You Had To Be Here

Robert Shoemaker’s granddaughter Libby takes her sister Priscilla’s photo from the cockpit of their granddad’s C-47.

If the weather and our Experimentals were always perfect we’d get to our destinations on time, but would miss much along the way. Today’s surprise as we wait out the poopy Oshkosh weather in Yankton, South Dakota was the C-47 Virginia Ann that came in for a fuel stop and something of a family reunion.

Now privately owned and kept in Chino, California, the C-47 is part of a great story starting with its WW II pilot, Yankton citizen Robert H. Shoemaker. “Shoey” as he was known to his friends during the war flew this exact aircraft as part of D-Day and Operations Market Garden and Varsity.

After the war Robert raised his family in Yankton and joined the family business. His son Bill and wife Kate Shoemaker still live in Yankton and were joined today by sisters Susan and Barbara, along with many of his grand and great grandchildren, all of whom came from as far as Dallas, Texas to see the Grand Old Lady on its way to AirVenture.

We were able to spend a few minutes with the Shoemakers, and not unexpectedly learned Robert was one of those optimistic, fun-loving greatest generation pilots. “He never really talked much about the war,” recalled proud daughter Susan. But the stories he did tell were good ones. Such as taking an airplane without authorization during training, flying home, marrying his straight-laced school-teaching sweetheart and flying back to training.

Or buzzing an English village during the build-up to D-Day and getting caught, then having to wire his mother for money to throw his bail in the English jail. That mom had to dip into her schoolteacher’s retirement fund for the money didn’t help.

If Robert had an impish sense of humor, he was also wonderfully generous. After the war he earned a law degree and became president of the bus line his dad had started. As a leader in the Yankton community he was one of group who quietly provided housing and education to widows and children. Clearly he provided life-changing opportunities for many people and never sought any recognition or repayment. He was also a factor in founding Yankton’s Chan Gurney Municipal Airport where we’re staying and was rewarded with a grandson who chose corporate flying for a career.

As for the C-47 Virginia Ann, it served in various corporate and transport roles after WWII. Along the way it gained larger windows, an air stair door and R-2000 engines. Today it cruises at around 145 knots when its private owners are buying the fuel–and maybe a little faster if the 800 gallons fuel capacity has been provided by an airshow where it’s been on display. The more muscular R-2000’s are a help in the Colorado mountains where it often travels, and the distinctly plusher than stock seats pilfered from a more modern Boeing first class cabin help on the long cross countries.

But Virginia Ann’s greatest capability is to remind us of the titanic efforts it was involved in, and the special memories the Shoemaker family keeps alive. If you’re headed to AirVenture you can check out the beautifully restored transport in person.


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