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Never have western Montanans had a better chance to immerse themselves in the world of general aviation.

A three-year process comes to fruition Friday and Saturday when the nationwide Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association opens its 2018 regional fly-in series at Missoula International Airport.

“As of this morning I had 498 aircraft registered to show up,” Dan Neuman said Friday. “We were expecting in the 350 range. I would think it would more than exceed our expectations.”

Neuman is business development manager at the Missoula airport. He’s also chairing of the fly-in planning group that formed last year after the AOPA, based in Frederick, Maryland, made Missoula its first Montana fly-in destination.

General aviators will be soaring in from dozens of states and provinces starting Thursday. Roughly 150 of them have indicated they’ll camp with their aircraft, and the hosts have lined up shower trailers and “lots of porta-potties” for them, said Kynan Spethman, general manager of Northstar Jet.

It’s a chance for flying enthusiasts to rub shoulders and talk the lingo with hundreds of fellow pilots. And it’s an opportunity for those new to the general aviation world to catch the flying bug. The public is invited onto the Northstar Jet/Neptune Aviation campus on the east end of the airport.

Normal commercial airline schedules will be maintained, but the shorter of two runways and several taxiways have been reserved for the small planes.

Most events and activities on both days are free. Exceptions include a full day of intensive workshops on Friday and a screening Saturday evening of the 1989 Steven Spielberg film “Always,” starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman. The feature film was largely shot in the Libby area and the Kootenai National Forest. It shows in the Museum of Mountain Flying adjacent to Northstar. Suggested donations are $10 for adults and $5 for children.

Neuman said he believed all three fly-outs from Missoula are booked. The first goes to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Stonehenge Air Museum near Fortine on Friday. Another ends up at Seeley Lake on Saturday for an overnighter. The third on Sunday flies to Libby and Sandpoint to visit the set of “Always” and the Quest Aircraft Co. factory.

The flying museum will roll out its centerpiece Johnson Flying Service DC-3, the “Mann Gulch” airplane that an offshoot group of the museum is planning to fly to Europe next June for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Thomas Haines, vice president of the AOPA, will help in the formal dedication of “Miss Montana” and her nose art before Friday night’s Barnstormers Party, which starts at 6 p.m. and features live music.

Northstar Jet has cleared out half of its massive Hangar 6 for main stage events, and its entire Hangar 7, all 22,500 square feet of it, for an exhibition hall where products booths and demonstrations will take place throughout both days.

The overwhelming response from pilots begs the question: Is there room on the county airport grounds for all those planes?

“That’s a topic of debate,” Neuman said. “We have contingency plans for parking them outside of where we have diagrammed, properties that we have designated for parking. The good news is, even if we get all those airplanes, they won’t all be here at one time. They come and go. But it does become a bit of a management issue for us, to spot open holes once we’ve filled up and somebody leaves. We have a good plan for that.”

The Missoula fly-in is the first of four for the AOPA in 2018. Others are in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in September; Carbondale, Illinois, on Oct. 5-6, and Gulf Shores Alabama, Oct. 26-27.

“We’re as ready as we can be, let’s put it that way,” Neuman said. “The AOPA does a lot of these, so they’re real organized. Our largest issue right now is we’re a little short of volunteers.”

It’s not too late to sign up to help on the airport’s website, flymissoula.com. The opening window takes you straight to the AOPA page, Neuman said, adding that both those with flying experience and those without can pitch in.

Airside shifts are for certified pilots and those who are experienced around airplanes to help with ground operations such as aircraft marshaling, parking, camping and fuel orders.

On the show side, volunteers can help set up exhibits, prepare food, greet fly-in guests and manage the flow of people and vehicles. Typical shifts run four to five hours.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

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