She had barely time to cool her wings before Miss Montana, the airplane, took to the air again.
The now world-famous Douglas DC-3 landed in Missoula on June 24 after an epic trip to Europe to help commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France and the 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift in Germany.
Within days of her homecoming, Miss Montana and her local crew headed up by Eric Komberec, Bryan Douglass and Randy and Crystal Schonemann were off to a fly-in in Lewiston, Idaho — their ninth time zone in six weeks. On the trip home on Saturday, June 29, they detoured to the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness for a historical touchdown at Spotted Bear.
The airplane had the Fourth of July holiday off before Komberec and other volunteers solved a logistical problem Sunday afternoon. They tucked both the 65-foot World War II-era plane with a 95-foot wingspan and the similar Western Airlines DC-3, acquired earlier this year, into their mutual home in the Museum of Mountain Flying hangar at the Missoula airport.
“We’re pretty tickled to have them both inside, just based on the weather and thunderstorms we’re having,” Komberec said.
Formerly known as either the Mann Gulch plane or N24320, Miss Montana took to the air for the first time in 18 years on May 12, circling the Missoula Valley. In less than two months she has flown more than 16,000 miles and crossed the North Atlantic twice. At Lewiston she touched down in her ninth time zone in six weeks.
Well, there’s the AirVenture Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin July 22-28. A small group of Montana pilots and volunteers will be there to show off Miss Montana, and join crews from eight other aircraft from the D-Day Squadron that performed in Europe in early June.
Events in and around Helena in early August will mark the 70th anniversary of the Mann Gulch disaster.
Miss Montana was a central figure in the drama at Mann Gulch. She flew from Hale Field in Missoula on Aug. 5, 1949, with a planeload of smokejumpers to put out a forest fire in the steep gulch above the Missouri River at Gates of the Mountains. Thirteen young men lost their lives that day.
At least four current or retired parachutists intend to jump from the airplane somewhere in the vicinity on Monday, Aug. 5. Details and a permit from the Helena National Forest are not yet finalized. Jeff Sholty, a volunteer at the Missoula flying museum, is working with the Air National Guard for a Friday parachute drop at its facilities at Helena Regional Airport.
Oshkosh and Mann Gulch are just the beginning of the rest of the story for Miss Montana.
“We got bombarded with requests to take the airplane to different events,” Komberec said. “We’re just trying to manage all that and be able to keep paying the bills and fundraising. Things were quite a bit more expensive in Europe than we anticipated. They had some issues with Daks Over Normandy.”
The umbrella group headed by Peter Braun of the Netherlands agreed to help defray expenses for Miss Montana and the rest of the D-Day Squadron that flew from the United States to participate in events in England, France and Germany.
Komberec said Miss Montana to Normandy is hoping to be reimbursed more than $10,000.
“I think it’ll work out,” he said. “Until that comes in we’ve just got to keep raising some funds to keep flying.”
Miss Montana figures to be a major attraction at the Flathead Lake Fly-In on Aug. 17 at the Sky Ranch airstrip south of Kalispell. The Sky Ranch will open its doors to the aviation community for the day.
The Museum of Mountain Flying’s next big local event will be a gathering of the U.S. Army Special Forces Association on Sept. 14. Komberec said as many as 500 active and retired members of the association are expected. Activities will include military-style jumps from Miss Montana and a turboprop military C-130.
The Miss Montana committee has been approached by the University of Montana athletic department to perform flyovers and perhaps parachute drops at home football games this season.
That late June visit to the Diamond R Ranch at Spotted Bear may be repeated. The first one resulted in some remarkable photos and videos posted on the Miss Montana to Normandy Facebook page.
“That was a big, historical thing,” Komberec said. “Probably the last time a piston-powered DC-3 landed there was at least 40-45 years ago, in the mid-'70s.”
During her years of service, Miss Montana’s duties with Johnson Flying Service were primarily of a firefighting nature, often on contract with the Forest Service. Komberec said a joint venture is in the works with the Spotted Bear Ranger District in the Flathead National Forest that would result in another fly-in to Spotted Bear in late September. Its focus will be on the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the area in the 1930s. Among other projects, the CCCs constructed the Forest Service landing strip at Spotted Bear.
Another September engagement will be at Empire Airlines in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Komberec’s uncle, Tim Komberec, is president of Empire, which helped lead the restoration efforts of Miss Montana in the past year.
Miss Montana’s last out-of-state venture of 2019 could be in Spokane in October, when the Historic Flight Foundation helps open a multimillion hangar at historic Felts Field.
When she’s home, Miss Montana and the Western Airlines plane will be twin centerpieces at the Museum of Mountain Flying at Missoula International. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through mid-September. Admission is $4 and under, $10 for families.
A stated mission of the Miss Montana to Normandy project was for the airplane to return from Europe and “spend years traveling across the country representing our beautiful state.”
“This is the vision and the big draw for the museum. All of our volunteers and all the people who worked on the airplane are now stepping in to fill roles of curators and those kinds of things,” said Komberec, who succeeded museum co-founder Stan Cohen as president earlier this year.
“It’s just a big community effort to keep it going.”