Miss Montana, the airplane, is coming home again in triumph.
Volunteers on the Museum of Mountain Flying’s World War II-era Douglas DC-3 made their final food flight Wednesday from the east coast of Florida to the Bahamas, completing a 10-day relief effort to provide hot meals to victims of Hurricane Dorian.
Montana’s most famous aircraft will make one more trip to Freeport, Grand Bahama, on Thursday to drop off the last backpacks filled with supplies donated in Missoula and diapers and clothing from Billings. Then Miss Montana will carry half a dozen or so workers from Operation BBQ Relief back to Fort Lauderdale.
Missoula pilot Art Dykstra said there’ll be some flight training to finish up in Florida on Saturday in an effort to get more pilots certified to fly Miss Montana before he and David Hoerner of Kalispell start home. Weather permitting, Miss Montana should be back in the barn at Missoula International Airport on Monday. The airplane left Missoula on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 14, with 10 pilots and volunteers on board. It arrived at its base, Banyan Air Service at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, two days later and began delivering meals that afternoon.
“An awesome adventure,” said museum president Eric Komberec, who did most of the piloting before returning Tuesday to his day job with Neptune Aviation. “Everywhere we went we were well-received and greeted and taken care of.”
Flying the U.S. and Bahamian flags, the former smokejumper airplane delivered more than 10,000 hot meals a day of barbecued chicken, pork and beef with side dishes to Grand Bahama International Airport. Museum volunteers and pilots helped load and unload the food, packaged in reusable Styrofoam boxes and packed in crates.
“A little dignity came with it,” said John Haines, one of the museum volunteers who stayed in Florida until Saturday. “The way they’re packaged they can stay hot for six hours.”
On Thursday, Miss Montana helped Operation BBQ Relief deliver its three-millionth meal. The nonprofit was founded in May 2011 in response to a tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri. Its niche is to supply meals in the direct aftermath of a disaster like Dorian, which unleashed its wrath over the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama for more than a day on Labor Day weekend.
The majority of mass-feeding needs is dwindling, and Operation BBQ Relief announced Wednesday it will soon close down its Fort Lauderdale operations.
“As with all disaster-based deployments, this decision is based on many different factors including input from the Bahamian government, input from Emergency Operations Centers, input and personal observations from our own operations assessment team on the ground in the impacted area, and input from the people we're feeding,” the announcement said.
Other agencies on the ground are handling localized, individual feeding, it said.
Komberec said before Miss Montana left Missoula that volunteers had dedicated use of Miss Montana for up to 30 days.
“I’ll tell you what, those people over there are so appreciative and they want to come back with you. It’s heartbreaking that you can’t bring them,” said Kaye Ebelt.
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A long-time teacher in Missoula who ran an aviation camp for youths at the Museum of Mountain Flying last month, Ebelt is in her third year of teaching middle-school science at a private school in West Palm Beach. She spent Sunday with the Miss Montana crew, and has also made flights over the devastated Abaco Islands with the women's aviation group Treasure Coast Ninety-Nines.
There’s no place to land in the Abacos, Ebelt said. Runways are flooded, entire towns are leveled, and some 1,300 people are still missing. Three weeks after the devastating storm, most of the islands remain isolated without shelter, electricity or fuel.
Grand Bahama to the northwest wasn’t hit as hard, but widespread damage is evident there too.
The customs at the Grand Bahama airport where Miss Montana delivers its goods was simply a folding table and tent with two outhouses.
“You don’t realize the impact of this until you go over there and talk to the people,” Ebelt said. “I’m in tears when the custom lady who's stamping my passport is telling me she watched her neighbors drown.
“They say don’t even call it a nightmare. This is worse than a nightmare.”
Komberec made contact with Operation BBQ Relief soon after the hurricane struck the Bahamas, volunteering the services of Miss Montana and her sister DC-3, a former Western Airlines carrier. While the Western plane wasn’t deemed necessary in the Bahamas, Miss Montana’s follow-up mission to the 75th commemoration of D-Day in Normandy was a success.
As usual, Miss Montana, which took flight for the first time in 18 years just weeks before leaving for Europe, is turning heads.
“She’s doing good work,” said Dykstra. “I wouldn’t say you get used to it, because every time you walk up to the airplane it’s still impressive. But every day we have to clear customs, and as we’re getting ready to leave the customs, guys are standing out there getting their pictures taken by the nose of the plane.”
Miss Missoula's mercy flight to Florida was funded by donations, and Komberec said financial support for the Museum of Mountain Flying and Miss Montana is still needed. Plans are percolating to build a restoration facility on three acres of property east of the museum hangar, where an airplane-building program for youths can be launched. A thank-you dinner in late October will feature a look back at 2019 and the formal announcement of restoration of a World War II and Johnson Flying Service Grumman TBM Avenger.
Dykstra, a master pilot who with Florida’s Frank Moss is certifying Hoerner and a Florida pilot to fly DC-3s, was with the crew that went to Normandy.
“That was a bigger adventure,” he said Wednesday afternoon after putting Miss Montana to bed in Fort Lauderdale. “But this has more meaning to it. It feels like we’re doing something that’s really worthwhile.”