Miss Montana to Duxford

Miss Montana en route from Scotland to Duxford. 

Miss Montana’s epic flight from Missoula to England came to a jubilant end Tuesday at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford Airfield, 55 miles north of London.

The Museum of Mountain Flying’s venerable DC-3 airplane, which left town on May 19, landed shortly before 8 a.m. Montana time.

Backslaps, handshakes and a victorious "touchdown" signal by chief pilot Jeff Whitesell reflected the elation displayed on a Facebook video by project leader Eric Komberec. 

“It was a hoot,” said Bryan Douglass, the logistical director for Miss Montana to Normandy, on the phone from England. “The short version: Really flawless. The plane performed without incident, everyone did well, we got lucky with some good weather and we were lucky enough to find a couple of pilots who could fly the thing.”

Komberec, Whitesell, Douglass and Art Dykstra took turns in the right seat on a trip that had the expected stops and starts across the stormy North Atlantic, at one point approaching the Arctic Circle over the weekend. The maintenance crew of Randy and Crystal Schonemann rounded out the six-member expedition.

The trip across the United States and North Atlantic ended on the 10th day, after most but not all the other 14 planes in the D-Day Squadron touched down on Britain’s best preserved World War II airfield.

Duxford will be the base of operations for the next week. When all 35 or so of the World War II-era warbirds gather at Duxford, it'll be the largest number of Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft in one location since the war. Mass parachute jumps and flight displays are slated for June 4 and the morning of June 5 ahead of the historic flight across the English Channel on June 5.

Miss Montana and other Daks will drop commemorative paratroopers at Caen in Normandy to re-enact the initial Allied invasion 75 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Fifteen jumpers from Montana and elsewhere are certified to jump from Miss Montana, including three couples with military or Forest Service parachuting experience. 

An attraction at her U.S. and trans-oceanic stops in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland, Miss Montana received an unexpected tribute as she approached Duxford.

“A lot of times you can ask for a low pass over the airfield before you land, but in this case we didn’t,” Douglass said. “The tower offered it. They said, ‘You can have a low pass if you’d like. It’d be great for all the photographers we have down here.’”

The Miss Montana crew parked the plane alongside others from the D-Day Squadron and drove to a rental house about 25 miles away near Cambridge. Other Montanans will be staying with them, including Komberec’s wife Tia, their two children, and Skip Alderson, who'll be among Miss Montana's ground crew in Duxford. He piloted the same plane, N24320, for Johnson Flying Service on its last flight across the ocean in 1975, on what was reported to be a cricket-spraying job for Evergreen, which was in the process of buying Johnson.

“There’s not a lot that happens immediately” with Miss Montana, Douglass said. “We’ll have a couple of days of standing down. We’ve got some laundry to take care of, and tomorrow morning we’re scheduled for a tour of Southwick.”

Southwick Village, on England’s southern shore above the naval base of Portsmouth, was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters and the nerve center of Operation Overlord and the Allied D-Day invasion.

The military base is rarely open to the public. Miss Montana’s crew will hop aboard a different DC-3 to get there.

Another D-Day Squadron plane, the Spirit of Benovia from California, also arrived Tuesday in Duxford. Still on their way, according to the D-Day Squadron Facebook page, are N18121 and Rendezvous With Destiny. Both landed safely in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Tuesday.

A final plane, called Hap-Penstance, left Oakland, California, on Monday and made it to Rapid City, South Dakota. Kathryn Burnham, a British pilot, came to Missoula earlier in May to gain certification to fly the U.S. plane, which was a VIP transport for Hap Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.

Miss Montana’s journey was not without its frets. Komberec said one of the most anxious moments was leaving Goose Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador not knowing if they’d have fuel when they got to Narsarsuag, Greenland.

“They said they sold out of gas and didn’t have enough to provide us,” he said.

That, combined with 60-knot winds, convinced the crew Friday to fly farther north in Canada to remote Iqaluit on Baffin Island. From there they went to a different port in Greenland, Kangerlussuaq, and flew across the immense ice-capped expanses of Greenland in a direct line to Reyjavik, Iceland.

Douglass said he'll long remember the sight from the air of musk oxen on the expanses of Greenland.  

“It’s just impossible to describe the vastness of that country. Impossible,” Douglass said. “I thought flying over the U.S. was big and vast, but it was nothing compared to Greenland. There’s just nothing there.”

Komberec and Douglass again lauded the efforts of all the volunteers, workers and financial supporters who made possible the resurrection of the 1944 DC-3 after it sat grounded in the Missoula aviation museum for 18 years. The effort started a year ago, and had its share of doubters.

“We’re here,” Douglass said. “It’s been great fun, and it’s about to get more fun.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian