Once it was called the “Limousine of the Air,” the private plane of choice for the likes of Wallace Beery, whose acting career bridged the silent and sound movie era.
But the Travel Air 6000 became the bread and butter of flying in these mountains of Montana and Idaho for Johnson Flying Service.
Now Missoula has one all for itself.
Morris Owen, 83, watched a version of his aviation life roll before his eyes Monday morning as volunteers carefully backed the black and orange, fabric-covered airplane into the hangar at the Museum of Mountain Flying.
One of five operable Travel Airs in existence, it was built the same year Owen was born – 1929.
Six or seven years later, he took his first plane ride, in a barnstormer’s Travel Air in a stubble field outside of Geraldine.
“My dad bought me and a buddy a ride for a penny a pound,” Owen said. “I think it cost him 75 cents for me and a dollar-something for my buddy. Then, maybe 35 years later, I’m flying them.”
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“I suppose that was the sales department that called them that,” Owen said with a chuckle.
But for delivering smokejumpers, hauling mail and supplies, and flying emergency missions into the mountains, this plane was unmatched through the middle decades of the 20th century, and Johnson Flying Service had a fleet of them.
“They’d haul a good load into a short field,” Owen said simply.
Dick Komberec, a retired airline pilot, earned his wings with Johnson Flying Service. Now vice president of the museum board, Komberec recently purchased the Travel Air from Dick Waite of Hagerman, Idaho.
On March 24, accompanied by two friends and flying aficionados, Komberec flew his new plane from its hangar in Gooding, Idaho, near Twin Falls, to Missoula in two hops. It was a two-hour, 10-minute flight to Dillon, Komberec said, and an hour from there to Missoula.
The plane is without a heating system, something that was missing indeed when they climbed to 9,500 feet above Monida Pass.
“It was very cold,” said Wes Gander, one of the passengers. “But we had our long johns on and gloves and blankets. We were ready for it.”
Komberec and son Eric, 28, fired the old plane up Monday and taxied over to its new home at the museum from a nearby hangar at Neptune Aviation.
“When I was a young guy flying for Johnson’s, they still had Travel Airs. I didn’t fly this one, but I flew a few others,” Komberec said. “It’s historic. It’s nostalgic. It’s very rare. And it was a big part of the mountain flying saga.
“Travel Airs are really what put Johnson on the map.”
Bob Johnson bought his first one in 1929 or 1930, Komberec said.
“That was when the Forest Service started their backcountry operations, and it was able to serve those backcountry strips. Because of the Travel Airs, that’s why a lot of these backcountry strips were developed: in the Bob Marshall, Big Prairie, Meadow Creek, Spotted Bear and down in Idaho, Moose Creek – just on and on.”
Komberec’s new plane, No. 8865, belonged to Johnson Flying Service from 1958 to 1965. It was manufactured in Wichita, Kan., and “bounced around” during the Depression, Komberec said. Eventually it spent years hauling mining supplies and people for Bradley Mining Co. out of Boise.
Bob Johnson got it from Bradley in ’58 to carry smokejumpers and supplies. Johnson Flying began winnowing down its fleet of Travel Airs in the mid-1960s, and No. 8865 spent time in South Carolina and in an aviation museum in Tennessee after that.
A collector, Lester Morton, restored it to its current condition in 1985, and an Idaho group that included Waite took ownership a decade later.
“They flew it in air shows and back and forth around country, but it flew only a couple of hundred hours in 17 years,” Komberec said.
Obtaining a Travel Air 6000 has been on the back of Komberec’s mind for a while now. The Museum of Mountain Flying looked at buying one itself years ago, but couldn’t afford it.
“This was the last one available,” he said.
Hank Galpin of Kalispell spent 10 years rebuilding his Travel Air 6000. Others are found in Seattle, in Mount Pleasant, Texas, and at the Delta Heritage Museum in Atlanta.
Stan Cohen, president of the Museum of Mountain Flying, said a fly-in focusing on some or all of the operable Travel Airs is tentatively set for July for Missoula.
The latest addition to the museum won’t be a static exhibit. Komberec said he’ll turn most of the flying duties over to his son, a pilot and trainer at Homestead Helicopters.
“To me we’ve got a good, flyable airplane to reach out to air shows and kind of spread word of the museum,” Eric Komberec said. “We can take it around the state or to (EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Wis.), and we can kind of get the word out to the aviation community versus just keeping it local here.”
The younger Komberec said it meant a lot to his father to bring the Travel Air “home.”
“I know how hard Dad worked at it to have one of these,” he said. “He was a gas boy here with no money. He grew up in Drummond and started a garbage route to pay for flying lessons and learned to fly here in Missoula.”
Back then, the pilots who flew Travel Airs and the like were idols for youngsters like Dick Komberec, his son said.
“For a gas boy to start out and kind of go full circle and eventually have one of these for himself, to me that’s pretty cool to see,” Eric said.