Taking Flight: Saving and Restoring a Montana Treasure
By Bryan Douglass • Photos by Keely Flatow
Developed in the 1930s, the Douglas DC-3 was perhaps the first modern passenger plane. Throughout the decade, several hundred were in service, pioneering many American air-travel routes. By 1939 a DC-3 was able to cross the continental United States from New York to Los Angeles in 18 hours, with only three stops. It was one of the first airliners that could profitably carry passengers only, without relying on mail subsidies.
When World War II started, the U.S. Army needed cargo planes, and the DC-3 proved perfect for that job. The Army made a few changes to equip the aircraft for war, renamed it the C-47, and proceeded to build over 10,000 C-47s over the next five years.
After the war, thousands of C-47s were sold to civilians, re-designated as DC-3s, and put to the task of doing every imaginable type of work. The C-47 is widely considered one of the most successful airplane designs in history, featuring brawn, speed, efficiency, versatility, and an unprecedented record of active service.
In May 1944, the Douglas Aircraft Company built N24320, a C-47 cargo plane built for World War II, although the war was over before this particular plane could join the fight.
N24320 was delivered to the Army in 1944, but did little for two years and, like so many C-47s after the war – and before the Berlin Airlift – ended up in Army surplus. Then, in 1946, a pioneering aviator from Montana, Bob Johnson, bought her from the government, flew her to Missoula, and worked her hard for nearly 30 years. N24320 was the first of three C-47s that Johnson would buy and put to work, and the only one of the three “Dougs” that survives.
During the Johnson years, she carried cargo to back-country airstrips, smokejumpers to work on wildfires, athletes to ball games, passengers on charter flights, GIs home for Christmas leave, pesticides to spray invasive insects, as well as carrying anything that could fit inside of its expansive cargo hold.
Tragedy in Mann Gulch
By 1946, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) had experimented with fighting fires from the air for many years, dropping men and equipment by parachute to extinguish small fires before they became big. The USFS tried the tasks with smaller Ford Trimotors and Travel Airs, but neither of the planes had the capacity or speed to deliver enough men and equipment to put out distant fires in a hurry.
The DC-3, and specifically N24320, (the aircraft that would one day become known as “Miss Montana”) brought a quantum leap in smoke-jumping capability. As the first DC-3 to carry smokejumpers to fires, N24320 could carry sixteen smokejumpers and lots of gear and could do it faster than ever before.
Not only did N24320 pioneer effective smoke-jumping, but it was also a main character in the deadliest smoke-jumping tragedy in history.
The summer of 1949 was unusually hot in Montana. By August, conditions were extreme. At about four o’clock on the afternoon of August 4, a thunderstorm passed north of Helena, over some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the area. On that day, conditions were ideal for lightning-caused fires to start, but not to spread. By the morning of August 5, lightning had triggered many new fires, one of which was in Mann Gulch, and conditions for fires to spread became ideal. Winds picked up dramatically and the temperature soared to near 100 degrees. The Forest Service rated fire danger on August 4 at sixteen out of 100; on August 5, the fire danger rated seventy-four out of 100, meaning the fire danger was explosive.
By the early afternoon of August 5, the Forest Service was looking for men to fight dozens of new fires. This meant searching the bars for able-bodied men willing to work on fires accessible from the ground. The remote fire in Mann Gulch was a job for the elite smokejumpers from Missoula so the Forest Service ranger in Helena called Missoula at 1:50 p.m. to request personnel. On any given day the jumpers were selected from a rotation and all of the jumpers would be on the plane by the luck of the draw. Young Eldon Diettert was called away from his nineteenth birthday party for the task.
At 2:30 p.m., N24320 took off from Missoula with pilot Ken Huber, copilot Frank Small, spotter Earl Cooley, foreman Wag Dodge, and fifteen smokejumpers. The flight from Missoula to Helena was extremely rough, a sure symptom of the high winds they would soon face on the ground. Some of the men got sick. Merle Stratton threw up in his helmet and begged off from the jump.
As they approached the fire, Cooley lay on the floor of the plane on the left side of the open jump door and foreman Wag Dodge lay on his belly on the right side. This way, they could both see the ground below. Cooley’s job was to see the fire’s location, terrain, and winds and to communicate with the pilot via headphones to direct the drops. The foreman’s job was to concur with the spotter and then lead the first jump out the door. Cooley and Dodge were two of the most experienced smokejumpers in the USFS.
After several passes over the fire, they agreed on a plan and communicated it to pilot Ken Huber.
Dodge led the first group of four to jump, followed by successive passes putting out four, four, and three jumpers respectively, followed by their gear. In the meantime, a fire observer (and former smokejumper) on the ground had hiked into the gulch from the bottom, putting sixteen men on the fire by approximately 4:10 p.m. It was nearly five p.m. by the time they had retrieved their gear and started to approach the fire. By 5:56 p.m., eleven would be dead; two more would die in the hospital the next day.
