Giuseppe Caltabiano thought he had his final adventure in the air in 2017 when he and two other pilots completed a pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the globe, the first time the feat had been accomplished in an unmodified plane.
Then he heard about Miss Montana.
The Italian native and Whitefish resident was one of 18 pilots from around the country who gathered in a Neptune Aviation hangar in Missoula on Saturday for a two-day ground school to learn the ins and outs of Miss Montana, a Douglas C-47 (the military version of the DC-3) that will be flown to Normandy, France, next June for a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Caltabiano grew up in Sicily, and during introductions told the rest of the room his grandparents used to take him to the beaches and tell him about how the Americans pushed the war effort over the top and secured victory in Europe.
“‘The Americans are the reason you’re alive’ they would tell me,” he said.
In March 2017, months after completing the polar circumnavigation (which included him flying the stretch over Antarctica) Caltabiano became a United States citizen at a ceremony in Missoula. Now he’s hoping for one more adventure as part of Miss Montana’s crew next summer.
“America gave me the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “I don’t even care if I’m a pilot. I could be a sweeper in the back and I would still be thrilled.”
The recently-christened Miss Montana, which first rolled off the assembly line in 1944, has a storied history, including having flown a dozen smokejumpers from Hale Field in Missoula to their deaths on the Mann Gulch fire outside of Helena in 1949.
Miss Montana spent most of its life in Missoula until 1975 when Johnson Flying Service sold to an Oregon company. The plane was eventually found in Arkansas, purchased, and returned to its true home in 2001.
That was the last time the aircraft flew; it’s been in a hangar at the Museum of Mountain Flying, partially dismantled, ever since. But now the crew is training, the engines have been rebuilt in Grangeville, Idaho, and Miss Montana is coming back together for a new mission.
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Eric Komberec, a Neptune Aviation pilot and trainer who heads up the “Miss Montana to Normandy” effort, said the plane is probably one of the most historic that will be taking part in the June ceremony in France.
“I just think of the lives that have been lost, the lives that have been saved and the families that have been touched by this plane,” he said.
Bill Tubbs, who worked for Johnson Flying Service for five years starting in 1970, led the weekend’s ground school, taking the pilots through the original flight manuals for the aircraft and answering questions about the hydraulic, electrical and engine system specifications.
“It’s really compelling how everyone here is so excited about the project. They all want to be here and learning this,” he said.
Bryan Douglass, a local pilot and another of the forces behind the project, said he knew why every pilot in the ground school training had made the trip, some from as far away as Alaska and New York.
“When you hear about this, the hair on the back of your neck stands up. You get a little giddy,” he said. “This isn’t just once in a generation, or once in a lifetime. This is once. Period.”
The plan once Miss Montana returns from Europe next summer is to raise enough money to tour around the country, using it as a living piece of history for a new generation, Douglass said.
George Brennan, who flew for Delta Airlines for 30 years, including a dozen years of flying internationally, said when he learned about the Miss Montana to Normandy project from Komberec he knew he had to be part of it.
“What a tremendous moment. It’s never going to be done again,” he said. “Plus, this will be my first time flying a plane older than I am.”
Skip Alderson, who flew for Johnson Flying Service for a decade in the ‘60s and ‘70s, said he’s probably put around 1,000 hours of flight time on Miss Montana itself.
“If you treat this airplane nice and don’t abuse her, she’ll bring you home every time. If you (expletive) with her, she’ll bite you in the ass,” he told the room.