Lt. Col. Dick Dole and the C-47 “Hairless Joe”

For years, the Yankee Air Museum’s C-47 Skytrain had sported a World War II paratroop interior configuration, and had been marketed as a WWII aircraft, but all the while had worn an external post-WWII paint scheme that did not match its interior or branding. She had a bit of an identity issue, you could say.

However, it should be noted that the aircraft came about this quite honestly. She was, after all, the first flyable aircraft that the Yankee Air Museum ever owned. The then cash-strapped Museum could barely afford to buy her, let alone paint her. Fast forward 36 or so years and the external paint had become worn and lacked warbird appeal to the public. A change was desperately needed.

Enter the generosity of Kalitta Air. With an amazing and gracious offer from the Kalitta Air corporation to strip and repaint the C-47, everything changed. Now the Museum not only had an incredible opportunity to rebrand but also to honor a new aspect of military aviation history.

But the million-dollar question was, what would the new paint scheme be? When most people think of the C-47 Skytrain, the livery that comes to mind is the D-Day markings of the European Theater of Operation (ETO). But with so many C-47s already representing the ETO, the Museum saw a wonderful opportunity to tell a new story.

Museum staff needed to dig deep in the history books and look at all the significant and critical operations of WWII that were either under represented or not represented at all. After months of research a decision was made and a paint scheme was chosen.

“Flying the Hump” in World War II

It was called Special Aviation Project No. 9. And it would be the final of nine secret projects of WWII. Those in theater referred to it as “flying the Hump.” Geographically and historically it took place in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operation. It is where the C-47 aircraft-type excelled with its heavy lift capabilities and short field landing characteristics. Amassing climbs over the Himalayan Mountains to supply the Chinese with support to fight our then Japanese enemies, the C-47s serving under the 1st Air Commando Group were part of the backbone of this critical secret mission of WWII. And that would be the story we would tell with our dramatic makeover of the C-47 livery. For over a year, the team at the Yankee Air Museum obsessively focused on the radical, yet methodical rebranding of our C-47 Skytrain.

In the beginning of June 2018 our Skytrain made a short flight to the Kalitta Air Maintenance Center in Oscoda, Michigan, for its exciting transformation. Within days, the aircraft was completely stripped of its various layers of weather-beaten paint and inspected for corrosion. Almost immediately thereafter the application of primer began. The next step was to add the vibrant 1st Air Commando Group unit markings. Using still frames from color wartime film footage and hours of dimensional research, the aircraft began to come to life. Frequent inspections during the painting process kept the accuracy of the livery on track. Then, only three short weeks after its arrival in Oscoda, the aircraft was ready for rollout. On Friday, June 29th, 2018 the aircraft emerged slowly under tow from the darkness of the Kalitta Air Paint Hangar into the bright Michigan sunshine for the very first time proudly wearing its new unit markings honoring another chapter of the Greatest Generation.

Donning no nose art or specific unit emblems, the aircraft was ferried back home to the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport and was readied for Phase 2 of its makeover. The next phase would involve reenactor artists ‘live painting’ the 1st Air Commando Group crest on both sides of the tail and the nose art on the aircraft using only techniques, paint and equipment that would have been available in WWII.

Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Doolittle Raider and Greatest Generation Hero

It would be almost a month later before the perfect timing for this endeavor would present itself and the final identity of the aircraft would be revealed publicly. The stage for this ‘live painting’ reveal would center around bringing our aircraft and an American Hero together in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the EAA Airventure air show.

Lt. Col. Dick Cole, known most famously as the co-pilot in B-25 #1 in the daring Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Japan in 1942, did not end his flying career in B-25s. After the raid, he volunteered for Special Aviation Project No. 9 flying the Hump in the CBI theater in C-47s. As pilot-in-command of a C-47 named Hairless Joe, Major Cole amassed numerous and treacherous flying hours in the venerable C-47. Hairless Joe served Major Cole and crew well in the CBI theater and his pride of his service in that theater and aircraft are well documented in the history books. However, there never has been an aircraft honoring his contributions to this chapter of the war and the Yankee Air Museum seized the opportunity to honor this great American by christening our C-47 with the nose art of Hairless Joe.

With both airplane and veteran scheduled to be in Oshkosh on the same day, AirCorps Aviation aided the Yankee Air Museum in bringing together the reenactor artists, the technical assistance, equipment and overall coordination for what would be a reunion of this American icon and his nose art once again.

On Saturday, July 28th, steadily and carefully, the unit crests of the 1st Air Commando Group (a simple question mark within a circle) and the nose art of Hairless Joe (lettering colored in red, white and blue) were applied by the reenactor artists. Hundreds of both enthusiasts and general spectators gathered to watch this historical reenactment of an aircraft being painted outdoors. This rare once-in-a-lifetime living history moment was captured by video and thousands of photographs. And if the timing of the event was not already perfect enough, as the reenactor artist completed the final brush strokes of the nose art, Lt. Col. Dick Cole and his daughter Ms. Cindy Cole arrived plane side.

Moments like these do not need much pomp and circumstance. There stood a proud 102-year-old WWII American hero marveling at an aircraft type that he once flew, painted in his former unit markings and donning nose art honoring him. It was a moment of pride, a moment of reflection and a moment of distinction all rolled into one. And while he answered a barrage of spectator questions and posed for many photos with our aircraft, he made sure that his last interaction with us was very intentional.

He leaned with a firm handshake and with incredible sincerity, and thanked the Yankee Air Museum for “not letting the history of the 1st Air Commandos be lost.”

Mission complete.

Please help us create a new home for the Yankee Air Museum and Hairless Joe C-47 inside our preserved portion of the historic Willow Run Bomber Plant.

(Click here to donate.)