TOWNSEND — It was nothing short of a pilgrimage.
They came by bus, car, truck and airplane last Monday to a mountainside most had never seen.
Some of the two dozen friends, fans and family members of Penn Stohr Sr. and Bob Vallance had been notified just a day earlier of the Forest Service escort to the slope where the two pilots died in 1957 in a fiery crash of a Ford Tri-Motor.
They showed up anyway, not a few of them blinking away tears as they paid homage and sought answers to questions more than six decades old.
“It turned out to be a lot more than we expected,” confessed Jamison Jordan, an archaeologist for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest's Townsend Ranger District.
Two fathers, husbands and daring mountain flyers lost their lives here on the morning of June 19, 1957.
Penn Stohr Sr., 54, was a fearless, cigar-chomping pioneer aviator who grew up in Plains and started building his legend as a backcountry pilot in Idaho. His skills were arguably second only to Bob Johnson himself in Johnson Flying Service’s table of flyers. Stohr is in the Idaho and Montana’s Museum of Mountain Flying aviation halls of fame, one of seven inaugural inductees in the latter in 1995.
Bob Vallance, 31, had been a radio man on a war plane in the Pacific during World War II. He became a pilot for Johnson in the 1950s, and was in his fourth year in the front seat that morning, learning the ropes of weed spraying in tricky terrain from one of the masters.
Among those who climbed the steep hillside above a remote Forest Service road in the Elkhorn Mountains was Penn Stohr Jr., who surveyed the rusted engine mount, control column, rudder pedals and other parts of the 1929 “Tin Goose.”
Young Penn had just graduated from eighth grade at Paxson Elementary in June 1957 when he rode with his parents to the Missoula airport to see off Penn Sr., who’d been called late on a Monday on a sagebrush spraying job west of Townsend. It was the last time he saw his father.
“This is an emotional tie-up,” he told the Townsend gathering.
Stohr had followed in his father’s aviation footsteps, rising to the ranks of chief pilot for Johnson and retiring in 2003 as an executive at Evergreen International in Oregon.
Like most others who’d worked for Johnson Flying between 1957 and its sale to Evergreen in 1975, Stohr was well aware that a wing and most of the fuselage from the Tri-Motor sat in the Johnson “bone yard” on the east end of the Missoula airport.
What he and evidently everyone else didn’t realize was that parts of the plane remained at the crash site.
“I was surprised there was as much there as there was, surprised Johnson didn’t take it all out,” Stohr said.
Marcia Vallance Babowicz was on Monday’s pilgrimage too.
A retired bank executive from Hamilton, she was 5 years old when her father died up here. Stohr Jr. himself tracked her down on Sunday to let her know about the Townsend gathering. Babowicz canceled a doctor’s appointment on the drive over with her husband Don, son Nate Souther, and cousin Donna Gastineau, who was Bob Vallance’s niece.
“I wasn’t really looking for closure,” Babowicz said afterward, “but I think just having the additional information was comforting to me and meaningful.”
Gastineau is several years older and remembers her father better, Babowicz noted. “She said she’s been waiting for this her whole life.”
Barely a month had passed since someone approached members of a trail crew from the Townsend Ranger District and told them of the wreckage up Indian Creek Road. The crew left a note on the desk of Jordan’s boss, Jen Ryan. Ryan contacted Dick Komberec, a founding member of the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula.
"We were looking to learn about what we have on our forest. I think initially we knew about it, but it kind of got lost in time," Jordan said.
He’d been the first from the ranger district to locate the debris, more than 15 rough miles out of Townsend. Jordan said he drove past it two or three times before he saw an engine mount sticking out of the sagebrush.
After some follow-up exchanges with Komberec and author Steve Smith, another museum founder, a date was set for Aug. 19 to meet and see what was left.
“At this time, in so many ways, this is the most significant Johnson Flying Service event for our museum’s stated mission since we started” in 1994, Komberec said.
That mission, as stated on the Museum of Mountain Flying’s website: “To preserve for future generations, the legends, lore and historical legacy of pilots and other individuals whose pioneering aviation exploits helped bring America’s Rocky Mountain West into the Air Age.”
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Smith, whose eyesight is failing, got a ride to Townsend from Missoula with an old friend, Chuck Bryson.
