The Saga of Clipper Tabitha May
By Robert S. Randazzo
Robert Randazzo is a former airline pilot, aviation enthusiast, and entrepreneur, and he’s always held Pan American Airways in a place of special esteem. He and a small group of colleagues are about to embark on a remarkable trip into history onboard Clipper Tabitha May, a fully restored DC-3, flying in 1940’s Pan Am livery. They will be part of two very important commemorations: D-Day’s 75th anniversary, and that of the 70th commemoration of the Berlin Airlift. Photos Courtesy of Robert Randazzo.
Here at PanAm.org we’ll be following their progress on their website flight tracker: http://www.clippertabithamay.com - And you can too!
How It Started
In 2009, I had an opportunity to fly a meticulously restored DC-3 owned by Clay Lacey. His airplane is fitted out in the post-war colors of United Airlines. It was a rare opportunity to fly such a legendary airplane and since we are both formerly UAL employees Clay opened up about his love for the DC-3 and allowed me to experience the beauty that is flying one. His enthusiasm proved to be infectious and shortly thereafter I began what would become a two-year search for a DC-3 suitable for my own vision.
In any restoration project, whether it is a house, a vintage automobile, an old tractor or an airplane, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. There are no guidebooks to acquiring and restoring an airplane of this category so I took the time to research the type and reached out to numerous experts to learn what pitfalls to avoid. Two years and many false-leads later, I had narrowed the search to three suitable airframes each selected because they were configured for passenger carrying operations, rather than having been stripped and converted to the far more popular freighter models that are more common.
The airplane I eventually selected, as it turned out, had been living at my local airfield for a number of years while it sat for sale by it’s previous operator, ERA Alaska Airlines. I had seen the airplane many times. Marveled at it. Snuck up to it and caressed it’s wings and propellers and landing gear. I had briefly considered buying it, but that was before it disappeared to Illinois with a broker who’s job it was to find her a new home.
Clipper Tabitha May’s Story
Built in late 1945, ship 34378 was delivered to the Army Air Corps and shuttled immediately to the desert for sale into private hands by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. She was converted into a VIP transport and purchased by the Columbia Broadcasting Service who operated her for many years in the low-utilization role of corporate transportation. She then flew for Outboard and Marine out of Oshkosh, WI before changing hands rapidly through a few operators with plans that never materialized. In the 1980s, at the ripe-old-age of 40, she was finally converted into a passenger airliner and operated out of Burbank, CA flying Japanese tourists over the Grand Canyon for a private tour company. She did a brief stint offering scenic rides with the Experimental Aircraft Association before she underwent a nose-to-tail restoration in preparation for being put into scheduled passenger service by ERA Alaska Airlines in the mid 1990s.
PHOTO: In The Hangar
In this role she was provided with exceptional mechanical care and operated by highly seasoned and professional airline pilots until being retired in 2003 when FAA mandated the use of ballistic (bulletproof)cockpit doors on all scheduled air carriers. She sat for sale for eight years, largely unwanted because the modern market primarily values DC-3s that can be used to haul freight. Our airplane has no cargo door and it would be an expensive conversion to add one, so her value was primarily in private hands, doing what she does today.
Some Personal Intersections
Shortly before acquiring the airplane, I had begun to consider what to do with such a machine. While discussing with friends and accomplices, I would learn that my dear friend and mentor, a former PAA (UAL Ret.) pilot had been diagnosed with cancer. An idea was born.
Over the span of a few months, I reached out (against advice of legal counsel) to the current owner of the historic PAA brand marks to inquire about licensing the post-war markings for the specific purpose of displaying them on/with the airplane. I have always been a believing in doing things the right way, and I was happy to find that they were gracious, generous and could not have been more enthusiastic to learn what I was planning. Their primary concern in our agreement was to be certain I make a reasonable effort to protect the legacy of Pan American and the people who built the airline. We have worked hard to live up to that aspect of our agreement.
Contacts were made to help research appropriate paint colors, obtain font samples, original logo design specifications from PAA marketing, as well as marking data for PAA’s DC-3s. Armed with a list of every DC-3 owned and operated by Pan American, I scoured the current FAA registration database to find out of any of the registration numbers were currently not assigned to airplanes but found only one that was available. N33611 had originally been applied to a PAA DC-3 that was lost in a takeoff accident (without loss of life) at Port of Spain in 1942. Not being overtly superstitious, I reserved the number and requested FAA permission to apply it to our airplane. It is worth noting here that at about this time, I began to question whether purchase and restoration of a DC-3 was a sound idea. During this moment of doubt, my wife and I purchased sight-unseen a large scale model of a DC-3 to hang in my office. When it arrived, I was stunned to find that the model was painted silver and had no markings at all, except one wing upon which was painted: NC33611.
Armed with this message from the universe, I stowed all doubt and continued onward.
