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Montana film dives deep into plane's amazing 'community' restoration

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Posted at 5:32 PM, Sep 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-15 17:32:39-04

MISSOULA, Mont. — It takes an epic film to tell the epic story of a community coming together to raise an iconic aircraft back into Montana skies. And this weekend, you'll have a chance to see the "Miss Montana" documentary's premiere in Missoula.

"Return to the Big Skies: Miss Montana to Normandy" is not only the story of the plane's resurrection but a window into the pioneering world of Bob Johnson and Montana's mountain flying.

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Filmmaker Eric Ristau says it was amazing to track the story of Miss Montana's restoration

"We were really happy to find photographs from local collectors that help us tell that story," explains filmmaker Eric Ristau. "The state photo archives and the things we were able to pull together on this airplane are pretty remarkable. People will be interested to see things going back, you know, many, many decades."

"We're shooting the film in a very high quality nowadays, and so to try to balance that was a little bit tricky, but a lot of the old photographs were incredibly high quality."

The film hits all the historical high points, from the tragedy at Mann Gulch to the fatal crash that nearly destroyed the plane and the neglect of years.

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Miss Montana on the ground in Europe, as seen in the film

Volunteers tell the story of what the plane was doing those years away from Montana.

"They flew baby chicks from the south clear up to British Columbia," local historian Stan Cohn says in the film.

"Chickens and car parts and in and out of Mexico and who knows what else we don't know about was flown in this airplane," adds volunteer Perry Francis in one of the film's many interviews.

Ristau says among the footage, an important news clip from the KPAX archives.

"KPAX plays a role in this in this film because Ian Marquand went on the flight to go and bring Miss Montana back to Montana 20-years ago this coming October."

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Ristau and his colleague filming as Miss Montana takes to the air for the first time

"On Monday in West Memphis, Arkansas, Missoula's Museum of Mountain Flying took possession of the most famous C47 aircraft ever to fly the Montana skies," Marquand reported.

"That was amazing, and I was super impressed with how many people they interviewed," says Bryan Douglass of Miss Montana to Normandy and Beyond. "Volunteers and everybody you can imagine who's had anything to do with this airplane. You'd be surprised with how many people show up on this one."

And the effort to find parts, make plans, and bring in the "Rosies," the many women and girls that pitched in.

"From things like scraping this gunk out of the belly with spatulas to folks that were licensed aircraft and powerplant mechanics, who could, by the FAA rules, actually work on this airplane. Work on engines. Work on controls," Ristau recalls.

And the last-minute dash to departure.

"It was down to the wire, and you could see the pressure building. You could see the clock running down, but at the same time, everybody still had a smile on their face. Everybody continued to work really hard."

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I was one of three cameras on the runway for the first takeoff that Sunday afternoon in May, and I asked Ristau if he was as nervous as I was to "get the shot."

"It was a little bit tense thinking, you know, we get one shot at filming this and really capturing this for history. So a little bit of stress, as long as it's in focus, I think that you know that was our goal. Just to make sure we caught it on film."

Douglass says it's a film that's not just about a plane, but people.

"The story of this airplane is about the volunteers and the supporters that made it happen, and he'd like to tell you that this movie is all about that too. And it is. But he's one of our volunteers too. And here we have another, local talent, a world-class filmmaker in Missoula who of his own initiative and time and money, puts this film together. And not only is it a film, it tells the story. It's a great film and everybody that worked on that line deserves the credit and needs to see this film." - Bryan Douglass of Miss Montana to Normandy and Beyond

"You watch this film, it makes you proud to be Missoulian and proud to be a Montanan, and it's amazing. The community effort that it portrays and the history of the airplane, it tells, it's just masterfully done."

The Missoula premiere of the "Miss Montana" film will be this Saturday, Sept. 18, at Big Sky Brewing in Missoula. All proceeds will help continue the plane's ongoing mission of history, education, and honor. And the group hopes to arrange for future showings around the state.

For more details and tickets still available, go to the Miss Montana Movie website.

Dennis Bragg at KPAX first reported this story.