She still turns heads and hearts, even though she is pushing 80. Early this month, Valiant Air Command’s venerable Tico Belle will continue to enjoy the attention she richly deserves as she drops parachutists during a D-Day reenactment in Palatka.
The flagship of the museum’s warbird collection, the Douglas C-47 saw service in some of World War II’s most pivotal moments, from D-Day to Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. She is still going strong.
"This is the real deal, a wonderful airplane to fly," said Bob Boswell, the executive officer of Valiant Air Command’s Warbird Museum and one of the Belle’s former pilots at the museum.
Built in 1942, tail number 42-2100591 was part of the 437th Troop Carrier Group and one of 52 C-47s dispatched during a moonlit night in support of the Normandy landings. She also saw action at the Battle of Arnhem, "the bridge too far" that attempted to secure bridges in the German-occupied Netherlands, and evacuated the wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. When not part of major operations, she spent her days transporting supplies and people. The eternally lucky Tico Bell prevailed despite all the action.
"She had a lot of battle damage, but she pulled through," Boswell said.
After the war, the hardworking C-47 was off to the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War.
"There is still coal dust from when she carried coal during the Berlin Airlift," Boswell said.
By 1950, the Belle was on her way to Norway as part of a lend-lease program. Denmark was her next stop when she was assigned to transport the Danish royal family. She earned her 1982 retirement after logging more than 13,500 hours in the air.
Jumping at the opportunity to connect with such a part of history, the Valiant Air Command ferried her back to her homeland, where, during the 1980s and 1990s, she evolved a flying museum, telling folks around the country of the legacy of those who had served with her. By then, she was known as Tico Belle, named for the airport where she is based.
In 2001, a landing incident sidelined her with a damaged wing, but the tough Belle prevailed with the assistance of Valiant Air Command volunteers.
Tico Belle continues to fly on mercy missions to help during disasters such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, as well as during fun runs that include being part of D-Day reenactments.
"It doesn’t get any better than the Tico Belle," Boswell said.