MISSOULA – For what is likely the last time, veterans who faced one of the bloodiest battles in human history will gather on the French shoreline next month for the 75th anniversary of the “D-Day” Invasion.
They’ll be saluted from the skies, as aviators and paratroopers simulate a piece of that epic battle, jumping from historic planes. But getting one of those planes there is taking an epic restoration and community effort right here in Montana.
D-Day was the Allies’ bold stroke which started the end of World War II in Europe. It was a victory built on the bodies and valor of the soldiers, sailors and airmen.
But it also depended on a great assemblage of equipment, including the venerable C-47 cargo plane, also known as the DC-3 in civilian form.
The “Miss Montana” has been prepared to soar to Normandy by a volunteer force at the Museum of Mountain Flying over the past year.
“Airplane mechanics. We’ve got guys here who are pretty good carpenters. Wiring guys, let’s see — just about anything you can imagine and they’ve all got a great attitude. And the thing I love is, I often thank them. And they say ‘oh no, thank you for letting me work here.,” said Missoula Montana project leader Bryan Douglass.
“This plane doesn’t have a military history so to speak. But it certainly has a great history around here for Missoula, and such an iconic airplane for the Missoula Valley and Montana in general, Miss Montana pilot Art Dykstra told MTN News.
Iconic, because the newly-christened “Miss Montana” has a special history all her own, flying hundreds of missions, including the ill-fated smokejumper drop into the Mann Gulch Fire. She’s a one-of-a-kind link between the War, and the legacy of military experience continuing here in the mountains.
“An aircraft that’s 75-years old, and hasn’t been made since the 50s I think, it’s hard to find parts. So I think I know everybody in the country who traffics in these parts so to speak, and I’ve bought things from most of them,” Douglass said.
“It’s not just the equipment that’s authentic, the trip has to be as well. Because of the range of the C-47s and DC-3s, the transatlantic crossing must be done in stages, just as it would have been 70-years ago — flying from Connecticut to Newfoundland to Greenland then Iceland, before making the longest leg — five hours from Iceland to Scotland, finishing up with the flight across the English Channel.
“You’d have to have this kind of support network to pull it off. Because like I say, it’s like driving a Model T to Argentina,” Dykstra said.
“You know, for many months this was a big dream of ours to be able to pull this off. And now’s the crunch time. We’ve been able to successfully get where we need to be on the maintenance. Now we have to face the fuel and the insurance,” Miss Montana project leader Eric Komberec explained.
The Miss Montana Project has really turned into being a community project as evidenced by the small army of volunteers that’s been working here month after month. But it was further evidenced by the arrival of Missoula retirees, who showed up today to present several thousand dollars that they’d raised to help out.”
As the final fundraising and tune-ups take place, the pilots and paratroopers are preparing too. “All of our pilots are highly trained, experienced guys to begin with. So, we’ve got solid instrument skills, and backcountry flying and smokejumper flying,” Komberec said.
“You know as pilots the word they like to use is compartmentalized is what we do. So, okay, it’s a big deal, whatever, whatever, we’ve got a job to do. But you can’t help but get excited about the project,” Dykstra stated.
“They all rounded up uniforms. They’ve got their parachutes. They’ve done everything to get their paperwork in,” Douglass said. “And so they’re here most days helping out, doing what they can, doing whatever they can. You know, whatever a jumper can do which isn’t much frankly.”
It’s not just airplane parts that’s made Miss Montana happen — it’s the camaraderie of Montana’s aviation community and a recognition of the roots that made it possible…
“It’ll never happen again. The nexus of living D-Day veterans being present, this many C-47s/DC-3s assembling in place, and paratroopers coming out of them in original uniforms over original drop zones,” Douglass said.
“We’re just running out of veterans who are still around, from that era obviously. And so having an old airplane like this and a chance to go do a kind of a tribute flight. Phenomenal. A really great time,” Dykstra told MTN News.
“It’s only fitting that we would step up and defy the impossible to go over there and represent our beautiful state and the men and women that gave everything to make sure that we’re free,” Komberec said.
“To be able to fly something like this airplane across the North Atlantic and be a part of that whole deal, incredible, yeah,” Dykstra added.
The Miss Montana Project is working to raise the final $50,000 need for fuel and other supplies to complete the trip.
Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News