Tim Savage, warbird collector and long-time publisher of Warbird Digest, has acquired Douglas DC-3 NC33644, intending to fly the airplane to Europe in May 2024 as part of the D-Day Squadron to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
Delivered to United Airlines as a DC-3-197E in April 1941, NC33644 was briefly impressed into the military after Pearl Harbor before being sold to Western Air Express in August 1942. While it never received a military serial number, documents filed with the Civil Aviation Authority in 1942 say that was being returned from military service with no interior as it was used as a freight airplane. Western Air Express apparently operated it on military cargo contracts throughout the war because further paperwork was filed with the CAA for approval for the installation of an airline interior.
Western Air Express was eventually renamed Western Airlines and used the DC-3 for 16 years as ship #102 until 1958, and the original call sign is still in great shape on the overhead console in the cockpit. The rest of the interior is still in Western motif, with embroidered Indian heads on each seat.
After its service with Western Airlines, it was briefly owned by Shaikh Duaij Salman, of the ruling Sabah family of Kuwait, with a British registration of G-APKO, but the transaction was never completed. Instead, it was sold to Catalina Pacific Airlines who held it for a year or so, before continuing on to Standard Airways. From there it bounced around between several owners until Golden State Air Lines began operating it in 1972. It remained with them until 1979, and at the end looked rather derelict at Van Nuys Airport, California sans engines. A few more ownership changes ensued before ex-Western Airlines pilot Mike Kimbrell of Oakwood, Washington purchased it. He returned it to its 1940s Western markings and operated N33644 from 1992 until 2016. During that time, he flew with his large family regularly to Oshkosh.
Following Kimbrell’s guardianship, Arkansas Round Motor operated the NC33644 for a couple of years before the founders of the Mountain Flying Museum purchased it in 2019. The Missoula, Montana-based museum was scrambling to get their C-47, Miss Montana, ready to fly to Normandy for the D-Day Squadron’s 75th Anniversary trip. It became apparent that the C-47 would not be available in time to train the crews necessary to make the Atlantic crossing. Thus, NC33644 would enable to the team to make the date, and it served that role well.
While the museum has a very large facility, two DC-3/C-47s take up a lot of space. Since Miss Montana is very historic to the area, it was always the intent to retain it for the museum. With the Western bird surplus to requirements, it was placed on the market.
New owner Tim Savage picks up the story. “I first went to Normandy with my son on a D-Day to the Rhine tour in 2014. I remember seeing the National Warplane Museum flying their C-47 over the beach during that trip. I thought it would be cool to be able to do that. We went back to Normandy for the anniversary again in 2015, and I saw some of the European-based C-47s flying over St. Mère Eglise, and I thought again … how cool would that be? I started casually looking around for an airplane to take in 2019, but I was busy with my business and didn’t have time to dedicate to it. My son and I made the trip by airline again in 2019 and were able to go to the drop zone and watch the D-Day Squadron do its thing. I figured I had missed the opportunity to participate in such an epic event. However, I sold my business in the fall of 2019, which freed up my time to pursue such a venture. I kept my eye out for a suitable airplane, but nothing appeared on the market. When the Western DC-3 came up for sale, I went out and looked at it and decided that while C-47s were pretty cool, having a fully decked-out airliner in its original markings was a better long-term acquisition. I made the deal through Mark Clark at Courtesy Aircraft and we brought the airplane home in November 2023. While I was disappointed in not being able to do it in 2019, holding off for five years has turned out to be a great opportunity. Since 2019 my twenty-two-year-old son, Job, has become an accomplished aviator and recently obtained his DC-3 type rating. So, he will be able to fly for part of the trip. He hadn’t even soloed when we went to Europe in 2019!”
Currently, the team is deep in the throes of preparing the airplane for the trans-Atlantic flight. While NC33644 is at Integrity Aviation in Kissimmee, Florida having a new panel installed with a new suite of Garmin avionics and ECI engine management consoles, Savage’s team is replacing all the hoses and making sure she is in the best shape possible. Tim’s intent is to continue to preserve NC33644’s Western Airlines heritage as a 1940s airliner.