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Fly-ins: Montana’s callingFly-ins: Montana’s calling

A wonderland in the wilderness

Landing an aircraft on a remote mountain airstrip harks back to a simpler time. That sort of piloting life still exists in areas like Montana, where unspoiled backcountry strips dot the landscape and beckon aviators to test their skills. AOPA will hold its first fly-in of the 2018 season in Missoula, Montana, home of the nation’s premier smokejumpers, setting of the story A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, near the incredible Chinese Wall, and home to the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF).
May Pilot Briefing

The fly-in takes place June 15 and 16 at Missoula International Airport, a place where you’ll find a wall of hand-painted portraits of the men who established mountain flying here and a gigantic stuffed Kodiak bear on display to remind you that you’re in the wilderness. The smokejumper’s museum is on site (see p. 54) and it features a display honoring Maclean, who probably should be credited with the popularity of the sport of fly-fishing. The Chinese Wall is one of those natural wonders that only pilots get to experience in its full glory: 12 miles of limestone towering 1,000 feet high. The RAF protects the backcountry strips of this wonderland and will be an integral part of the AOPA Fly-In.

Now a dynamic two-day event, the AOPA Fly-In begins on Friday with all-day workshops on topics ranging from weather to mountain flying (with preregistration and tuition fee). Each workshop features an expert in the field sharing his or her knowledge along with a hands-on opportunity to increase the learning experience. Friday afternoon, the exhibitors open and invite everyone for a happy hour, and Friday night is the much-anticipated Barnstormers Party. Saturday dawns with a pancake breakfast, aircraft displays, various free seminars and meetings, a STOL demonstration, and much more. The day concludes with AOPA President Mark Baker’s Pilot Town Hall meeting and ice cream social.

May Pilot BriefingIf that Chinese Wall intrigues you, participate in one of three fly-outs over the weekend: a flight to Seeley Lake with a potato bake presented by the RAF; a tour of the Quest Kodiak facility in nearby Idaho; and a flight over the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Chinese Wall to tour the privately owned Stonehenge Museum at Crystal Lake airstrip.

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Heroes of the west

Smokejumpers museum showcases a dangerous profession

By Julie Summers Walker

May Pilot BriefingIn the 1989 movie Always, actor Richard Dreyfuss plays an aerial firefighter who saves his fellow pilot’s life by sacrificing his own. He goes back to help the man who takes his place—and gets his girl. There’s not a dry eye in the place when that movie ends. What it did too, though, is put the experience of aerial firefighters and smokejumpers into popular culture, highlighting a profession most would find too dangerous. On site at Missoula International Airport (MSO) in Missoula, Montana, is the largest smokejumper base in the nation. The active base houses 75 rapid-response smokejumpers, their ready room, and an equipment center, as well as a museum featuring memorials, writer Norman Maclean’s cot on which he wrote A River Runs Through It, an original 1930 fire lookout tower, a gift shop, and more.

Aerial fire patrols began in the early 1920s in California and Washington. The use and practice of parachuting was established in Missoula in 1941 mainly because Johnson Flying Service was the premier mountain flying service providing the aircraft and pilots. The Johnson brothers made Missoula synonymous with aerial firefighting. The original Ford Trimotor of the flying service is housed in the nearby Museum of Mountain Flying, also on the airport. In August 1949 a lightning storm set off one of the most devastating fires in the west, burning 3,000 acres in less than 10 minutes. The Mann Gulch fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters, who all died within 300 yards of one another. That fire and its response permanently changed the way the U.S. Forest Service fights fires, according to the museum. Famous World War II Gen. Hap Arnold supervised aerial fire patrols after the war.

You’ll learn all this and more when you experience the 45-minute tour at the Smokejumpers Visitor Center. You’ll see the lockers where the smokejumpers keep their gear, the giant room where they inspect and care for their equipment, the sewing room where they repair their parachutes, their sleeping quarters—and, maybe, see them dispatched to a fire.

The Smokejumpers Visitors Center is open Memorial Day through Labor Day, and tours are free. Those attending the first AOPA Fly-In of 2018 in Missoula will have special access.

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Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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