The phenomenon that occurred that day became known as a “blowup” but was poorly understood at the time. It was a mystery how a small, well-behaved fire of fifty acres could suddenly turn into a firestorm that exploded into three thousand acres in a few hours with an intensity that destroyed everything in its path. Only three of the men who jumped out of N24320 that day experienced it and lived to tell the story.
A perspective of the tragic event is detailed in “Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. Maclean notes that conditions were extremely dry, the terrain was steep and formed a funnel, the winds suddenly picked up, and at that time nobody knew how to predict - or survive - a blowup.
Two men, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, would outrun the fire as it sped toward the ridge top, taking cover on the other side of the ridge in a pile of rocks. When he saw he could not outrun the fire, foreman Wag Dodge intuitively started an escape fire, then ran into the burned area and took cover. These three were the only survivors.
The other smoke-jumpers on the ground that day either couldn’t outrun the fire or didn’t believe Dodge when he ordered them to join him in the area burned by his escape fire. It was the first known use of an escape fire to create a survivable space ahead of a blowup. The technique is still taught to wildland firefighters today.
The loss of thirteen firefighters at Mann Gulch in 1949 remains the seventh deadliest wildland firefighter incident in U.S. history; it was the fifth deadliest at that time and remains the deadliest involving smoke-jumpers. Of the sixteen men on the ground that day in Mann Gulch, twelve were military veterans, many having fought in World War II. They ranged from eighteen to thirty-three years old. The thirteen victims ranged in age from nineteen to twenty-eight
August 5, 1949 was the first time that N24320 crossed paths with death. Five years later it would happen again.
A Fatal Error
At 8:38 p.m. on December 22, 1954, N24320 took off from Newark, New Jersey, with five crew members and twenty-three passengers on a charter for the Army. All twenty-three passengers were active-duty GIs headed home for Christmas leave. They planned stops at Allegheny County Airport near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Monterey, California; and Tacoma, Washington.
Shortly before 11 p.m. the plane ran out of gas just short of the Allegheny County Airport and ditched in the dark in the Monongahela River. Nine passengers and Captain Harold Poe drowned in the icy waters.
The official Civil Aeronautics Board accident report released in April 1955 said the accident had a clear cause: “Fuel exhaustion brought about by inadequate flight planning. Contributing factors were inadequate crew supervision and training.”
The crew had not taken on enough fuel to make it from Newark to Allegheny and when it became apparent that they wouldn’t make it, they were unable to divert to another airport where they could safely land. They left Newark with 225 gallons on board and estimated the flight time to be one hour and 40 minutes. They estimated they had two hours and 40 minutes of fuel on board. Three hours and 39 minutes after takeoff, they radioed that they were out of gas but within sight of Allegheny County Airport. Two things about the flight are amazing: how wrong their estimated flight time was and how they were able to nurse three hours and thirty-nine minutes of flight from 225 gallons. It was only barely not enough.
Eyewitnesses, including survivors, told the Pittsburgh Press that Captain Poe did a masterful job of ditching the airplane at night. All crew and passengers survived the ditching without injury, which left the airplane floating about thirty-five feet from the west shore. Those who could swim made the frigid trip to shore where witnesses aided them. As the airplane sank, the current carried the plane 450 feet downstream, where it came to rest about seventy-five feet from shore. Those who could not swim and who were not rescued by locals, drowned as the airplane sank. Witnesses reported that Captain Poe and others made several trips to and from the sinking airplane to rescue GIs, but on his last attempt, Captain Poe succumbed to the cold and drowned.
The accident report doesn’t describe the damage to the airplane, but photographs show N24320 being hoisted from the river with damage to the number one (left) engine, left wingtip, and left aileron. There was surely much more.
Bob Johnson repaired N24320 and flew her home, where she worked for Johnson for another twenty years. It’s remarkable that they chose to repair her when surplus C-47s were readily available for a reasonable price. It was Johnson’s decision to keep N24320 flying instead of sending her to the scrap heap.
Johnson owned and operated N24320 until 1977, when he sold his business to Evergreen International. All three of Bob’s DC-3s were flown from Missoula to their new homes. N24320 bounced around to other owners until 1985, when the aircraft was acquired by McNeely Air Charter in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Until recently, details were scarce about the N24320 during the fifteen years at McNeely. The aircraft’s work consisted largely of hauling new car parts to factories around the country and hauling high-priced baby chickens to factories in the U.S. and Mexico.
