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WWII plane ‘Spirit of Benovia’ salutes health care workers, vets during flyover in North Bay skies

Sunday was a tad bright and warm for midday sky gazing in Sonoma County. But health care workers, veterans and active military personnel just couldn’t resist looking up.

Eyes squinted skyward at three hospitals in Sonoma and Napa counties, the Veterans Home of California and Travis Air Force Base as a beautifully restored World War II airliner growled contentedly into view in an airborne gesture of gratitude.

The silvery, twin-propeller DC-3 lifted off from the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport a bit past noon. The mission by pilot Jeff Coffman and aircraft owner Joe Anderson: to pay tribute to the service and valor of hospital staffers, military vets and people currently serving their country in uniform.

“Each time you do it, you get a little more out of it,” said Anderson, co-owner the Russian River Valley’s Benovia Winery.

His 1942 “Spirit of Benovia” made passes of tribute near Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Healdsburg District Hospital, Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, the large home for vets in Yountville and the air base near Fairfield. At each place, staffers and spectators took in the rare sight of the vintage plane and waved, some cheering.

At Memorial, spokesman Katy Hillenmeyer said a crowd of 40 employees and family members responded with delight as the DC-3 made one pass, then a second.

“Then,” Hillenmeyer said, “the pilot surprised us with a third pass before heading off east to Napa to our sister hospital.

“The aerial fun lasted about 10 minutes, after which we were invited to dig into our choice of chocolate or vanilla gelato.”

Anderson frequently uses the airplane to honor military veterans and is saluting health care workers as well amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“Each location kind of had its own feeling,” he said.

Decades ago his airplane flew supply missions in World War II and following the war was used by the CIA to support Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek following the Communist takeover of China.

Last year, Anderson and Coffman flew the DC-3 to Europe and took part in historic fly-overs commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

On Monday, Memorial Day, the pair will fly “The Spirit of Benovia” to Southern California to join a 17-plane formation set to perform aerial salutes to veterans and health care professionals at about two dozen locations.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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