Into the Future
Our DC-3 required a significant amount of work when she was acquired. Both engines were in very poor shape. She was beginning to show signs of weathering that had not yet lead to corrosion, but required a thorough restoration nonetheless. Nearly all of her major systems had to be removed and rebuilt. We suffered an engine failure while moving the airplane between restoration facilities, and thus decided to overhaul both engines and all of their associated accessories. To improve the safety of the airplane, we installed a suite of modern, GPS navigation devices, satellite weather receivers, traffic avoidance capability, terrain awareness and a few other goodies that pilots from the 1940s couldn’t possibly have imagined.
And finally she was ready to be introduced to my dear friend and mentor, Captain Larry Hunsberger, PAA/UAL Ret.
Larry and I flew to Salt Lake City, then rented a car for the drive up to Ogden, UT where the paint shop resides. The entire crew knew we were coming and they all knew that Larry had been a friend and a mentor as I had sought to break into flying professionally. For more than two decades, his son Mark and I had been partners in crime. We pushed, pulled prodded and dragged one another through the gauntlet to professional flying all the while under the watchful eye of Larry. In fact, I would be remiss not to point out that my love of vintage airplanes is largely the fault of Mark and Larry, who convinced me that buying a 1945 SNJ-6 was “perfectly normal” and then subsequently failed to talk me out of buying a DC-3.
PHOTO: Tabitha May Right Wing in Flight
More Than Just an Airplane
To say that Larry’s introduction to the world’s newest Clipper was emotional, would be an understatement. A few moments after we arrived, I caught him in the back of the hangar with his head bowed against the rudder. We all left him alone. Gave him time to have his own private thoughts. After all, it had been fifty years since anyone had seen an airplane in new, post-war Pan American World Airways markings and faced with his own battle for survival, he was one of the first.
I have been asked a number of times why I chose this particular scheme for our airplane. After all, most of PAA’s DC-3s remained in the drab bare metal with blue cheat lines. A few were repainted in post-war colors. Possibly four? Those same four were then painted in the more familiar modern markings for a brief period as well, but most of the fleet was retired before they had a chance to wear the stunning white and blue.
I chose to use these markings for many of the same reasons PAA chose them: The brilliant white and deep, charismatic navy blue are clean, striking even, when viewed in the bright sunlight of an airport ramp. In 1945 they represented confidence, hope for the post-war future and precision. We needed all of these things to bring our DC-3 through restoration. We needed them for Larry as well.
PHOTO: Crew with Clipper Tabitha May
In July of 2013, we were approaching the end of the restoration process and the airplane had flown twice, just briefly. We still had pieces on the hangar floor and systems to test and tune. It became obvious that we were running out of time when one of Larry’s sons called and asked “is there any way we can get him a flight?” I called our Director of Maintenance and explained that we had a mission to make. Larry needed to fly aboard a Pan Am airplane one more time, and time was not on our side. “Meet me in Ogden,” was all he said.
The following morning, we departed Ogden and pointed the newly anointed Clipper Tabitha May westward over the Great Basin. She is named for my daughter who is bold, strong willed and incredibly giving of her own heart when others need it most. Her namesake Clipper lived up to these expectations perfectly that day in July. We arrived in Reno, loaded Cap’n Larry and his family (our family) aboard for a flight that was meaningful and all-too-brief. We stood for photos and everyone pretended for just a few moments that this was just another flight on an airplane. Larry seemed particularly pleased, but looking ahead to the adventures we were sure to have, I couldn’t help but feel that we were being robbed of his participation. Flying a DC-3 all over the country is precisely the sort of thing an old pilot lives for, yet he was fading right before our eyes.
A few hours later, over birthday cake, I handed Cap’n Larry the logbook and tried to sound funny when I told him that he had forgotten to close out the log before leaving the airplane. “Oh, we can’t have that,” he said, grasping the pen and scrawling his name across the line labeled “Captain.”
I still have that log page in my office. The carbon copy will remain forever with the airplane’s records for as long as she continues to fly. I have signed the “Captain” line a few hundred times since that day in July and each time I am reminded that legends are not built by corporations, or brands or machines. They are built by people. Our connections to those people tell the stories that might otherwise be lost forever and few companies have contributed more to connecting people than Pan American World Airways.
PHOTO: Clipper Tabitha May at Sunset
I hope that our airplane will invigorate the pride of PAA employees the world over. After all, there is no practical reason to own a DC-3 except perhaps to give some folks a chance to reconnect to history that they helped to build. So stop by and see us at an airshow or at our hangar. You never know, we might just have a log page that needs to be signed.
-- Robert Randazzo
Mass Dakota Departure at Duxford for Daks over Normandy | 5th June 2019
Video by Eliott Langran CGB Spotter on YouTube
Historic Flight Foundation’s CNAC DC-3 “Still Making History” & D-Day Mission.
The Big Lift