Residents of Montana jest that there are only two seasons in the Big Sky State: winter and forest fire season. There is some truth to the joke and that is why the Montana Mountain Flying Museum in Missoula has a great deal of material related to aerial firefighting.
“Montana is where smokejumping — that is, having firefighters parachute into remote areas to fight fires — began,” says John Gisselbrecht, aircraft acquisition and special projects manager at the museum. “There were test jumps in the 1930s and then in the 1940s Johnson Flying Service dropped two firefighters into a remote area to fight a blaze. After the war the technique became more widespread.”
According to Gisselbrecht, the idea to create the museum came about 17 years ago during a hangar flying session involving several former employees of Johnson Flying Service.
“Everyone around here knows about Johnson Flying Service,” he says. “It was established in the 1920s and, until it was sold to Evergreen Helicopters in the 1970s, did just about everything you could think of when it came to flying — from flying lessons to hauling cargo and mail and even spy missions during the Cold War. They were based in Missoula. Someone came up with the idea that it would be good to start a museum so that all this Montana history wouldn’t be forgotten. Then someone threw some money on the table and said ‘let’s do it’ and that’s where it all began.”
The museum has always been in Missoula, he notes, moving from one facility to another as the collection grew. For the last three years it has been housed in a 150-foot x 200-foot hangar at Missoula International Airport-Johnson Bell Field (MSO).
The hangar is home to dozens of models, stacks of pictures, firefighting tools and mountain flying equipment. It also has a fair collection of aircraft, according to Gisselbrecht. “We have seven aircraft in the main facility and we’re waiting for paperwork so that we can acquire three or four more,” he says.
One of its major projects has been the restoration of a C-47 that was used by Johnson Flying Service to drop smokejumpers on the Mann Gulch Fire outside of Helena, in 1949. Of the 15 firefighters who were dropped that day, 13 died when the fire overran their position.
“The restoration took five years,” he says. “We’re waiting on its annual inspection now. We plan to make it into a flying memorial to aerial firefighters lost in the line of duty.”
Plans call for turning the C-47 into a flying museum with artifacts and pieces of equipment that have been used for firefighting, he explains. “We will fly it around to various air shows and the like,” he adds.
Other aircraft in the collection include a Stearman, a J-3 Cub and a rare HH-1H Huey.
“The Huey was designed for mountain rescues,” says Gisselbrecht. “It has an external hook on it. It is very rare because only about 30 of these aircraft were ever made.”
The museum also has “lots and lots” of photographs, as well as a large historical smokejumper display, he says. “We also have some of the equipment that has been used over the years to fight fires and in mountain flying.”
The museum is popular with school children, as well as with visiting pilots.
“We have a big ramp out front where you can park,” he says. “It’s big enough to hold B-17s. We know that because the Collings Foundation pays us a visit at the end of June.”
For more information: 406-721-3644.