Johnson Flying Service's purchase in 1946 of a war-surplus Douglas DC-3 was deemed newsworthy by the local newspaper.
The Missoulian reported the announcement by company president Bob Johnson on April 16.
“Mr. Johnson said the airplane, the seventeenth in the firm's fleet, will be used principally for carrying forest service parachutist fire fighters to their work, and will also carry freight," the Page 5 story said. "It has a capacity of 28 passengers, and will carry three tons of cargo at a cruising speed of 160 miles per hour."
For nearly 30 years, the lumbering aircraft served Johnson in various capacities, carrying smokejumpers, cargo and charter passengers, and spraying weeds and insects. It was sold with the rest of the Johnson fleet to Evergreen International of McMinnville, Oregon, in late 1975.
Known in aviation and smokejumper circles by its civilian registration number N-24320, or simply “three-two-oh,” it became the “Mann Gulch plane” to others in 1949, after dropping 12 jumpers to what turned out to be fiery deaths in a steep gulch north of Helena.
The airplane gained a more widespread and heroic moniker in 2018 and 2019 as “Miss Montana,” the Museum of Mountain Flying’s pride and joy. Part of the D-Day Squadron of "Dougs," it turned thousands of heads when it flew to Europe and back with the D-Day Squadron in May and June 2019 for World War II-related commemorations in England, France and Germany.
It was simply "a twin-engine Douglas DC-3 passenger and cargo airplane" when it first touched down in Missoula in the spring of '46. Johnson pilot Orman LaVoie was at the controls, and mechanic Waldo Matthies was crew chief. Lavoie had logged 1,000 hours for the Army Air Force as a flight officer in World War II, flying over the Burma Hump from India to China. He later flew commercial jets for Western and Delta Airlines. Matthies worked on airplanes similar to the DC-3 for several years while in the Navy and with Northwest Airlines.
By football season 1946, Johnson Flying was promoting round-trip flights to the Grizzly-Bobcat football game in Butte for $8.50 round trip, and to the Grizzlies’ game in Seattle with the Washington Huskies for $35.
Johnson soon added another DC-3, which also went by the military designation C-47. In October 1947, Lavoie and Jack Hughes each piloted one to Concord, New Hampshire, to help fight massive forest fires in Maine.
In 1949 a Johnson DC-3 twin engine dropped hay for a snowbound pack string in Idaho’s Selway country and sprayed for spruce budworms in Oregon. One of them spent the six weeks prior to the Mann Gulch fire in Buffalo, Wyoming, where it “scattered grasshopper poison bait over nearly 50,000 acres of prairie land,” according to the Missoulian.
The call on Aug. 5 came into the jump base at Hale Field in south Missoula at 1:50 p.m. The ranger of the Canyon Ferry Ranger District asked Jack Nash, the loft dispatcher, for 25 smokejumpers.
But N-24320, with a payload of 16 jumpers and gear, was the only aircraft available. Earl Cooley, superintendent of the base, was asked to go along as spotter, and provided the most detailed account of Miss Montana’s role in the Mann Gulch fire in his book “Trimotor and Trail.”
The jump crew, stationed in barracks on the adjacent county fairgrounds, was assembled and in the air by 2:30 p.m. The plane carried foreman Wag Dodge, 33, and squad leader Bill Hellman, 24, who was second in command. The other 14 jumpers ranged in age from 17 to 24.
Nash went along as Cooley's assistant spotter. The pilot was Ken Huber and the co-pilot Frank Small. A Forest Service photographer, Elmer Bloom, went along to shoot a training film on the workings inside a smokejumper plane.
As it was a short flight to Helena, Cooley and Nash started suiting up the jumpers shortly after takeoff. While Huber was radioing the airplane’s location back to Missoula, he couldn’t make contact with the Helena Forest.
Cooley said as he was helping Eldon Diettert with his gear, Diettert mentioned he’d been called away from his 19th birthday party at home in Missoula. His father’s garden adjoined the Cooleys’ backyard in Missoula.
According to Cooley, the 40-minute trip over the Continental Divide was “extremely rough” and some of the men got sick. One, Merle Stratton, threw up in his facemask and begged off the jump. He’d had trouble with airsickness and nausea all season, even checking into St. Patrick Hospital in July. Stratton reportedly quit the smokejumpers when he returned to Missoula that evening.
Once the fire was located, Cooley and Dodge chose a grassy slope at the bottom of the gulch as the best jump site. Two drift chutes were dropped, indicating “about 300 to 400 yards steady drift straight up Mann Gulch.”
Huber, an experienced pilot, circled the jump site and Dodge led the first stick of four jumpers out. Succeeding passes at 1,000 feet yielded four, four and the final three jumpers. Only Dodge himself had trouble upon landing, receiving a puncture wound to the bone in his elbow.
The cargo drop also had issues. Because of rough air in the gulch, Huber couldn’t get down to the preferred 200-foot level but remained at 1,000. Besides scattering tools and supplies, the lone radio didn’t survive the drop. Cooley said the static line broke off in the plane and didn’t open the chute.
It landed with “a terrific crash” about a quarter of a mile down the canyon from the landing area, Norman Maclean wrote in “Young Men and Fire.” It meant, he said, “that the outside world had disappeared. The only world had become Mann Gulch and a fire.”
Dodge and his men put out orange streamers in a double L, indicating to the plane that everyone was present and accounted for.
All told, it was a successful drop from the airplane on what seemed to be a routine 50- to 60-acre fire high above the firefighters on the ridge to the south. The fire would soon burn down the slope near the Missouri River, spot in trees across the gulch, then come roaring up the north side to overrun the fleeing men. Only Dodge and two rookie jumpers survived.
But that was in the unforeseen next two hours.
Her job done, N-24320 circled twice more, then turned for home.
“It headed straight down Mann Gulch and across the glare of the Missouri,” Maclean wrote. “It seemed to be leaving frighteningly fast, and it was. It had started out a freight train, loaded with cargo. Now it was light and fast and was gone.”