm of red tape involved in securing permission to take off and land in half-a-dozen countries with sometimes tenuous political ties. Nonetheless, new parts secured and installed, Buzz Buggy's crew have once again taken to the skies and are approaching Kunming, expecting to land at Changshui International Airport on the afternoon of October 15.
A stop in the Spring City is a necessity, as Yunnan's capital received a huge share of the 650,000 tons of materiel flown over The Hump during the war. Those airlifts involved the United States Army Air Forces, the joint British-Indian Army, Commonwealth Forces, and the nascent China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), all of which were augmented by Burmese and Chinese military and civilian workers.
Losses during the airlift — which was carried out in one form or another and with varying participation from Allied forces between April 1942 and August 1945 — were immense. More than 1,659 Allied forces were killed or went missing during the mission, and 594 aircraft were shot down, damaged beyond repair or otherwise lost.
Despite the crucial role The Hump airlift played in pulling China and parts of Southeast Asia away from the abyss of complete collapse, the mission remains less well-known than other major East Asian war fronts. And this fact is one of the main reasons the crew of Buzz Buggy have persevered. Now, their final destination — Guilin (桂林) — is finally in sight after weeks of delays.
Once the crew reach Guilin, Buzz Buggy will take up permanent residence at the city's Flying Tiger Heritage Park and Museum where General Claire Chennault once maintained a base of operations. There, the aircraft will be repainted, with "China-Burma-India markings on one side and CNAC markings on the other," according to the flight's website.
Editor's note: Rebuilding Buzz Buggy's engine was costly, and flight sponsor the Flying Tigers Organization is looking for donations to cover the US$60,000 endeavor. If you would like to donate, please visit the crowd-sourcing page at GoFundMe. Special thanks to historian Philip Van Zandt, who has kept the team at GoKunming up-to-date through every stage of the flight.