With our time in Rapid City over we headed out to Missoula, MT via my first experience of the Continental Divide. I have a very dear friend that I have known since I can remember. Her grandmother was my next door neighbor. Nicole and I have always stayed in touch (even before Facebook). Since it is 660 miles, we overnighted in the Cabela’s parking lot in Billings, MT at the halfway point. The next day we made our way to Jellystone RV Park only 15 mins from Nicole. We had a pretty nice spot.
First order of business after reconnecting was to check out the local brewery. Mark liked the Moose Drool. Sorry, but I couldn’t enjoy a beer with that name. Nicole already had a growler waiting to be refilled. 🙂
Unfortunately, we have arrived during one of the worse fire seasons they have experienced in a long time. The smoke was thick and you couldn’t see the mountains at all. In an effort to make lemonade out of lemons, Nicole had a really cool treat for us. Her husband had been a pilot for the smoke jumpers for years, so she hooked us up with a personal tour! Mark was like a kid in a candy store. I will let him post about what we saw.
Ok that was my cue, Mark here for a paragraph or two…yes the Missoula Smokejumper Center was amazing, huge thanks to Nicole for taking us there and the fantastic tour we got. A friend of Nicole’s (and I’m so sorry I didn’t write his name down) is a long-time jumper pilot and flew their completely refurbished DC-3 for many years. Sadly the Gooney Bird was retired in 2015 and these days they are flying the Shorts Sherpa. I found a couple pictures of the DC-3, on the day it was retired and the group of jumpers. Wish I could have seen that aircraft.
Going through the visitor center, we learned a lot about the history of firefighting in the region, and the beginnings of the smokejumper group. That group of men and women are just amazing in what they do, and the courage they have – imagine jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, from low altitude, to a very small patch of ground, surrounded by fire! Wow. They carry everything they need to survive and fight fires, and you can see the gear in the shot below. One of the most important things they carry? Spam. Yep lots of spam, and it’s the job of the rookies to create a meal with it for the vets. Love it.
To say we got an inside tour is an understatement. We got to go through not just the visitor center, but the jumper’s locker room and prep areas, got to see how they build packs, and the equipment they use. They even have hundreds of WW2 surplus equipment parachutes they use to send additional supplies to the jumpers on the ground.
From there we ended up on the tarmac where we met another pilot who runs the Twin Otter aircraft, and sat inside the fully-prepped airplane and talked with him about what it’s like to be a jumper pilot. He has ferried Twin Otters around the world, and loves what he does in Montana now.
After that, we roamed over to another section of the tarmac where Aeroflight Fire Aviation had a couple of their Avro RJ85 tankers parked. The pilots were relaxing inside, waiting for the call to go any time, and were more than happy to let us inside and give us a tour of their aircraft. They fill the belly tanks with red fire retardant right there at the airport, where they mix it on demand. Contrary to what I had assumed, the retardant isn’t intended to put the fire out. It actually prevents the spread of the fire any further, so the fire fighters on the ground can get it under control.
Finally a word about how they coordinate these operations. They are actually mobile aircraft control groups, running the area around a fire as if it was a virtual airport. There are command and control aircraft, running all the traffic, the tankers, smokejumpers, spotters, helicopters, and others, all in a coordinated dance in the sky. Really an amazing operation, very well run, and everyone involved works so hard to keep people safe in the northwest. What an amazing afternoon.
Back to you Peggy!
Nicole, her son Colin, and I spent a lot of time together. We hiked the Mount Sentinel & the M Trail that is part of the University of Montana. Normally the view would have been a lot better but the smoke was bad.
On Thursday’s Missoula hosts a community “Dinner in the Park”. Local restaurants, food trucks, and bands attend. All of us probably ate too much but it was a great time. Apparently the food Gods did not want Mark to have his funnel cake. He sat down and proceeded to flip it onto the table. Colin abused him appropriately 🙂
After dinner it was down to the Clark Fork river to relax a few minutes.
Colin and I decided it was time to go ride the Carousel. There is a dragon off to the side filled with coins. If you get the golden coin, you win a free ride. Colin got the gold coin!!!! I was so great to catch up and see a bit of where my friend calls home. Thank you so much for the great week Nicole and Colin! We will be back.