Miss Montana completed her mission to Normandy, France, and Wiesbaden, Germany, touching down in Missoula on Monday. Her crew took Miss Montana across 16,000 miles, six countries and eight time zones.
A crowd of over 50 spectators spilled out of the hangar at the Museum of Mountain Flying to watch the landing, many of them family and friends of the crew, and volunteers who helped put Miss Montana back into the air.
She appeared as a silver fleck against the green of Mt. Sentinel, doing a loop over Missoula, then a flyby across Missoula International Airport. Two airport fire trucks gave her a water cannon salute to pass through as she finally taxied to a stop.
“Good job, Daddy,” said one of Eric Komberec’s daughters after she rushed to meet him on the tarmac. Komberec, one of four crew members who emerged from Miss Montana, is the project director of “Miss Montana to Normandy.”
In 2018, Komberec and Bryan Douglass, both with the Museum of Mountain Flying, decided to take a DC-3/C-47 that used to be a part of the Johnson Flying Service fleet based out of Missoula and make it a part of history by adding it to the D-Day Squadron. The squadron made up a part of the “Daks Over Normandy” flyover, a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
They had roughly a year to get her there.
They began the job with a core group of six members of the museum who worked seven days a week for an entire year. Nearly 200 volunteers also put in hundreds of hours of labor, cleaning fuel tanks, refurbishing insulation, installing jump seats and cleaning parts.
After months of preparation and fundraising, the plane with the designation N24320 left for Europe as “Miss Montana” on May 19. She got her name from a B-25 bomber flown by Komberec’s grandfather, Capt. Malcolm W. Enman, in the South Pacific during WWII.
According to project manager and pilot Bryan Douglas, the year of work paid off for Miss Montana’s crew, with the plane having some of the least maintenance issues of the entire D-Day squadron of nearly 40 planes.
“And that’s how we like it,” said Douglass. “When you’re flying at 12,000 feet, and all you see is grey water, you really want those engines to be solid.”
The departing crew of six flew over the Atlantic in shifts lasting several hours. Those not piloting slept in hammocks hung along the walls of the cabin. Although temperatures got as low as 15 degrees, a heater built near the cockpit kept Miss Montana’s crew comfortable.
On June 5, she carried 19 parachutists who leapt from the plane during two passes. They landed in France’s countryside, celebrating those who took on the enemy deep in occupied territory. Along with honoring the United States, which made up half of the landing force at Normandy, Miss Montana also paid tribute to the 57,000 Montanans who served during WWII.
For the Normandy flight, her pilots guided her over the white cliffs of Dover, with a crowd of nearly 20,000 watching the drop planes fly by, escorted by p-51 fighters.
Natalie Abrams, one of the volunteers who spent “hours in a wheel well,” while working alongside residents of Missoula, Seattle and Los Angeles, followed Miss Montana on a commercial flight. She witnessed the Normandy flyover, and the pass over President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. She returned to Montana with several glass pill bottles filled with sand from the beach of Normandy.
A few days later, her crew took Miss Montana over Germany, celebrating the Berlin airlifts five years after D-Day. One of the pilots, Nico Von Pronay, received an honor from the mayor of Wiesbaden as a native of Germany.
Along with getting hugs, handshakes and congratulations after returning to Missoula, Komberec and the rest of Miss Montana's crew received praise at every airfield, from the United States to Germany.
“It was a dream come true. I hate to be corny, but it’s just like the Kevin Costner movie. ‘If you build it, they will come.’ A year ago, when Bryan and I set out to do this, people said we were out of our mind,” Komberec said.
Although Miss Montana’s European tour has come to an end, she won’t be grounded. Air shows in Idaho, Wisconsin and Montana will keep her and her crew busy all summer. On Aug. 5, Miss Montana will also be returning to Mann Gulch near Helena.
Seventy years ago, 13 people jumped from N24320 for the last time in an effort to combat a fire that took their lives, along with 5,000 acres. For the Aug. 5 flight, smokejumpers will once again land in Mann Gulch to honor the event.
“This is going to be a huge event for us, especially since it’s going to be the same plane carrying the smokejumpers,” Komberec said.
Through further fundraising and volunteer work providing basic maintenance, the team plan to keep Miss Montana airborne for as long as she can take.
“We didn’t get her put back together for her to just collect dust,” Bryan Douglass said.