“When I talked to Jamison Jordan and first heard about the Forest Service going to that crash site, my impression was there were going to be two or three people along,” said Smith, who has known Penn Stohr Jr., since their high school days in Missoula in the 1950s. He wrote extensively about the circumstances surrounding the fatal crash in his book "Fly the Biggest Piece Back," a history of mountain flying and Johnson Flying Service.
Three foresters were at the spray site serving as flagmen and from a half-mile away witnessed the Tri-Motor as it made one pass over its sagebrush target from the head of Crow Creek and started on the second. An engine seemed to miss, one said. Suddenly the left wing clipped a hillside. The plane, N-9642, cartwheeled across the uneven slope, “all but disintegrating after hitting a huge fir tree,” Smith wrote. “
It came to rest upside-down some 350 feet from the initial point of impact. The spray tank containing diesel and herbicide was thrown free, but the gas tanks exploded. The airplane was all but consumed in flames. Stohr and Vallance probably died instantly.
Smith remembers hearing the news on Don Weston’s noon broadcast on KGVO Radio. The Missoula Sentinel bannered it across the top of Page One that evening, and the Missoulian played it at the top the next morning.
“Penn Stohr was the miracle pilot of Idaho, a real flying legend,” Smith said recently. “When that happened, western Montana was stunned by it.”
Marcia Babowicz has lots of pictures of her father, Bob Vallance, but doesn’t remember much about him, or about what must have been a horrible time for her mother, Marjorie, and brothers David and Jack, who were 9 and 8.
“I’m sure they kept a lot of things from me,” she said.
Still, she was thrilled last Sunday when she got the out-of-the-blue call from Stohr. Years ago Stohr had met the late Jack Vallance, a lifelong pilot, but never his younger sister. Tragically, their brother David died in the crash of an Army supply helicopter in Quang Tin Province of Vietnam in 1969. He was 21.
The 1957 crash left lingering questions. For one thing, it remains a mystery who was flying the plane at the fatal moment, Stohr or Vallance.
“Of course we had always wanted to know more, but we had always been told it wasn’t accessible, the Forest Service had salvaged everything and there wasn’t anything to see,” Babowicz said.
Not knowing what to expect, she and her family arrived at the ranger station in Townsend Monday morning, where Ranger Mike Welker, and district archaeologists Ryan and Jordan had arranged a reception.
Stohr, who lives in the Portland area but spends Augusts at Swan Lake, flew in from the Flathead with Hank Galpin in Galpin’s vintage 1928 Travel Air 6000, one of just a handful still airworthy.
A 12-passenger bus pulled up to the ranger station with a group from Missoula, including Komberec, his son Eric, and others at the Museum of Mountain Flying.
Instead of the anticipated handful, nearly two dozen people amassed in a small conference room for what turned into a moving tribute, each taking turns sharing his or her reason for being there and many thanking the ranger district for providing the unique opportunity.
Then, in a line of pickups, cars and the bus, the hourlong drive to the site began.
Once there, Crystal Schonemann from the crew of the now-famous DC-3 smokejumper plane known as Miss Montana, placed two wreaths against a rusted piece of airplane. Two weeks earlier, 13 such wreaths fashioned by Pink Grizzly in Missoula were dropped in the Gates of the Mountains north of Helena, in a tribute to the 12 smokejumpers and one firefighter who died at Mann Gulch in August 1949.
“I was very, very scared to go there because I didn’t know how I’d react to it,” Stohr said the next day. “I was frightened that it would be overwhelmingly emotional. It was, but it wasn’t probably as deep as I thought it might go. I think I’d already reconciled it over the years, and then following in his footsteps probably made it a little better.”
With the others on the hill, Babowicz tried to imagine the terrible crash in her mind, in order to come to grips with it.
“When we were driving up there I was thinking, what the hell is my father doing flying in this country?” she said.
Her conclusion: “Those pilot guys are crazy. I can say that because I’m from a family of pilots.”
Babowicz was impressed and enraptured by the stories she heard from men who knew her father and Stohr and the planes they flew.
“It was overwhelming, really,” she said. “Just surreal, one of those things like, is this really happening?”
Something else occurred to Babowicz about the men who flew these mountains, even as she stood in the wreckage.
“They were pioneers,” she said. “I never thought of it like that.”