Hands-on history: Group restoring WWII plane in Pasco for D-Day's anniversary

Turin Aviation Group has been rebuilding a plane that flew in World War II. With fundraising, the team hopes to fly it to Europe for a D-Day anniversary re-enactment.
Published January 14
Updated January 14

ZEPHYRHILLS — Ed Franco has a flying museum.

That's what the Air Force veteran from Brandon calls the 1943 Douglas C-47 plane that his company, Turin Aviation Group, has been restoring since 2016.

Along a lonely strip of Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, Franco and his team have been retrofitting the plane with period-accurate parts and paint. They plan to fly it overseas this year for an internationally organized re-creation of D-Day, in Normandy, on the operation's 75th anniversary.

Behind the work is a motive more philosophical than physical: "To bring back history," said Franco, 44. "And to honor the men and women who fought in World War II."

The team heard about the plane two years ago when someone saw it in a Bradford County museum and reached out. The museum donated the plane to Turin's foundation. The foundation is supported by the company, which also does airplane maintenance and tours.

The problem was, no one knew the plane's story.

The group contacted a European historian who specializes in C-47 planes and handed over its serial number. Details poured in: the plane's pilots, its missions and more.

They found out that it carried American and British paratroopers over Germany in World War II during Operation Varsity, the largest single-day, single-location airborne operation of the war.

Franco said the plane was piloted by a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces, meaning it would have flown toward the tip of a formation during the operation.

And it was lucky. The planes to the right of it were shot down, said Franco, the ones to its left damaged. Their plane, however, was unscathed.

That's why they named it "Hit or Miss."

After the war, the plane returned to its home base, Morrison Field, now Palm Beach International Airport.

“She's a Florida bird," Franco said.

Every part of "Hit or Miss” speaks to history.

Take the painted rows of symbols along the left side of its fuselage. They're like an athlete's stats line.

There are crosses for the number of missions flown, train cars for logistics runs, stick figures and crates hanging by parachute for the times it dropped troops and supplies, and gliders for gliders it towed.

The upper half of the craft is coated in olive drab, faithful to old transport planes, the same for the dull gray on its underbelly. The border between the two colors swerves up and down, mimicking irregularities that would have showed from painting with mops and brooms.

"We put a lot of imperfections in it," Franco said. "Which is the way they would've done it. We didn't want a manufactured look."

The plane's parts are accurate to models made in the '40s, he said, down to the flare gun stowed aboard. The group sourced factory leftovers.

"EBay has been our friend," said Sarah Gilbreath, Turin's executive administrator who, if all goes as planned, will co-pilot "Hit or Miss" with Franco.

Franco served 14 years with the Air Force.

"Being in the service, you get a lot of history," he said. He realizes history’s value — and how fleeting it can be.

"We're only short keepers of these things," he said, and then we have to pass them on. Restoring the C-47 has been a hands-on way to do so.

"My philosophy is, the airplane is your teacher,” he said. “Kids need to come out and learn on it."

That goes for his crew, which includes three young men from Italy, students at Polk State College. Davide Barraco, 22, Samuele Cerneaz, 21, and Andrea Franchi, 21, have interned as maintenance workers with Turin since 2016.

The trio and Gilbreath personify the project’s commitment to historical accuracy — Gilbreath, the oldest, is 23 — and they’ve taken up Franco’s philosophy.

"Every airplane is telling you a story,” Franchi said. “We never really analyzed [the machines and people behind the war] ... We never really think about it, but it's just amazing."

The restoration has taught them about the history of aviation, too.

"If you start studying old stuff, you will better understand the new ones,” Franchi said.

The plane is 85 percent done, Franco said. His team needs to finish the cockpit, interior furnishings and propellers.

Franco has a February deadline. The group will hold a fundraiser on Feb. 12 for its trip overseas, tentatively scheduled for May 19. Franco said the company has spent about $285,000 on the restoration, and will need a major boost to cover fuel expenses for the flight. According to Gilbreath, the group's goal is $225,000.

The plan is to travel the same route “Hit or Miss” would have taken in the war: up the eastern seaboard to Canada, then to Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and the United Kingdom.

That’s where the crew will join other flyers for “Daks Over Normandy,” the D-Day event in early June. “Daks” refers to “Dakotas,” the British term for C-47s. The planes will fly over the English Channel and drop mock paratroopers in France.

The first time the Turin team got “Hit or Miss” airborne, after five months of work, Franco flew alongside the craft in a Cessna 310, helping guide it over Florida.

"It was incredible,” he said. “It was graceful, but large and lumbering. It looked fake."

If everything works out, his flight over France probably will, too. But with more than 30 other old planes flanking him, history might feel real.

Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.