In a show of patriotism, skill and small-town devotion to honoring heroes of the past, the skies over Plains became a spectacular part of the “Miss Montana to Normandy” project Tuesday, May 14.
Miss Montana is the DC-3/C-47 transport aircraft that has captured Montana’s imagination over the last year as it is readied to join a squadron dropping paratroopers over France to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Last week, all the details lined up to make Plains the place some of those jumpers got to take their inaugural jump for this mission as part of certifying for the international event.
With only word of mouth and social media to spread the word, an enthusiastic crowd had gathered under clear skies to listen for the telltale rumble of the iconic aircraft, so well-known in Montana as a smokejumper carrier, on its journey from museum piece in Missoula to living historical treasure. Plains school kids filled the playground and fields, and Plains Fire Department and Ambulance lined up with cars along Holland Field and at the cemetery, in hushed anticipation.
The wait was worth it.
MISS MONTANA, accompanied by a helicopter filming the occasion, circled over the field mid-morning, and came back to drop the first two parachutists a few minutes later, with a cheering crowd below. First out of the door were Kim Maynard, one of the first female smokejumpers in the 1980s, and Amanda Holt, an active member of the Grangeville, Idaho, smokejumpers. They used the military-style round chutes.
The aircraft made several more passes, dropping a total of seven jumpers, including two with “square” chutes that showed off their maneuverability and horizontal speed. As each jumper gathered up their gear from the field and headed to the staging area for transport to the airport, they were greeted by smiling family, friends, fans, and photographers. The crew included both currently employed jumpers and retirees, with military and firefighting experience. All of them reported successful jumps and no injuries, in spite of, as one said, “old knees.”
WHEN MISS Montana landed at Plains Airport, the crew offered a chance to climb inside and appreciate the fine job a horde of volunteers has done over the past year to restore this workhorse to top condition. Welcoming folks aboard was Jeff “El Jefe” Whitesell, who has directed much of the restoration efforts. He explained that he has been restoring these planes since his dad bought one when he was seven years old.
“The main reason I’m doing this,” said Whitesell, “is for everyone to remember we have a whole lot of freedom that didn’t come free. So, remember to thank our veterans.” The aircraft will be on tour after returning from this mission, in a tribute to the contributions of the thousands of Montana veterans of WWII and other campaigns, as well as pilots, crew, mechanics, as well as the thousands of smokejumpers who have come out of the sky to face the flames. This particular aircraft was built toward the end of WWII and never saw combat, but has an iconic history in firefighting, including being the plane that dropped the ill-fated Mann Gulch Fire smokejumpers who were killed in 1949.
Sanders County’s own flyer and flight teacher extraordinaire, Art Dykstra, who owns Flying Dutchman Aviation in Missoula, recently completed his captain certification on this aircraft, and was honored to pilot it into Plains, as he has experience flying for smokejumpers. “I’ve thrown people out the back before,” he quipped. Dykstra will be one of three captains on the journey to Normandy, France that will involve “island-hopping” from Nova Scotia to Greenland to Iceland to Scotland and then London where the squadron will gather for the big day, June 6. At least 14 aircraft are intended to take part.
Follow Miss Montana to Normandy in the news and social media for updates on the Normandy mission.