MISSOULA – While we’ve all been watching with enthusiasm this week as the Miss Montana plane takes part in the 75th anniversary of the “D-Day” invasion, there’s one Missoula man who knows every inch, every rivet, of the historic plane — that’s because for years, master mechanic Don Micknak kept her in the air.
“Johnson Flying Service was very unique,” Micknak said. “When they hired a mechanic or pilot, usually they wouldn’t stay with one airplane. If they were versatile and wanted to learn, they could fly a helicopter. They could fly any number of airplanes. When I started with the company in the winter of ’59-’60, we had roughly 40 airplanes and nine helicopters.”
Look at the pictures in the Museum of Mountain Flying, and you’ll get an idea of the life Micknak enjoyed, his colleagues and those amazing aircraft.
“I made it a point to try to work on all of them. But I loved the TBM, the Travelaire here, and the DC-3’s. The older stuff.”
A career saw him not only wrenching on aircraft in Missoula and Johnson’s base in MaCall, Idaho, but also flying on a variety of assignments. He was even tasked with loading hay off the Missoula Airport and then hanging on for dear life in the cargo bay as loads were delivered to backcountry airstrips for the Forest Service.
“Oh, it’s ‘Old Reliable,'” he said. “In the hands of a good pilot, if you lost an engine and you weren’t over gross and had to climb, they could usually make its homeport unscathed.”
And although there were some white-knuckled flights, especially in Montana’s mountain weather, the now-christened “Miss Montana” and her sister planes were up to the task.
“The DC-3 was really ahead of its time. It’s got a lot of good features. Keep in mind it was developed in the late 30s,” he said.
“It’s really an all-weather airplane.”
The exception was during a blizzard in January 1962 when Gov. Don Nutter was killed when his plane went down on a flight to Cut Bank.
“But they ran into very severe weather east of the mountains and they lost a wing, which is unheard of on a DC-3,” he said. “It’s a good, strong airplane.”
That meant a winter of work for Micknak and his fellow A&P mechanics, as the FAA issued an “Air Directive,” ordering thousands of passenger-carrying DC-3s to be retrofitted.
“Thousands of rivets and new quarter-inch bolts, hooked up the cables and away she went,” Micknak said. “And then we brought another airplane in and did the same.”
The main noise in the old Johnson hanger has been the rebuilding of “Miss Montana,” and the cheers as she’s made her triumphant flight to France. Now in his late 80s, Micknak helped — but stayed away from those rivet guns.
“Just clean up stuff and do very minor work,” Micknak said of his contributions. “And it’s kind of nice to do that.”
If you want to learn more about “Miss Montana,” Micknak or his pioneering colleagues, visit the Museum of Mountain Flying, just east of the main terminal at Missoula International Airport.
-Reported by Dennis Bragg/MTN News