The "Biggest Piece Back" just got a lot bigger.
Years ago — more than 40, in fact — Steve Smith researched and wrote a book about Missoula’s pioneer aviator Bob Johnson and the pilots who flew for him at Johnson Flying Service.
Johnson was alive back then and, after originally scoffing at the idea, he warmed up to reminiscing about his adventures. Smith, then a columnist and reporter at the Missoulian, figured he spent 75 hours talking to the man he called “probably the biggest hero in my life.”
The result was the 278-page “Fly the Biggest Piece Back,” published in 1979. The title referred to Johnson's explanation why he never carried a parachute when he flew Travel Airs in the mountains.
“Why get out?” Johnson said in his tough-as-nails fashion. “If you can’t fly the biggest piece back, then ride it down. Fly what you have left to the ground and land the damn thing.”
Flash forward a decade and a half. Smith was now writing other local histories and driving buses for Beach Transportation, though his primary passion still revolved around airplanes and the people who flew and fixed them.
He wasn't a pilot but caught the aviation bug as a kid in the late '40s hanging around Hale Field, where Sentinel High School now stands. Along with publisher/historian Stan Cohen and Dick Komberec, a former Johnson tanker pilot and Delta airline captain, Smith founded the Museum of Mountain Flying at Johnson-Bell Field in 1993.
About that time, he jumped at an offer to write a follow-up book centered around the life and times of Kenny Roth (1924-2007), a quiet but legendary mountain pilot for Johnson.
“He was the best of the best, bar none,” said Smith.
The book was commissioned by local aviation aficionados.
"I spent the best part of four years back in the early '90s on it, traveling around interviewing every pilot and mechanic,” said Smith, now 77. “Personally I think it was twice the book the first one was. More detailed interviews, and I was a better writer, I think."
But “Sons of the Western Sky” was never published, due in part to disagreements over some of its content. Smith said the manuscript sat for years gathering dust. He couldn’t stand the thought of it “dying on the vine.” A solution began to take shape.
The result: a combination of both books, recently self-published as the sixth edition of “Fly the Biggest Piece Back.”
“I spent 18 months, almost to the day, lopping off appropriate places of ‘Fly the Biggest Piece,’ and it fit like a hand in a glove," he said.
What emerged is more than a collection of biographies of mountain flyers who worked in Montana and McCall, Idaho.
It’s chock full of “people stories,” from the mechanics to the spouses and families to the Johnson pilots whose name form a pantheon of sorts: Roth and Johnson; Dick Johnson, Bob’s daredevil brother who crashed and died in 1945 during a March elk count south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Turk Minnerly; Penn Stohr; Jack Hughes, the longtime chief pilot for Johnson; Swede Nelson; Skip Alderson; Turk Minnerly; Komberec and the rest.
One of the new book’s subtitles is “Courage and Cool, Life and Death, Low Over the Boondocks of America’s Rocky Mountain West.”
The other: “The Johnson Flying Service Story, Start to Finish.”
The start wasn’t much covered in the first book. Smith spent 10 days in McCall, Idaho, rounding up stories and photos from what he called “the birthplace of mountain flying … those guys flying mail into mining camps and little ranching settlements and whatnot.”
In his eyes, he said, this edition is “THE story about the coming of aviation to western Montana.”
It’s also a very, very big book: 856 pages and 8 pounds big. It sells for $150, packaged in a loose-leaf notebook that Smith assembles himself for each order.
He gets them six at a time through FedEx at a discount, and sells them himself over the phone or by mail order.
“I could no more go to a publisher and have a book that size done. … It’d cost me $100,000," Smith said. "I thought the important thing was to get the story out, once and for all, and into the libraries and the hands of people who care about this stuff. It’s really something that should be out there as a resource.”
On Monday Smith wasn’t certain if he’d have his book at this weekend’s regional Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) fly-in at the airport, though it would seem to have a receptive audience. More than 500 small planes carrying general aviation aficionados are set to converge on Missoula.
Word of mouth “has worked pretty well,” he said, with sales of some 65 books so far since he and editor Mea Andrews, a former Missoulian journalist, finished the process late last year.
“There are so many descendants of the Johnson gang of pilots, mechanics and so on,” Smith said. “And there’s the whole Idaho crew.”