Tom Dorough, a pilot with McNeely for many years, had around 500 hours flying N24320. Dorough says sometime in the 1990s, McNeely was flying N24320 to Mexico with a load of the hybrid chicks. They picked up a plane load of chicks in Arkansas and headed to New Orleans for fuel, then started across the Gulf of Mexico bound for Merida, Mexico. Almost exactly halfway across the gulf, the pilot noticed an odd noise. Investigation quickly revealed oil streaming from the left engine. The captain determined to run the engine as long as possible, until the oil pressure started to drop. After twenty minutes, the pressure started down, so they shut down the left engine and feathered the prop, hoping to stay above the unfriendly waters on the remaining engine. They had a slight tail wind, so they resolved to continue toward Mexico instead of turning around for the U.S.
They started throwing out everything they could to lighten their load: two full drums of oil, a pallet jack, and smaller 5-gallon oil containers. One of the crew suggested they pour the oil from the 5-gallon oil containers instead and keep the empty jugs because they might need flotation if they ditched in the water. Eventually, they were able to hold altitude at about 1,500 feet above the waves and made it to Mexico with the chicks without getting wet.
On the ground, they found that one cylinder on the left engine had failed. The cylinder was eventually replaced and N24320 went back to work for McNeely. Tom saved the failed cylinder and it can be seen today in the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula, Montana.
In 1998, a nasty thunderstorm came through Memphis and N24320 was parked on the ramp alongside their two other DC-3s. N24320 was the only one of the three with empty fuel tanks.
Although nobody saw it happen, when staff arrived the next morning, they discovered severe damage to N24320. Due to her light weight, she must have gone flying in the high winds and slammed to the ground, collapsing the right landing gear and bending both propellers. The mechanics repaired the landing gear and removed the damaged propellers but N24320 was done flying, until she was discovered by an old friend in 2000.
Rescued and Recovered
Dick Komberec was born and raised in Drummond, Montana, and learned to fly in a Piper J3 Cub when he was sixteen. Dick spent two years in the Army after high school, then went to work for Johnson Flying Service (JFS) after being discharged in 1968. Komberec worked for JFS from 1968 to 1975 and flew N24320 extensively, likely several hundred hours.
Any pilot can attest that after a certain number of hours in any plane, they form a relationship with the aircraft. It might be a good relationship or a bad one, but a relationship it is. Most pilots would say without hesitation: they may not have loved them all, but they never forgot the airplanes they flew.
N24320 was one of Dick Komberec’s old friends, one of the good ones. Komberec flew her many hours between 1968 and 1975, firefighting, smoke-jumping, hauling cargo, and spraying for insects. When JFS was sold in 1975, he was the pilot who flew all three of the “Dougs” to their new homes, including flying N24320 to West Memphis, Arkansas.
After leaving JFS, Komberec went to work for Western Airlines. When Delta bought Western, he went on to an even longer career and retirement at Delta. During his career he would periodically see N24320 on the ramp at Chicago or Milwaukee. He recalls that it was good to see his old friend alive and well.
In 2000, Komberec was landing a Delta flight at Memphis when he spied a row of DC-3s on the ramp across the river in West Memphis and resolved to get a closer look.
In those days DC-3s were everywhere. The thousands available after the war had dispersed to the four corners of the earth, finding new life in all kinds of pursuits. Nearly everything that could be done from the air was done in a DC-3. Even so, by the 1960s more modern planes were being built, so more and more DC-3s were parked, often for good. If a DC-3 was severely damaged, it was often replaced with a newer design.
The next time Komberec returned to Memphis, he rented a car and drove over the bridge to West Memphis with a feeling he was going to find N24320 in the row of DC-3s he spotted from the air.
25 years had passed since Komberec had last flown N24320 but he recognized the “old girl” by the number on her tail. The plane did not look as if it had flown in a while and was in a state of disrepair. Komberec returned to Missoula with a mission to bring her home.
He raised $125,000 from Missoula donors to buy her from McNeely Charter Service, and then McNeely installed low-time engines and propellers and completed other updates on the plane. Two pilots from McNeely flew her to Missoula on a ferry permit. Dick Komberec and Missoula pilot and classic car enthusiast Rick Nash rode along.
Komberec says they flew over Mann Gulch on the way to Missoula because it seemed like the right thing to do.
N24320 returned to Montana in October 2001, ending up in a hangar at the Museum of Mountain Flying at the Missoula International Airport.
Nash donated $1 million to build the hangar to house N24320, with the intent to get the aircraft flying, but it was not to be. Instead, the plane became the centerpiece of the museum and arguably the most famous airplane in Montana.
The best the museum could do was conduct minimal maintenance and pull her out of the hangar every few years, pre-oil the engines, and fire them up. It was mostly an act of nostalgia for former Johnson pilots and mechanics who cherished the aircraft and a well-intended effort to keep the “old girl” on life support.
