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Converted C-47 has $125,000 price tag

The airplane that flew the fatal mission to a fire at Mann Gulch near Helena in 1949 could be headed back to Missoula if a fund-raising effort headed up by a local flying museum is successful.

Thirteen young firefighters were killed that fateful Aug. 5 afternoon when a wildfire exploded north of Helena. Of the 15 smokejumpers who parachuted from the Johnson Flying Service retrofitted C-47, which had been converted to a DC-3, only three survived.

A backcountry ranger, who already was on the ground, also died in what was the worst wildfire disaster in Montana history. The tragedy is the subject of Norman McLean's book "Young Men and Fire," which was completed after his death.

Now that an anonymous donor has agreed to pay for the construction of a nearly 19,000-square-foot hangar to house the airplane, the Museum of Mountain Flying has kicked off a fund-raising campaign to purchase the aircraft, according to Stan Cohen, board president of the Museum of Mountain Flying.

"It's a historic airplane," said Cohen. "We're looking for help to purchase it not just for Missoula, but for the entire state of Montana."

Now owned by McNeely Air in West Memphis, Ark., the plane carries a $125,000 price tag.

The No. 24320 originally was owned by the U.S. Army Air Forces, but was purchased by Bob Johnson in 1946 to be housed at Hale Field, situated where Sentinel High School now sits. The Evergreen Co. took possession of the airplane after the company purchased Johnson International Airlines in 1974.

Evergreen then sold the aircraft to Basler Air of Oshkosh, Wis., which later sold the plane to McNeely Air, which in recent years has flown the aircraft on cargo missions because it can carry 10,000 pounds.

"It's been used for years to fly cargo all over," said Cohen, "but it's a 60-year-old airplane and it has limitations as to what it can do" because its top speed is 150 mph.

McNeely Air has overhauled the aircraft's two Pratt and Whitney engines, and has given the museum first-right-of-refusal to purchase the plane.

"The plane hasn't changed any," said Cohen, noting that on a tour of the aircraft, museum members discovered a Johnson Flying Service plate still installed on the plane's inside shell.

Museum members are hopeful the historic airplane could be flown to Missoula this summer before any impending fire season. They hope, if a pilot is located, the airplane could be flown locally in fund-raising events.

The museum raised some $8,000 toward the effort by showing "Red Skies Over Montana" in Missoula last summer.

The nonprofit museum also needs in-kind donations to help complete the new hangar, which would sit just east of the museum's current location on the east side of Missoula International Airport.

"Anybody who loves the sound of radial engines on an airplane" is a potential donor to the effort, said museum board member Rick Nash, as he nostalgically recalled the distinct, throaty, powerful growl that emanates from the plane's three-pronged propeller.

"It will be a memorial to the smokejumpers that died," said Cohen.

He said purchase of the airplane and construction of a larger hangar will lend instant credibility to the museum's longstanding effort to memorialize the area's rich flying history.

"This really is a statewide project," he said. "It's probably the only real historic airplane relating to Missoula that we're ever going to get back here."

If you're interested

The Museum of Mountain Flying is accepting donations to purchase the retrofitted C-47 that flew the fatal Mann Gulch mission in 1949 from McNeely Air in West Memphis, Ark. Donations are tax deductible. For more information, call Stan Cohen at Pictorial Histories, 549-8488.

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