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By Ed Moreth 

Miss Montana visits Plains

 

Ed Moreth

A FIRST BIG STEP – A parachutist leaps from the Miss Montana to Normandy just west of Plains. Seven jumpers parachuted from the aircraft for a training exercise for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day reenactment in Normandy, France.

A World War II airplane armed with a group of paratroopers invaded Holland just last week. The C-47 troop transport aircraft made four passes last Tuesday morning just west of Plains on the property of John and Dacy Holland, dropping seven parachutists that were training for a reenactment of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of the Second World War.

It was the first training for the jumpers since the 75-year-old plane was made airworthy only weeks ago. The Holland drop zone was suggested by former Plains resident John Haines, who has put around 300 volunteer hours into the renovation of the aircraft, which is owned by the Museum of Montana Flying in Missoula and is sponsoring the trip to Normandy, France, for the anniversary. The aircraft was built in 1944, but because the war was over before it saw any action, it was sold as surplus. It was converted to a DC-3 and spent its work years as a smokejumper plane. It was discovered in Georgia by Dick Komberec, one of the founders of the Museum of Montana Flying, in 2001 and brought back to Missoula for restoration. It was designated "Miss Montana to Normandy" to honor the more than 57,000 Montanans that served in the military during the war.

The Miss Montana to Normandy was piloted last week by Art Dykstra, a Missoula resident who grew up in Thompson Falls. Dykstra also spent several months helping to get the plane restored. "It was great. Everything was working very well," said Dykstra, who's been a pilot for 20 years and a smokejumper pilot for six years.

Dykstra made four passes over Holland's field to let the parachutists out from heights of 1,500 to 4,000 feet. He also did a low level pass for the hundreds of Plains community members watching the event. Businesses let employees off to see the paratroopers and nearly 200 Plains students and teachers took to the football field to watch. Almost 80 people showed up at Penn Stohr Field for the landing of the aircraft and to visit with the crew and parachutists.

"It's great for Plains to have the Miss Montana project come here and it's great attention for the Museum of Montana Flying," said Randy Garrison, the Plains airport manager. "This is the second airport the plane has landed at since it's been restored," he added.

"We absolutely loved the support we got from everyone in Plains. It was something to see the number of people along the road near the drop zone and the students and staff of Plains schools cheering us on from the football field. The crew was still talking about it a few days later," said Haines, who was proud to be a part of the historic aircraft restoration project. Haines spent some 20 hours each week working on the plane since mid January, including prepping the cockpit for the installation of updated avionics and helping with the heating system. "I had my head in the nose cone labeling ports where hoses attach to so the new ones went to the right place," he said. "It's really been a moving experience. You get a better sense of history and the work and sacrifice they went through," said Haines.

Only one of last week's jumpers had donned World War II combat gear for the training jump, but four of them used period style parachutes and were on static lines as they departed the plane. However, all of them will be dressed in period uniforms and parachutes in France during the reenactment of D-Day, also known as the Battle of Normandy. Codenamed "Operation Overlord," D-Day, June 6, 1944, was considered the largest amphibious invasion in history, with an estimated 160,000 allied forces storming five different Normandy beaches, which were heavily protected by German forces. The invasion of Normandy was the beginning of the liberation of western Europe from the Nazis. According to the U.S. Army, the invasion included more than 13,000 paratroopers. The C-47 was one of the primary aircraft supporting the airborne assault. The C-47 was nicknamed the "Skytrain" by Americans and "Dakotas" by the Brits. Called "Daks over Normandy," plans call for the aircraft fleet to launch from England, just as it happened 75 years ago.

Ed Moreth

PILOT STARDOM – Susan Curry (left) and Marla Dykstra take cell phone photos of the Miss Montana to Normandy and its pilot, Art Dykstra, Marla's nephew, shortly after the aircraft landed at the Plains airport.

The Miss Montana to Normandy will be part of 50 Daks over Normandy for the June 6 reenactment. There will be 15 paratroopers jumping from the Missoula-based plane during the reenactment, said Missoula resident Al Charters, one of the lead jumpmasters at last week's training event. Charters spent 29 years in the Army, 24 of those years with Special Forces, and has over 12,000 parachute jumps under his belt. Although there were no women paratroopers in the 1944 invasion, there will be three ladies jumping from Miss Montana, including Charters' wife, Kim Maynard, the first female smokejumper in Montana and first out the door over Plains last week. The other two women were Sarah Morgan of Dallas, Texas, and Amanda Holt of Grangeville, Idaho, an active smokejumper.

"This event is going to be awe inspiring and humbling. It's a very small scale compared to what they did back then," said Morgan, a lieutenant colonel in the Army who served with the 82nd Airborne for three years. Bryan Morgan, a sergeant major in the Army, Keith Wolferman, a retired smoke jumper, and Jason Junes, were also among those who landed in Holland's field.

"The trip to Plains and the community support we saw is positive motivation for the Miss Montana crew to proudly represent the Big Sky State in France," said Haines. The Miss Montana to Normandy will be highlighted on the June 2 episode of CBS Sunday Morning.

 

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