Miss Montana’s Crew Honors Smokejumpers in Memorial Drop

The memorial flight commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Mann Gulch Fire.

Miss Montana crew
More than 100 people gathered to honor those fallen in the Mann Gulch Fire.Courtesy @missmontanatonormandy

Miss Montana, a restored Douglas C-47A/DC-3C that was used in aerial firefighting after World War II, returned to Helena, Montana, on Monday, August 5, 2019, to commemorate a mission in which 12 of 15 smokejumpers, plus one person on the ground, lost their lives fighting the Mann Gulch Fire following their drop from the airplane.

Miss Montana flying over Mann Gulch
The memorial flight dropped wreathes over the site of the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949.Courtesy @missmontanatonormandy

The lightning-strike fire, which ended up burning nearly 3,000 acres along the upper Missouri River, was spotted around noon on August 5, 1949, by a fireguard near the gulch. Smokejumping—the dropping of specially trained firefighters by parachute directly into the fire’s locale—had begun in 1940, and the risk in the late 40s was even higher than it is today, as firefighters were still developing the skills to reduce the danger. The converted DC-3C, N24320, operated by Johnson Flying Service, flew the jumpers to the fire, making the last drop by 4:10 p.m. A wind-driven “blow-up” of the fire took the jumpers’ lives soon after.

For the commemoration event, the crew of Miss Montana planned four passes beginning around 11 a.m. local time, dropping wreathes with each pass: four, four, four, and three, to represent the men lost on that day 70 years ago.

Miss Montana at the Helena airport
Miss Montana at the Helena airport on August 5, close to Mann Gulch.Courtesy @missmontanatonormandy

The flight brought the airplane full circle: Its restoration to flying status began in March 2018 by the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula in order to participate in the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, and the Atlantic crossing to make it possible. That mission accomplished, the museum has returned the historic aircraft to its home state to mark an arguably even more poignant anniversary for this particular Douglas airplane.