BRIDGEWATER — There she sits — sleek and shiny in all her metal glory.
And Rod Moyer can’t help himself, he just has to smile.
“She’s iconic,” he says, keeping with the old-school tradition of referring to planes with feminine pronouns.
“They’ve always been ladies,” he says. “You just treat them with respect and you treat them with honor and they’ll take care of you.”
At Bridgewater’s Dynamic Aviation, the most iconic plane is Miss Virginia, a mirror-polished C-47-turned-DC-3 — speaking of iconic. It’s the model Gen. George S. Patton tipped his cap to as one of the main reasons the Allies won World War II. And out here Saturday, under a blue sky pockmarked with cotton-fluff clouds, the Miss Virginia, the big old gal of the Dynamic fleet, was getting ready to hand out a big “thank you.”
Moyer, who’s flown her plenty of times, wouldn’t be piloting Miss Virginia on this day. The off-and-on employee of Dynamic since 1996 would be in the second plane of the two-aircraft convoy that took off from Bridgewater to fly over 10 towns and cities in the Shenandoah Valley.
The reason — to thank first responders and health care workers who, for the past three months, have put their health on the line in the fight against COVID-19. The company dubbed the flyover “Salute To Our Heroes.”
While big cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington got the benefit of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, the Shenandoah Valley got the iconic Miss Virginia and her Beech 18 escort from the local aviation company.
Something small, Dynamic Aviation President and CEO Michael Stoltzfus says, but something the company wanted to do.
“This is our home,” he says. “I’m from here. It’s not only a place we are from and that we call home, it’s a community. And we regard this community as extraordinary.”
Extraordinary work ethic, with men and women of integrity, he adds.
“And they constantly give back,” Stoltzfus says.
Heading north from Elkton, the Beech 18 and Miss Virginia are in formation so tight they look like one plane on the radar. They’ve already flown over Staunton, followed by Fishersville and Waynesboro.
After a pair of circles around Elkton, the planes reach Interstate 81 and follow the four-lane highway before the DC-3 slowly turns west toward Broadway, ducking behind the hills on the horizon. It’s a slow, meticulous turn; Miss Virginia’s two large propellers getting louder as they slice through the warm summer air, nearing town.
“It’s a lot of work,” Moyer says of his previous flights in the DC-3’s cockpit. “It’s a physical airplane.”
Like driving a 1965 Ford Mustang without power steering?
“It’s like driving a ‘65 Ford pickup without power steering,” Moyer says. “The controls are very light on pitch, but very heavy on roll and don’t respond immediately on roll.”
Because of that, he says, it’s an upper-body workout to fly, especially when it’s bumpy with turbulence.
Stoltzfus also has plenty of flight hours behind the throttle of a DC-3, calling it a Mack truck.
“You know you’re not in a sports car,” he says.
The Mack truck and sedan-like Beech 18 are finally over downtown Broadway and turn south for their first circle over the town — Miss Virginia leading the way. The formation doesn’t change on the second pass, and the two planes straighten out, head south, following Harpine Highway toward Harrisonburg and, eventually, their Bridgewater home.
Miss Virginia’s engines roar.
“Every time you’re in the air, and you hear the low rumble of those engines, it just takes you back in time,” Moyer says.
Over an hour earlier, and still on terra firma, there are preflight checks being made in Miss Virginia’s cockpit. The windows sit high, the seats down low and the passenger compartment in the fuselage is sliced right out of 1940s chic.
The seats, with ashtrays in the armrests, look like a great-grandmother’s couch cover with “Miss Virginia” embroidered on each back. The carpet, beige with various shapes for designs, rides up the sides, stopping just below the windows with a line of chair molding.
“First of all, it’s an honor and privilege to [fly] because I know very few people have the opportunity to fly a DC-3,” Moyer says. It’s also an honor and privilege to take part in the flyover to thank the first responders and health care workers.
“A salute to them,” he says. “A salute to the hard work and the risks they’re taking.”
With less than 15 minutes before the scheduled noon takeoff, Stoltzfus explains how it’s all going to work. The Beech will take off first and circle over Bridgewater, Miss Virginia will hurl her body into the air a few minutes after that and they’ll link up, assume formation and head south.
Yes, there’s math involved.
Yes, it’s tough to explain.
Yet Stoltzfus explains the whole process with an excited smile, turning serious to talk about the reason for the flyover. He’s local, he says, from Harrisonburg. His father, Karl Stoltzfus — an Eastern Mennonite University graduate — founded the company. These people behind the masks at hospitals, in police cars, in ambulances are his neighbors, Michael Stoltzfus says.
“Genuinely, they are putting themselves in harm’s way every day,” he says. “These are people I grew up with. What can we do to take the cool stuff we have and say, ‘Thank you; thank you for caring for our neighbors and thank you for caring for the community.’”
Stoltzfus goes silent, until the crack of Miss Virginia’s engines starting breaks the interlude.
“Smell that?” Stoltzfus says, sniffing the exhaust in the air. “Best smell in aviation.”
Moyer hops into the Beech 18 and rambles down the runway before taking to the air, making wide circles overhead awaiting his iconic flyover companion.
Then she comes.
Slow at first, air rattling as she passes on the runway before the Miss Virginia floats off the ground and into the sky. In slow motion, she tops out over the Allegheny Mountains horizon, rising to meet Moyer.
When they sync up, they turn south in unison.
Ten minutes later, they disappear into the blue sky.