Within an hour, the Maid is turning around and heading back down the runway for a low-flying flight around Missoula with a cargo full of media members. The plane will be on display through July 31 at the Museum of Mountain Flying as part of the Flying Legends of Victory Tour, and the public will be able to arrange flights Friday through Sunday.
Before becoming a flying museum piece, the Maid in the Shade survived 15 bombing runs through enemy skies over Italy and Yugoslavia during the war. On one of those flights, four planes went out and only this one came back. It took 28 years for the plane to be restored to operational status, although co-pilot David Baker says part of what took so long was political wrangling over who would end up with the plane. In 2009, the Maid in the Shade once again took to the skies in the hands of the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.
The most noticeable thing as the plane prepares for takeoff is the noise, which is equivalent to standing in a barn full of old outboard motors and rattletrap truck engines, all revving to life at once. “They purr like kittens once they get going,” Quy says.
As the Maid taxis out, every pop, bounce and shudder can be felt. Part of that could be the thin aluminum walls, which crew chief Bob Taylor says are around 1/16th of an inch thick. It offered little protection against the clouds of flak fired into the sky by enemy cannons on the ground below. On bombing runs, B-25s would fly at 12,000 to 15,000 feet, often unescorted and protected from enemy fighters only by their own defenses. There were six machine guns along the nose of the plane, two in a glass domed turret above the cockpit, one on each side of plane at the waist and two more extending from its tail.
During the Maid's fighting days it was crewed by six men. There were two pilots in the front, along with a crew chief who operated the turret guns when necessary. In the back of the plane rode the tail gunner and a waste gunner who also served as radio man (they could only get into position once the B-25 was airborne by crawling across the top of the bomb bay). The bombardier doubled as a navigator and rode in the nose turret, a glass-encased dome that is accessed from the cockpit by crawling through a coffin-sized metal tunnel. The turret offers a panoramic vista and comfortable seat, though this was perhaps difficult to enjoy at the temperatures of 50-below that Baker says men sometimes dealt with at bombing altitudes.
For today, however, the Maid flies closer to 1,000 feet, circling tightly over Missoula and passing lower than the peaks of Mounts Sentinel and Jumbo, with the city in sharp detail through the glass of the nose gunners turret. After flying through Hellgate Canyon, the plane circles over the long ridge of Mount Jumbo and heads back toward the airport. One more mission completed.
To book a flight this weekend on the Maid in the Shade, call the ride coordinator at 480-322-5503. Rides are $395/$650. Tours are free, but a $5 donation is suggested.
The Power of Prayer
The plane then banks back to the west and flies parallel with the Swans, northeast of Seeley Lake. Long and his organization, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, intend to turn a large strip of land along the range’s front, seen from the air as a swath of green forest where the mountains meet the valley floor, into an extension of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The project has brought members of the media up for a birds-eye view of the area as part of a renewed push to advance their project into law. More than a decade of planning and promotion has led to partial but not complete victories for the project. Long says there is currently an "impressive" amount of public support, and he believes the project has reached a tipping point where the time to act is now.
The stretch of land along the Swans would be paired with more wilderness extension and protection for the Blackfoot’s sources on the southeastern part of the Swans, plus a piece of land around the West Fork of the Clearwater River, in the Mission Mountain Range across the Seeley Valley. The proposed protections, Long says, would ensure wildlife corridors between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range, near Ovando, for grizzly bears, deer and elk. Protecting the drainages would also help bull trout, who swim upstream to spawn.
“You get up in the air and start looking around and you see how things are connected," says Long of the recent flight. "You just got to keep up that connectivity."
The plan to do so, which was put together over the course of a decade by a coalition of Montanans that includes conservation groups, ranchers, lumber companies, outfitters and even snowmobilers, now needs Montana’s congressional delegation to push the proposal in Washington, D.C. A portion of the project that funded forest restoration work became law in 2009 under the guidance of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. But the larger Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, including the wilderness designations and considerations for recreation groups, has failed to advance.
Tester tried to wrap it into a larger bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which he has introduced several times without success. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines, both Republicans, have declined to throw their weight behind the proposal. The feeling among the project’s proponents is that a united delegation would have a far better chance of getting over the hump.
“The senators have kind of drug their feet a little bit,” says Smoke Elser, a retired outfitter and wilderness advocate who is one of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project's main advocates.
The project hopes to continue raising public support by releasing a new promotional video each month through its website. The videos feature the perspective of different stakeholders, with the first focusing on Seeley Lake timber company Pyramid Mountain Lumber, and the second on Long.
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