It’s a Saturday morning when the people door on the large hangar swings open. Sophia, with tool box in hand, is setting out for another day’s work. Her regular work done for the week, this work day is considered overtime. She doesn’t mind though. It is a job that needs to be done. She is working to help finish a cargo aircraft needed for a vital mission. As each line item on the task list is completed, this aircraft is one step closer to rolling out the door and embarking on its next and most important flights.
During World War II, this scene played out in factories across the country seven days a week and 24 hours a day. More than 300,000 women joined the workforce in the 1940s and most of them worked wartime production jobs such as building aircraft. “Rosie the Riveter,” as they would become collectively nicknamed, built America’s arsenal of democracy to help preserve our way of life. However, the scene I just described wasn’t set in the 1940s nor in a production plant. It is in the museum hangar at the Franklin-Venango County Airport (FKL) owned by the Vintage Wings Inc. group working to restore the C-53 Beach City Baby. And our Rosie the Riveter, Sophia, is just 12 years old.
Sophia Breitenbach, nicknamed “The Long One,” was first inspired by her father John. “I was probably 8 or 9 when my dad would take me to air shows around the area. In April of 2022, I started going to volunteer with him on the C-53. Starting out they had me cleaning the landing gear. Then little by little I have been becoming more involved. I help remove parts of the interior for prep work on the restoration.” That interior has since been completely restored, reinstalled, and is a wonderful example of how a Douglas transport from the era should look. “We are really proud of the work done on the airplane. It has been outfitted with original items like the stretchers and paratrooper seats just like this aircraft had during the war,” Sophia said.
Working on the aircraft in the hangar is not the only fun Sophia has. “I have had the chance to go to some air shows with it. It is always so cool to fly in it because it is just so different than any other aircraft I have ever flown in.” Sophia has flown in a Ford Tri-Motor and a few general aviation aircraft, but she says the C-53 is on another level. “The noise is one thing that really was noticeable. It is a lot noisier than those other airplanes. There just isn’t a lot of insulation in something like a C-53.” While the aircraft is on display at air shows and fly-ins, Sophia is there with the rest of the crew to answer questions and be an ambassador for Beach City Baby. Due to her young age, some visitors are surprised by her knowledge level. “I will explain to folks the difference between a C-47 and a C-53, and how there are items such as the cargo floor and other things that make them different, and people will listen, and then walk over to another crew member and ask them to see if I was correct. It is kind of funny.”
Her father John Breitenbach is very proud of his daughter. “It’s great to see her interested in something with historical importance, and learn something new with every job she does on the airplane. She’s learning the whole airplane one piece at a time, and learns how to use a new tool with every job she does, too.”
For Sophia, the airplane is only part of the reason for going to the hangar when she isn’t at school or attending to her other lessons. “That hangar is really a big family. The people in our group are what makes me really want to be here. Some days the work we are doing is hard, but the people who are there together make going there fun. They are all so very supportive of me being there.
“Seeing Sophia work on the airplane gives me hope for the future of these airplanes,” said Jason Capra, EAA 1024007. “WWII is so far removed for her from what’s a part of her day-to-day life. But because of good parenting and an appreciation for the sacrifices made for her, she understands that Beach City Baby is more than just an old airplane. It’s a living testament to the sacrifices made by a generation that wasn’t much older than her when their country asked everything of them. And they answered that call. We always stress to her that the crews that flew these airplanes and maintained them weren’t much older than she is now. I think that resonates with her a lot. I know she often thinks that, if these women could do what they did, so can I.’ And that’s a good feeling knowing you’re helping another dreamer chase down their goals.”
When Jason saw an old transport aircraft derelict in a field in Ohio, his first intention was to save history. Through his and the entire team’s inspiration and tutelage of Sophia, they have helped secure the future of not just one transport airplane, but the legacy attached with an entire generation.
For anyone wanting to learn more about the C-53 Beach City Baby, please visit its website at https://www.vintagewingsinc.com/