For many years, it looked like N24320 might end its days collecting dust in the museum, dreaming of its former glory
Return to Flight and New Fame
In 2018, 18 years after returning to Missoula, the resurrection of N24320 started by coincidence in a small café in Georgia.
Dick Komberec’s son Eric had bought a 1944 V77 Stinson Reliant and invited Bryan Douglass, a Museum of Mountain Flying volunteer and pilot, to help him fly the plane home to Montana.
The pair picked up the plane on March 19, 2018 and planned to leave the next day. Poor weather prevented their departure on March 20, so the seller of the plane took them to dinner at a cafe in Forsyth, Georgia. They were enjoying dinner when a distinguished-looking woman entered and waved to their host.
She soon came over and they were introduced to Connie Bowlin. Bowlin, famous in the aviation community as a prominent figure in the warbird world, knew that Eric Komberec was buying the antique Stinson. During a brief conversation, Komberec told Bowlin about the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula and its historic planes, including the DC-3.
Bowlin told them about an American group of DC-3s planning to fly to Normandy the following year, in June 2019, to reenact and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France.
Other DC-3s were coming from elsewhere in the world and on the anniversary of D-Day, all the planes would fly in formation across the English Channel and drop paratroopers in replica World War II uniforms and round parachutes onto original D-Day drop zones in Normandy, France. After the events in England and France, the planes would fly to Germany to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.
Komberec said to his companion Douglass, “We have one of those; we should go with them.” Neither of the men could have foreseen the epic endeavor that would consume them both for the next 18 months.
The new life of N24320 started completely out of the blue, unexpectedly and gradually. N24320 did not have a name. She had always been the “Mann Gulch” plane—and she always would be. She was affectionately known as “three two nothing” by some who had flown her or jumped out her door.
Other airplanes in the commemorative D-day Squadron had famous and iconic names: Placid Lassie, That’s All, Brother, Liberty, Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, D-Day Doll, Spirit of Benovia, Flabob Express, Clipper Tabitha May, Miss Virginia, Virginia Ann, Hap-enstance, and Rendezvous With Destiny. Some even sported the battle-tested names from the war or even D-Day.
If N24320 was going to make the journey in such company, the airplane should have such a name, a name to represent all of Montana, not just Missoula or the museum, and somehow also be historically appropriate.
Eric Komberec’s grandfather, Malcolm Enman, flew a B-25 bomber in battle in the Pacific before returning home to live out his life in Drummond. In Enman’s collection of photographs from the era was one featuring the nose art on his B-25 (below, at left) with an eye-catching name, “Miss Montana.”
When Komberec shared the image with Douglass and others, it was decided N24320 would be christened the new Miss Montana.
The name and font were copied exactly from Enman’s B-25 bomber and the girl featured was enhanced to carry something in her hand: USFS smokejumper wings. She would always carry a tribute to the Mann Gulch victims and all smokejumpers who had jumped out her door.
With a new identity once battle-tested by decorated Montana aviator Malcolm Enman, Miss Montana was now poised to make new history with a 2019 mission across the globe to England, France, and Germany.
History Takes to the Sky
During 10 months between 2018 and 2019, a starry-eyed bunch of Montana pilots, mechanics, and volunteers were completely unaware that most considered their objective impossible. After endless hours of work and effort, the plane finally took a test flight on on May 12, 2019, one week before the planned departure to Europe.
An intrepid crew of six mostly-new DC-3 pilots took off from Missoula on May 19, 2019. The crew flew Miss Montana across North America and the north Atlantic to Europe to complete the mission of re-enacting and commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Miss Montana joined the rest of the D-Day Squadron on June 5, 2019, carrying paratroopers in replica uniforms and round chutes across the English Channel and dropping them on an original D-Day drop zone. The next day, the airplane performed a flyby with the D-Day Squadron for the presidents of France and the U.S. at Omaha Beach Cemetery.
After the events in England and France, Miss Montana continued on to Germany to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Five weeks and one day after leaving Missoula, the aircraft and its crew were welcomed home with a traditional water-cannon salute at the airport. Tens of thousands of Montanans and others around the world followed the journey.
After returning home in June 2019, Miss Montana commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Mann Gulch tragedy on August 5 with a fly-by dropping wreaths over Mann Gulch. Soon after, a crew flew Miss Montana to Florida to conduct hurricane relief flights, flying hot meals to help the Bahamian people after the damage from Hurricane Dorian .
Today, Miss Montana sits proudly in the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula, patiently waiting for the pandemic to pass so she can get to work once more. Visitors have come from all over the world to see her and marvel at the accomplishments of her experience. New missions remain for the beloved aircraft to speak to the next generation about all that she and her kind accomplished – both in war and peace. E