Soaring tribute
Bettina Burke holds a copy of a painting of her father, W. Penn Stohr, a pioneering pilot in the early days of mountain flying. A native of Plains, the new airport there will be dedicated in his name Saturday.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Plains to honor Montana flying legend W. Penn Stohr with dedication ceremony at new airport

He flew planes in Plains.

And by the time W. Penn Stohr had chomped on his last cigar, had winked over his shoulder at his last nerve-wracked passenger, had made his final hair-raising landing on a frozen mountain lake, he was the stuff of aviation lore.

On Saturday, Plains will celebrate its new $4 million airport and dedicate it in Stohr's name.

"Penn Stohr Field. It's just a natural," said Missoula historian Steve Smith. "He was a pioneer in every sense of the word."

Stohr died at age 54 in 1957, one of two victims of a fiery crash while spraying sagebrush west of Townsend.

He was one of seven inaugural inductees into the Museum of Mountain Flying's Aviation Hall of Fame in 1995. Stohr's portrait hangs with the others at the Missoula International Airport, just below that of Robert Johnson, founder of Johnson Flying Service and Stohr's employer for his last 24 years.

Stohr is shown in a winter scene, trademark cigar clenched between his teeth, his Travelair behind him in the snow.

"He started early in (the history of) flying and he built flying, in a way," Stohr's daughter, Bettina Burke of Missoula, said this week.

Born in 1902 in Missouri, Stohr grew up on a ranch in the lower Clark Fork Valley of Montana, just west of Plains.

Not far, it turned out, from where the town's first airstrip was built, with Stohr's help, as part of a public works project in the mid-1930s.

That turf strip wasn't paved until 1991, said Randy Garrison, director of the Sanders County-owned airport. It's 3,000 feet long and still in use, accommodating single-engine planes and some light twin engines.

The new strip alongside is 4,650 feet. It can be used by "singles, twins, twin turbos, all the way to medium-sized business jets," Garrison said.

The focus of the two-year airport project was to expand services for the local hospital, as well as the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Half loads have been the rule for those government agencies in the past.

"Now they'll be able to use it to its fullest. They're able to have a permanent base at the airport," Garrison said. "Before it was kind of a portable Porta Potti."

There were no airstrips of any kind in Plains in the 1920s, when Stohr cut his teeth on flying.

He kept his OX-5 Swallow in the barn at the ranch, taking off and landing in a field nearby.

Stohr was a daredevil barnstormer in the early days. He drove trucks for Plains Flour Mill and spent weekends flying to county fairs and the like in Superior, Hot Springs, Kalispell, Wallace and Kellogg, Idaho, and the Spokane area. There he'd offer the locals their first up-close look at an aircraft, or their first rides at a rate of a penny a pound.

The story goes that a visitor to Plains wanted a ride with Stohr. Either the man or his wife - accounts differ - said they wouldn't pay if he did not get a thrill.

Stohr took his passenger on a historic flight - the first under the bridge on the Clark Fork River in Plains. The man fainted.

"Dad was always asked: 'Did you get your money?' And he said, 'You know, I can't remember,' " Burke recalled.

Stohr helped escort Charles Lindbergh from Butte west on a leg of his "victory tour" of North America in September 1927, a few months after Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight.

The entourage circled Missoula, then parted ways as Stohr headed home and Lindbergh continued on to Spokane.

When Stohr reached Plains, he put down on Main Street. His license was yanked for six months for the stunt.

"Mother said it was the hardest time of his life because he could not fly," Burke wrote in a remembrance of her father. "He became an excellent pilot and a very safe pilot after that."

Stohr courted a Plains girl, Alma Garber, even when she left town to go to college in Missoula. His techniques were unique.

Burke said he'd fly over the Missoula campus "blowing his siren to let Mother know he was there. Not a lot of planes were seen during that era and the girls would run out to wave because going with a pilot was very romantic."

They married soon after.

Their children - Dan, Bettina and Penn - were raised in the uneasy sphere of a mountain flyer's life. Young Penn went to work at Johnson Flying Service as a boy. He's currently director of flying operations at the Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation, the company that purchased Johnson in 1975.

All three offspring will be at the dedication ceremony Saturday in Plains, where their parents are buried and their father's flying acumen has long been held in high esteem.

"It amazes me how many people remember him," Burke said.

Stohr flew for the Forest Service in some of its earliest beetle-control work. He was the first hired pilot for Johnson Flying Service in 1933, when his real legacy began.

He spent nearly seven years - summers and winters - flying the mountains north of Boise, Idaho, delivering to remote towns and mines mail, payrolls, medicine and rescues. His work earned him respect as a mountain flyer second to none except, perhaps, Bob Johnson himself.

"Idaho is really the birthplace of what they call mountain flying, down near McCall and Cascade," Smith said. "Flying into places like Warren and Mackey Bar, it was just some of the most difficult flying there was."

Stohr was dubbed the Miracle Pilot of Idaho in "Tall Timber Pilots," a book about Johnson Flying Service published in 1953.

"He could get in and out of a shorter field, with a bigger load, on a hotter day, at higher elevation, than just about anyone in the business," wrote another aviation pioneer, Frank W. Wiley, in his 1966 book, "Montana and the Sky."

Stohr's high-risk midwinter rescue of the crew of a downed Air Corps bomber in 1943 near McCall earned him national recognition.

Wylie wrote that it also resulted in the establishment of the Search and Rescue section of the Air Force. Efforts by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, realigned three years ago under the Air Force's Special Operations Command, have resulted in nearly 13,000 lives saved since 1974, according to a U.S. military Web site.

The Stohr family moved from Cascade, Idaho, to McCall to Boise as the youngsters grew up. Johnson Flying Service moved Stohr and his family to Missoula in 1946, and the children graduated from Missoula County High School.

Smith said he vividly remembers the day Stohr died in 1957, along with 31-year-old co-pilot Bob Vallance of Hamilton.

The two were in a Johnson-owned Ford Tri-Motor some 17 miles west of Townsend in the Elkhorn range. They'd made their first low pass over a 900-acre target area of sagebrush, spraying a mixture of diesel oil and a potent herbicide.

Witnesses on the ground said one engine appeared to falter and the left wing tip clipped a hillside. The plane cartwheeled across the uneven landscape and all but disintegrated when it hit a tree. The plane's gas tanks exploded in first. Stohr and Vallance probably died instantly.

Smith was a sophomore at Missoula County High School, home for lunch. Don Weston's noontime report on KGVO was on the radio, and Weston reported that "famed pilot Penn Stohr" was dead.

"It was a big story," Smith said. "He was a notable figure, and he really had a reputation."

The Missoulian played it at the top left-hand side of the front page with the headline "Two Missoula Pilots Die In Air Crash."

Stohr's death saddened western Montana and stunned the flying community. But his stories survived, and so does his legacy.

On Saturday, it'll be made a permanent one in Plains.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com

Fly on over

Dedication of the new Plains airport is Saturday, starting with a pancake fly-in breakfast sponsored by the Plains Chamber of Commerce at 8 a.m. Lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Air ambulances from St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula will be on hand, and several demonstrations are planned, including a water drop by Minuteman Aviation and a parachute demonstration by the U.S. Forest Service.

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