Richard Schlesinger is leaving Missoula a believer in Miss Montana and the people who’ve worked mightily to get her airborne.
The correspondent for CBS News was in town the last couple of days to learn and tell the story of the Douglas DC-3/C-47 that’s being readied for a trip to France to drop parachutists into Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
It was a working museum the jeans-clad Schlesinger, a 35-year CBS News veteran, and a crew of producer Alan Golds, cameraman Henry Bautista and sound man Jim Bolser of Spokane set up for interviews inside Wednesday morning.
Just two days earlier the newly overhauled propellers had been finally attached to newly overhauled engines of Miss Montana. Technicians were swarming over her in 11th-hour preparations for a big moment later in the day, when the historic smokejumper and transport airplane with a 95-foot wingspan was rolled out of the hangar at the Museum of Mountain Flying for its first engine run.
The cameras were ready to roll on Schlesinger’s interview with Bryan Douglass, one of the project’s leaders, when the whir of a grinder up on the left engine drowned out all communication.
That over, and distracting yellow tape removed from one prop that would be in the background, the interview began.
Half an hour later Schlesinger, the newsman, was a fan too.
“I’m fascinated by how hard this job is for them and how dedicated everybody is,” he said. “And I love the way the community sort of came together to back this. It’s a great story within a story.”
The ending is still uncertain, as Douglass allowed on camera.
Despite overwhelming volunteer participation, donations and sponsorships, the aircraft formerly known informally as the Mann Gulch plane still hasn’t flown since she arrived at the museum in 2001. The D-Day commemoration, including the jumper drop with nearly 40 other “Daks” from around the world, is less than two months away.
Douglass recounted Miss Montana’s history, including her “birth” in a Long Beach, California, factory barely a month before the Allies’ D-Day invasion, too late to be sent to war overseas. He told Schlesinger of her long service for Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, as a smokejumper and backcountry supply plane, including the tragic day when she dropped 12 smokejumpers to their deaths when the Mann Gulch fire blew up north of Helena in 1949.
The airplane’s involvement in the commemoration of D-Day, when C-47s like her dropped hundreds of paratroopers behind enemy lines near the French coastline, makes Miss Montana’s connection special, Douglass said.
Indeed, eight of the 14 men and women approved to jump from Miss Montana on June 5 are current or former U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers. (The others are retired U.S. Army Special Forces, an Army reservist, and one retired military free fall instructor.)
“Our plane’s kind of unique that way,” Douglass told Schlesinger. “I think we’re the only airplane that has a smoke jumping history in the D-Day Squadron.”
Schlesinger seemed surprised to learn that the airplane had taken a dip in the Monongahela River outside of Pittsburgh on Dec. 22, 1954, when she ran out of fuel while transporting troops home for Christmas.
“For people that don’t understand airplanes,” he pressed Douglass, “when they hear that there’s an airplane that’s 75 years old, that it’s been at the bottom of the Monongahela River, it’s been flying people into and out of forest fires, and it’s stayed dormant for 18 years ... I think a lot of people would think this thing’s never going to fly again. Why are you confident?”
Airplanes are actually pretty simple machines, Douglass replied.
“There are lots of little things, windows and flooring and the like, but you look at the structure, at the bones and the bones are solid,” he said. “What I always tell people, if you took a car apart every year, and fixed everything that was on it, replaced the engines when they was worn out, you could still be driving it seven decades later. It’s a lot like a ’57 Chevy.”
As of Wednesday, Miss Montana was one of 15 U.S.-based C-47s signed up for the D-Day Squadron that will converge in Oxford, Connecticut, in mid-May before heading to England via Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland. Schlesinger, a pilot himself with a Piper Archer, lives in northwest Connecticut and said the Oxford airport is one he often uses.
In Europe the American contingent will join with 19 other “Daks” in advance of the June 5 flight in formation over the English Channel to Britain.
Schlesinger’s CBS Sunday Morning show featuring the Missoula effort will tentatively air on June 2, the Sunday before the D-Day bash. Much of the footage and what he called “amazing photos” of the process will be provided CBS by local videographer Eric Ristau.
“We had thought about going all the way with them, but it’s a lot more about the people trying to put it together,” said Golds, a veteran Emmy Award-winning producer.
Until this week Schlesinger had been to Bozeman but not Missoula. Snow and rain notwithstanding, he proclaimed them both “spectacularly beautiful, as you know.”
When he set out to do a story on the D-Day Squadron, “it occurred to me that a lot of these airplanes must have needed work,” Schlesinger said. “It turns out a lot of them don’t, but the one that needed the work most was here. The guy who is running the operation in Connecticut told me this group was doing most of the work, and this would probably be the most interesting. And who would turn down a trip to Missoula, Montana?
“We do a lot of stories about people who do remarkable things,” Schlesinger added. “But to pull this off is really a remarkable thing. To pull this off, it’s like a triumph of will, you know?”