The Missoula resurrection of Miss Montana, the plane, has been a good regional story for a year now.
On Sunday it gets some national loving.
CBS Sunday Morning takes a look at how the World War II-era airplane went from moribund to flying flawlessly across the Atlantic Ocean in fewer than 12 months — eight, in fact, after the maintenance plan was solidified last September.
As of Friday, the eight-minute segment on Miss Montana to Normandy was slotted as the cover story of the 90-minute show, which airs at 7 a.m. on KPAX and KAJ in western Montana.
The CBS promo reads: “A World War II-era Douglas C-47 military transport plane dubbed ‘Miss Montana’ had been parked in a museum for nearly two decades after a career of transporting firefighters in Montana. Now, with its engines rebuilt and the fuselage restored to its early glory, it is joining other veteran airplanes that saw service on D-Day 75 years ago for a trip across the Atlantic, for an anniversary flight over the beaches of Normandy.”
Veteran CBS correspondent Richard Schlesinger and producer Alan Golds visited Missoula in April with a small crew to view the work going on at the Museum of Mountain Flying and talk to those who were doing it.
“It’s a great story of perseverance and dedication and hard work,” Schlesinger said by phone Friday. “I’m still trying to get over the fact this airplane didn’t fly for 18 years and was a museum piece, and now it’s made it to Europe.
“If you just think about the amount of work they had to do to get this thing going, it’s mind-boggling.”
Sunday’s segment will rely heavily on photos and footage provided by Missoula videographer/filmmaker Eric Ristau, which Schlesinger called “amazing.”
Based in New York, Schlesinger is a pilot himself who frequents the Oxford-Waterbury Airport in Connecticut, which was briefly home to Miss Montana and others in the D-Day Squadron a couple of weeks ago.
On May 21, he and a camera crew flew on Miss Montana and filmed her from below when the plane toured the Hudson River valley and circled the Statue of Liberty.
How did the “big lumbering airplane” appear to New Yorkers?
“Watch the first couple seconds of the piece and you’ll see,” Schlesinger said. “We have pictures of it against the New York skyline.”
Miss Montana flew a test flight around the Missoula Valley on Sunday, May 16, her first time airborne since she arrived at the Missoula airport and Museum of Mountain Flying on Oct. 16, 2001. She landed Tuesday in Duxford, England, 16 days later, after 10 days of travel across the U.S. and North Atlantic.
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She and other C-47s of the D-Day Squadron flew in formation Friday morning over the White Cliffs of Dover on England’s eastern shoreline. A video of the flight and cliffs was posted on the Miss Montana to Normandy Facebook page.
The CBS London affiliate sent a camera man to Duxford on Thursday to get photos of Miss Montana.
“Maybe they wanted to make sure it wasn’t a hoax,” quipped Bryan Douglass, one of the leaders of the Miss Montana to Normandy project.
“We have the pictures to prove it,” Schlesinger said when told of Douglass’ joke.
CBS chose to tell the Miss Montana story out of the 15 airplanes in the D-Day Squadron as the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 approached. Schlesinger said the task of making her airworthy was daunting, which made for a more compelling story.
The plane, N24320, came out of a Long Beach factory in May 1944 but never went to war. Instead it became a workhorse for Missoula-based Johnson Flying Service, not only dropping smokejumpers during fire seasons but supplying backcountry stations and flying charter passenger service.
It had two brushes with history. In August 1949, the airplane dropped smokejumpers on the disastrous Mann Gulch fire north of Helena that resulted in 13 deaths and became the theme of Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire.”
In December 1954, the same plane was flying troops home from the east coast for Christmas when it ran low on fuel and had to be crash-landed in the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. The valiant efforts by the pilot and rescue crews saved the lives of all on board. Volunteers on the current project said they found corrosion in the plane attributable to the 1954 splash as they worked on it.
Schlesinger said the timing wasn’t right for him to get to Normandy next week for events there to finish the Miss Montana to Normandy story.
Still, he said, “We were glad to do it. We spend a lot of time looking for stories like this. Plus, I got to go to Missoula. I love that place.”
Treat Williams, the actor and pilot who last year made it a personal mission to fly Miss Montana to Normandy, isn’t going to make it either.
He’s shooting a movie with Dolly Parton.
“I’m very sad but the film is a conflict,” Williams said by email on Friday. “I’m hoping to fly the plane to air shows for a long time to come.”