small plane stock

1963 Cessna 172 in flight.

Michael Neary

Planning has begun for what promises to be the biggest airplane fly-in Missoula has ever seen.

Six staff members from the Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) were in town last week to lay the groundwork for the regional event set for next June 15-16.

Chris Eads, director of outreach and events for AOPA, said 300 to 500 aircraft typically show up for the fly-ins, which should draw anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 people to Missoula International Airport.

AOPA is the largest general aviation association in the world and stages four regional fly-ins each year. The others in 2018 will be held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in September; Carbondale, Illinois, in early October, and Gulf Shores, Alabama, in late October. Eads said it’s the first time the association has chosen a Montana destination.

“We’re excited to be hosting a regional fly-in,” said Cris Jensen, airport director. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the general aviation community to come and explore Montana and specifically Missoula. And it’s a great opportunity for our community to get engaged in general aviation.”

Jensen said the airport will shut down the shorter of two runways and a couple of taxiways for plane parking, and will have overflow parking contingencies as well.

“That’d be the best-case scenario, to have to use all of it,” Jensen said.

Commercial flights won’t be disrupted, he added. AOPA and local organizers are coordinating with the airlines and TSA to make sure things go smoothly.

“This is, I think, the 21st or 22nd one that they’ve put on, and they’ve got it down to an exact science. It’s going to be very well-organized,” said Gary Matson, a pilot who’s on the local organizing committee.

Missoula has hosted a few smaller fly-ins, “but they’ve been more specific to aircraft type, Beech Bonanza or something like that,” Jensen said. “Nothing like this.”

Eads said on any given weekend, especially during good weather, there are hundreds of fly-ins across the nation.

“Ours tend to be on the larger scale,” he said. “They fly in from really a pretty broad region. You’ll see folks coming from as far as 500 or 600 miles away.”

The two-day event will be filled with exhibits, workshops, seminars with world-class presenters, as well as products and services to enhance the flying experience. A Barnstormers Party ends the weekend. Some pilots will stake out camps on the grass beneath the wings of their planes or in a designated camping area at the airport.

Matson said organizers met Wednesday with Glacier Country Montana to plan a fly-out on Sunday to an attractive destination.

Most of those flying in will stay in local hotels and dine at eateries, Eads said. Contractors will tap local resources for tents, catering, porta-potties and the like.

“Our research indicates there’s roughly $680,000 of direct impact to the community,” he said.

While the fly-in offers a chance to meet and connect with other pilots and enthusiasts, the impact on those without planes is appreciable too. “Drive-ins” will outnumber the “fly-ins,” Matson said.

“It’s a free event, open to the public, so we encourage any folks interested in aviation who’d like to get an up-close look at the aircraft to come,” Eads said. “It’s very much the common man’s aviation. Recreational aviation is really more accessible to the average person than most folks realize. As a hobby and an interest, it’s no more expensive than having a nice Harley Davidson motorcycle or a sailing boat.”

It’s a competitive process to secure an AOPA regional fly-in, and Missoula’s successful bid has a special benefit to Matson.

“We hear from these people who are planning the event what a beautiful place this is and how many really cool things there are here to see,” Matson said. “One of the things it does for us is it helps us appreciate what we have — a really excellent airport, the Museum of Mountain Flying, Neptune Aviation, two (fixed-base operators), the Forest Service and smokejumpers ... There really are some nice things at the airport of interest.”

The regional fly-in comes in the same year that Missoula takes a turn hosting the Montana Aviation Conference. The 34th annual conference is set for March 1-3 at the Holiday Inn Downtown.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian