The low drone of massive engines are emanating from Helena this week, as four of the most famous World War II bomber and fighter aircraft are in town for a visit.
Relics from the past that still live in the modern day, rivets and all, the four planes landed at Helena Regional Airport Monday as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour. A Consolidated B-24 Liberator, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a North American P-51 Mustang and a North American B-25 Mitchell were all sitting idle, still slightly warm from their 90-minute flight from Lewiston, Idaho.
Helenans were milling about Monday, taking photographs with the "warbirds" as they're called, hopping in and out of the B-17 "Nine-O-Nine," making their way over the six-inch wide catwalk and looking out through the plexiglass windows. Half-hour rides are available for $400-450, depending on the plane.
Nick Coutches flew the P-51 Mustang into Helena. Coutches, whose day job is as a SkyWest Airlines pilot, has been volunteering for the last three seasons, flying World War II era aircraft all over the country for people to see, touch and smell.
"I've been around old airplanes my whole life," Coutches said. "I'm a third generation pilot."
Aside from the paint and the modern avionics, Coutches explained, the planes were all original.
"The Mustang actually has its original paint job," Coutches said. "That's rare to find."
Coutches said the pilots try to keep the planes at around 1,000 feet while flying, negating the need for pressurization.
"We get about 1,000 hours of flying during the summer," Coutches said.
Pilot and Birmingham, Alabama, bar owner Cliff Atkins flew the B-25 Marauder Monday. Atkins has been volunteering for the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit organization, for the past eight years.
"I was flying professionally and found the warbird community," Atkins said.
Flying a 1940s-era plane all over the United States is not a usual summer occupation, nor is it a modern flying experience.
"It's very much a full sensory experience," Atkins said. "They were not built for anything other than one exact purpose, and comfort was not it."
Atkins said people really seem to enjoy seeing the planes up close.
"You can walk up them from head to toe, lay your hands on them, connect with history and really get on it," Atkins said.
"Most people get on there, stand up and look around and realize there is no protection except for an eight-inch sheet of aluminum, and realize how vulnerable they were," Atkins said.