Retired Air Force Capt. Arnold Cook climbed down from the World War II-era plane, a big smile on his face, and hugged his granddaughter.
On Saturday, Cook’s wife, children and grandchildren had surprised the 91-year-old World War II veteran with a Father’s Day treat: a flight on the Bluebonnet Belle, a C-47 Skytrain military transport operated by the Commemorative Air Force out of Burnet.
When his granddaughter, Magan Kennison, asked how the flight was, he replied, “Beautiful, just like you.”
Cook, who lives in Killeen, flew a C-47 just like the Bluebonnet Belle in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He served as a co-pilot on a crew that dropped paratroopers over France in a harrowing nighttime run. He flew among a group of more than a thousand planes, stretched over 200 miles. They flew in tight formation in bad weather, taking fire all the way to the drop zone and back out again.
“If you’ve ever seen a fireworks display, that’s what the tracer rounds looked like coming up from the ground that night,” he said.
He and his fellow pilots were told that only 50 percent of the crews would survive the mission.
“You’re sitting there in that plane wondering if you’re going to be that 50 percent,” Cook said.
All of the crews in his group made it out alive, flying out over Utah Beach to see the invasion force preparing to launch landing craft.
“It was dawning,” he recalled. “You could look out over the North Sea and it looked like you could jump from one ship to the other.”
Cook earned the Air Medal for that mission.
After D-Day, Cook and his crew continued to fly supplies across France and Germany. They dropped paratroopers in Operation Market Garden, a failed mission to secure key bridges over the Rhine. It was the largest airborne operation ever attempted to that point. He earned a second Air Medal for that mission.
After World War II, Cook served as an Air Force recruiter and as an air liaison during the Korean War, helping coordinate air support. When he noted that they were losing too many planes, higher-ups asked him to draw up a plan that ended up saving lives of flight crews and cut the number of planes damaged to about 10 percent of what it had been.
He was awarded the Bronze Star.
After retiring as a captain in 1960,Cook went on to train pilots for the Air Force and private airlines and worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as an instructor, inspector and accident investigator.
He retired in 1984 and began traveling the country in a recreational vehicle with his wife of 63 years, Billie. Cook has visited all 50 states and spent summers hauling his grandchildren to sites all over the country.
The flight aboard the Bluebonnet Belle was organized by the Highland Lakes Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force. The nonprofit group maintains four vintage aircraft, and members of the public can book flights, the proceeds from which are used to help keep the planes running, said squadron leader Jim Hower.
Flying aboard the Belle is a little different from the commercial flights most of us are used to. There is no air conditioning or insulation, and the cabin is not pressurized. The ride is not quite as smooth, and the only way to cool the passenger compartment is to open a window.
“We love history, and these planes almost talk to us,” Hower said. “And when you get to fly with people that flew these, that’s why we do this.”
The flight Saturday was overwhelming and brought back a lot of memories, Cook said.
“It’s been good to look back and remember all the good times and all the problems I faced,” he said. “It was like going home again.”