Inside a hangar across from the runway and terminal building at Helena Regional Airport, history is being restored.
Fabric and sheet metal, steel tubing, gas tanks, cables, rivets, wheels, wings and struts are all coming together, and out of it is emerging a 1946 Piper Cub Super Cruiser.
Some of the airplane’s fabric skin already has the white paint with distinctive red striping it will sport the day it rolls from its hangar, and with the flip of a switch the engine coughs to life and the prop begins to spin.
“I’m five years into a four-year project,” said Doug Monger, who spends his summer days in the hangar restoring the airplane that was all but lost to a 2001 crash near the rural airstrip outside of Benchmark on the Rocky Mountain Front.
He acquired it from another owner who had purchased the wreckage and was collecting parts to use in its restoration. What Monger received, he said, “was just a pile of parts.”
“My goal was to have this flyable by the time ski season started this year,” he said and smiled.
An opportunity for travel, one he said is too good to pass up, will interrupt his work later this year. The arrival of ski season will seal the delay.
Assembling a future
This is the second airplane Monger has restored. The first one, also a 1946 Super Cruiser and just a few serial numbers distant from the one he’s currently working on, sits in a nearby hangar. Its appearance belies its 70 years. It leaps from runway to sky with the nimbleness and grace of a deer clearing a barbed-wire fence.
“I had so much fun and learned so much on the first one, I thought I’d use those talents,” he said.
Monger is tall and lanky. His blue eyes are bright when he talks about flying. Graying hair beneath a weathered yellow cap, with a Piper aircraft logo, hints at his 60 years.
His journey to the purchase of his first airplane began when his work with the parks division of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks took him to Miles City where he decided he would learn to fly.
Those who ran the airport there at that time weren’t receptive to providing flight lessons and referred him to Sunday Creek Air Park. Its laid-back atmosphere and enthusiasm for helping someone learn made it possible for Monger to become a pilot.
“I learned to fly there and had a great time flying Cubs,” he said of the Piper airplane model he flew.
It was also at the air park that he was able to watch a World War II pilot repair fabric that covered airplane framework -- an experience that never left him.
In 1996 Monger’s brother, Stan, called him to say he had found an airplane online. Together they flew in Stan’s plane to Dickinson, North Dakota, to have a look at it.
“It was rough,” Monger remembered of what awaited them.
But he also knew this was his chance.
“We were there and my heart said ‘You’re never going to find another like this,’” he added.
Thirteen years later, the fabric that covered the plane needed to be replaced.
“That started my learning process on how to recover airplanes,” he said.
His $25,000 investment required an equal amount in restoration costs. Two years later, his plane was again ready for flight.
Thrill of flight
Monger has been retired for a dozen years and left as the administrator of the state parks division. Retirement for him came after helping to have a $4 charge added to vehicle registration fees that would ensure funding for Montana’s state parks system.
The state parks system agreed during the 2003 legislative session to give up its state funding in exchange for the opt-out fee on every vehicle registration.
Retirement gives him more time for skiing. It also allows him more time for flying.
He pauses to recall his first flight, one taken with his father when he was a child. He remembers little more than the thrill of those early flights, and the smells.
The family didn’t own an airplane, but his father flew the state airplane. On occasion, one or two of his children would join him.
The aroma of aviation gas lingers in his memory, as does the soda pop from the hangar’s refrigerator that his father would offer those of the family’s seven children after returning from that day’s flight.
Aviation ran in the family, he said, explaining “My granddad was the first airport manager at Gallatin Field in Bozeman.”
His father helped out there too and plowed snow to keep the runway open.
“Aviation’s always been at the kitchen table, what happened at work, that sort of thing,” he added.
And now it’s a prominent part of his life. Winter months are spent in Bozeman where he can ski Bridger Bowl. Summers are spent here in Helena inside the hangar with his Super Cruiser.
Between his hours giving new life to the airplane, Monger tries to fly his restored Super Cruiser and gets in three days a week on average.
“A couple of hours here and there,” he said.
Maybe he’ll accumulate 100 hours a year holding the stick that controls the airplane, watching the land passing below the wings and feeling the winds that rise from the earth.
“There’s not a lot of grace in the rest of my world,” he said of what flying is like for him. “It feels really fun and graceful.”
The thrill hasn’t faded for him, not even after all of these years.
“I hope it doesn’t,” he said.
Not a day goes by, he said, that he doesn’t think how lucky he is to be healthy and able to fly.
A little help from his friends
More than 3,750 Super Cruisers were built between 1946 and 1948, according to online sources. This was a time when Piper saw aviation as having won World War II and believed those returning from military service would want to learn to fly. But the economy didn’t support that hope and production of the Super Cruiser ceased shortly after it began.
A majority of those airplanes are still registered even if some may no longer be flying, Monger said.
Because the airplane that he’s restoring was built in a factory and isn’t the product of a kit assembled by someone, the Super Cruiser has to be inspected as it’s being reassembled.
Paul Gordon, who has rebuilt four airplanes and favors those from the 1920s and 1930s, is certified to provide the required inspections, Monger said, as is Brent Vetter at Vetter Aviation, who he said has been a “godsend” for him.
People who own planes at the airport share what Monger calls the “tribal knowledge,” and they’re willing to share their tools too.
Leo Wadekamper is another of the pilots who has extensive experience in rebuilding airplanes, Monger added of the assistance and advice that’s been offered as he works his way through the reconstruction.
“It’d be hard to leave this, the knowledge and the support,” he said.
“I like at the end of the day, looking back and seeing what I did, seeing progress,” he said of what it’s like for him to give new life to a 70-year-old airplane.
“It’s kind of like a phoenix for me, bringing it back from the ashes and making it a flying bird.”
Monger has parts for another airplane, pieces he acquired after helping someone sort through “scrap” metal. The owner sold him those airplane parts after they figured out what they were worth.
Another pile of parts. Another airplane that could again rise with wind beneath wings.
“It will turn into an airplane someday," he said. "If not for me, somebody else.”