Story and Photos by Gary Daniels
The writer of the popular Christmas poem, “T’was The Night Before Christmas,” describes his awe as ‘ol St. Nick descends from the night sky and arrives “with such a clatter” to herald the arrival of Christmas. This poem has long been a Christmas tradition. In the skies over Ft. Worth, Texas, during the month of December, there is a new tradition that lets the good citizens know that Christmas is on its way. It is the sound of two throaty radial engines droning above in the darkness. Two times each evening, they hear this sound and know that Christmas will soon be here.
Every individual, museum, or organization that owns a warbird knows the challenges of feeding that bird the great sums of cash needed to keep it flying. In the best of times, it is difficult to keep these historical treasures flying. But these are not the best of times. This past year, all aspects of the aviation industry have been ravaged. This includes the museums and organizations that depend on revenue from patrons, donations, or airshows to keep these aircraft airworthy and in front of the public to keep aviation history alive. Finding creative ways to create revenue is not an easy task.
In 2008, the non-profit Pacific Prowler was founded, as DBA Greatest Generation Aircraft (GGA), around the acquisition of the DC-3 now known as “Southern Cross.” This aircraft rolled off the production line in Santa Monica as a DC-3 in December 1942. But Uncle Sam had other plans and pressed her into service as a C-49. This variant came off the line with Wright Cyclone R-1820 radials and served stateside as a troop transport and paratroop trainer in the United States Army Air Force until 1944 when it was returned to civilian life and reconfigured back to a DC-3.
“Southern Cross” had many lives in the decades leading up to the GGA purchase. She flew with several airlines, carried cargo, was a skydiving platform, and was even the President of Mexico’s ride for a few years! Like any 79 year-old aircraft, she has many secrets that will never be known.
In 2010, Jim Terry, GGA founder, and Dave Arber, GGA Flight Operations Director, came up with the idea to conduct flights over the city to see the Christmas lights. These flights turned out to be very popular over the years and have become the main revenue support for the aircraft. Unfortunately, 2020 has seen a decline in passenger bookings. Arber said, “We fly two flights each evening and so far, we have had only 600 bookings this year. We have had as many as 1300 in previous years. But we are surprised that we have that many this year and are very thankful.”
GGA currently has three pilots and five qualified volunteer aircrew that keep “Southern Cross” in the skies. The aircraft is based at the Vintage Flying Museum (www.vintageflyingmuseum.org) at Meacham International Airport (FTW) just north of downtown Ft. Worth. Cheerful passengers arrive at the American Aero FBO and go through a safety brief before being led out to the aircraft. For the passengers, seeing the eight decades old tail dragger mixed in among the large, sleek, tricycle geared corporate jets on the tarmac is a surprising contrast. The ground crew allows the passengers to walk around the old lady so that they can ask questions and take about a million cell phone photos. Inside, “Southern Cross” has two rows of airline seating positioned from the center line to the left side of the fuselage. This leaves the right side open as an aisle and sight seeing area. The interior is lined with Christmas lights adding to the festive atmosphere.
“Southern Cross” has no sound insulation in the fuselage. Just a sixteenth of an inch metal skin riveted to the ribs is all that separates the passengers from the cold night air. The passengers are surprised at how loud the two roaring radials are on takeoff. But it’s all part of the experience and with the simple application of index fingers inserted into ears the problem is solved. Once the throttles are pulled back for level flight, the engine sound is comfortable.
Meacham is the perfect location for the flights. The city is just a few minutes away once airborne. When level flight is achieved, at 1000 feet above the city, the pilot rings the bell and passengers unbuckle and move to the aisle to look out the windows on the right side. They are even encouraged to walk up and take a peek in the red-lit cockpit. The pilots fly the old girl over downtown Ft. Worth and key Christmas light lit areas around the city, banking to the right so the passengers can look ‘down the wing’ at the twinkling lights below.
The flight is about 30-40 minutes from wheels up to taxi back to the FBO. Passengers disembark and are given a few moments to take photos around the aircraft. This writer chatted with some of the passengers about their experience. One woman in her forties said, “I have never flown in a plane. This is my first flight ever! I heard about the Christmas lights flight and thought, ‘I can do that!’ And I did!” She displayed a broad smile as she turned away to walk back to the FBO.
The story of “Southern Cross” and the Christmas lights flights is a good example of an organization finding a unique way to support their aircraft while creating a positive historical experience for the patron. “Southern Cross” will fly the Christmas Lights flights until December 31. If you live in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, visit www.gga1.org to find out more and book a flight. Seats are still available to see the Christmas lights like you have never seen them before!