More memories are in store overseas, but parachutists with the Miss Montana to Normandy project have a bright one to tuck away.
It happened on a drop-dead gorgeous Tuesday morning in Plains, and in Al Charters’ words was “Norman Rockwell-esque.”
Seven men and women made their first jumps from Miss Montana, the historic DC-3 out of which they plan to bail over France in less than three weeks.
Miss Montana remained grounded in Missoula on Friday, her journey to the 75th anniversary of D-Day stalled out by a series of thunderheads to the east.
The project’s decision-makers have stopped trying to outguess the weather to set even a tentative departure time, but it probably won’t be Saturday, either.
“We’re doing some odds and ends but we are ready to go,” Bryan Douglass said in a text Friday evening. “Need probably 2-3 hours to be wheels-up.”
A day earlier, Charters and fellow veteran jumper Keith Wolferman described the scene in Sanders County.
Charters is retired U.S. Army Special Forces, so he knows how to sum up a situation military style.
“As briefed, as planned, executed in concert,” he said.
Charters is jumpmaster of a roster of 15 men and women on the manifest to emulate World War II paratroopers at Normandy on June 5.
“It went swimmingly,” said Keith Wolferman, who retired from a long Missoula-based smokejumper career two years ago.
Plains was waiting for the show. The jump zone was in a field near the school and the K-12 student body watched from the football field.
“The school roof, across the highway, any high ground,” Charters said. “They were climbing in trees.”
“There was a big American flag on top of the fire engine parked next to the jump spot,” Wolferman said. “They were just laughing it up. All of us were.”
While all veterans, most of the jumpers needed a fresh jump on their dockets to be certified for the Daks Over Normandy jump on June 5.
All pulled it off without a hitch.
But there was more to it.
Pilots Jeff Whitesell and Eric Komberec were making their first jumper drops out of the iconic DC-3, as were the spotters.
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Charters called it “crew integration training.”
“Front end, the pilot and co-pilot hadn’t dropped as a group,” he said. “The back-end crew had not dropped as a group. The jumpers needed to be introduced to their parachute canopies, which are slightly different than the Forest Service canopies for those who are smokejumpers.”
It’s a heady time for jumpers, who’ve been as infatuated with the Miss Montana project as anyone.
Charters said his father, Gilbert H. Charter, was a flight photographer/top gunner on a B-26 who flew three missions over Normandy on D-Day 1944.
“To be in the same air space he flew in air combat, holy moly,” he said.
Wolferman said one grandfather flew a photo reconnaissance aircraft up and down the beaches of Normandy, filming the Allied landings from a wood-framed de Havilland Mosquito. His other grandfather flew Liberators out of the Aleutians in Alaska during the war.
“And then, you know, there’s connection of this aircraft with the Mann Gulch situation” in 1949, Wolferman said.
It carried the 12 smokejumpers who perished on a wildfire near Gates of Mountains north of Helena. Their names and sacrifices are sacrosanct among succeeding generations of Forest Service firefighters like Wolferman.
As of Thursday, Douglass and Charters hadn’t received confirmation that all 15 jumpers affiliated with Miss Montana would be assigned to jump from her in Normandy. Douglass, the logistics director for the project, submitted a request to the Daks Over Normandy coordinator in late April asking that be the case.
The group includes three husband-and-wife teams: Charters and Kim Maynard, one of the Forest Service’s first female smokejumpers in the early 1980s; Shawn Modula, former U.S. Army Special Forces, and his wife Annette Dusseau, who's ex-Army and runs Missoula Family Dental Clinic in the Southgate Mall, and Bryan and Sarah Morgan from Texas.
Bryan Morgan was a Special Forces paratrooper. Sarah Morgan is currently a former Army paratrooper and is now in the Army Reserves.
Others on the Miss Montana jump list include five current Forest Service smoke jumpers: Jonathan Fuentes and Drew Pattison from Missoula; Amanda Holt and Jason Junes from Grangeville, Idaho, and Redmond, Washington, jumper Shane Orser.
Phil Jameson, retired Navy Seal; Tim Mallon, retired Air Force, and retired smoke jumpers Woflerman and Salvador Garnica round out the list.
Miss Montana landed at the Plains airport across Highway 200 from the drop zone after Tuesday’s jumps. She was quickly deluged.
“They were crawling all over this thing, in and out, elderly people and kids,” Wolverton said.
It’s a good bet the jumpers involved will have the scene in their hearts when their round parachutes open over Normandy.
“The day was lovely, small-town America showing up and making all that stuff go,” Charters said. “It was like going to the rodeo in small-town America. It was just perfect.”