On this day 75 years ago, some 12,000 Allied aircraft flew into enemy skies over Normandy in the largest aerial invasion in history. Most of the planes that survived World War II have long since retired from service, but yesterday, about two dozen vintage warplanes, arriving from all over the world, took flight again and retraced the fateful crossing over the English Channel. And Sonoma vintner Joe Anderson with his 1942 C-53, The Spirit of Benovia, was in formation alongside them.
"It was an amazing flight, and it's quite a historic event. It's special for all of us," Anderson told Unfiltered from Normandy after the flyover.
Photos courtesy of Benovia and Ben O'Donnell
After a delay of three hours, the planes took off from Duxford, England, passing over throngs of cheering crowds along their route. When they reached the continent, some dropped parachutists over Normandy—including at least three nonagenarian skydivers who'd made that leap into dangerous territory as young paratroopers 75 years earlier—before landing in Caen, France, at around 6 p.m.
But the journey to get there was much longer. About a year and a half ago, Anderson heard about D-Day Squadron, a charity initiative to bring vets, students and vintage planes to England and France for the anniversary; one highlight would be Daks over Normandy, the flyover of surviving WW2-era C-47s (the plane is nicknamed the "Dakota" or Dak). A longtime aviation enthusiast, Anderson happened to own one such plane (the C-53 is a variant), a workhorse that once carried troops and supplies over the Himalayas in the campaign against the Japanese and now bears the name of his Santa Rosa winery. The son and nephew of WW2 vets, Anderson decided he'd accept the mission, journeying in stages from Santa Monica (where the plane was manufactured) and greeting surviving vets at each stop.
"When vets get on this airplane, they start telling stories. They feel safe and they open up," Anderson said at Westchester County Airport in New York, where the plane was on the tarmac May 15. In Santa Rosa a few days earlier, Anderson and his pilot had met a 98-year-old who'd flown a Dak over Normandy—the first time. Now they were preparing to embark on the 77-year-old plane's most precarious stretch, the Atlantic crossing.
"We flew through some pretty heavy weather conditions," especially high winds, recounted Anderson. The plane had to make an extra stop in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, as it was burning more fuel than anticipated. "The amazing thing is 15 American planes started and 15 American planes ended right here [in Normandy]. The planes have to be properly maintained and properly flown, and it was an accomplishment not having one plane fall out because of forced maintenance."
Where does the wine come in? Well, on a normal day, C-47s eat up 100 gallons an hour, and gas for well-aged planes costs $16 per gallon in Europe, one of the many financial impediments to getting the D-Day Squadron together. So, to raise money for the organization, Anderson launched a charity cuvée of Pinot Noir, called Liberation. A single-clone bottling from the Tilton Hill vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation, it's adorned with D-Day label art from artist Craig Kodera. After a 2016 vintage sold out, Benovia bottled and is selling 2017s.
Shortly before the D-Day crossing, The Spirit of Benovia was drafted for one more mission: This morning, Anderson and his plane joined an Air Force formation that flew over the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer during the ceremony where presidents Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump spoke.
Enjoy Unfiltered? The best of Unfiltered's round-up of drinks in pop culture can now be delivered straight to your inbox every other week! Sign up now to receive the Unfiltered e-mail newsletter, featuring the latest scoop on how wine intersects with film, TV, music, sports, politics and more.