It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s . . . a museum!
The Spirit of Freedom, a restored 1945 aircraft that served in the Berlin Airlift, parks in Lewistown Municipal Airport to pick up fuel and media for its trip to Great Falls Tuesday.
Photo by Jenny Gessaman
Keen eyes may have spotted a time-traveling anomaly Tuesday: a WWII-era plane circling low, preparing for a landing at Lewistown Municipal Airport.
The Spirit of Freedom is a Douglas C-54, and although the 1945 aircraft traveled on to Great Falls, any Central Montanans who missed its first landing will have a chance at its second. The restored plane will be in Lewistown again tomorrow, and its interior museum will be open to anyone curious about the international event known as the Berlin Airlift.
Owned by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, the Spirit of Freedom, the last plane from the Berlin airlift still flying, contains artifacts, displays and a crew dedicated to remembering the aeronautical event that saved millions of Germans.
After the Soviet Union isolated Berlin in 1948, the three other Allied Powers also rebuilding the city flew in 2.5 million tons of supplies to keep citizens alive. The Foundation website says the roughly yearlong operation involved 200,000 planes landing around the clock.
Douglas C-54s like the Spirit of Freedom were used to support the larger transport planes hauling everything from food and water to clothes and medicine. While the year of flights and supplies sustained a city, it also played a role on the international scene: The Foundation website credits the Berlin Airlift as a major factor in the start of the Cold War.
The Berlin Airlift Veterans Association’s annual reunion in Great Falls this week brought the Spirit of Freedom from New Jersey to Central Montana. Foundation President and Flight Crew Aircraft Commander Timothy Chopp encouraged everyone to take advantage of the plane’s Lewistown stop Sunday, saying every age would find something to enjoy.
His favorite museum display is the life-sized replica of Vittles the dog, a pup trained to parachute and pull his own ripcord.
“Getting him to pull the ripcord was easy . . . the hardest part was getting him to count to 10,” Chopp laughed.
Airport ‘big enough’ to handle Spirit of Freedom
The Spirit of Freedom flew here from New Jersey to take part in the Berlin Airlift veterans’ reunion in Great Falls earlier this week. Pilots trained for the airlift at Great Falls, using what later became Malmstrom Air Force Base, because of the similarity to the layout and physical situation they would find in Berlin.
Lewistown Municipal Airport Manager Jerry Moline said having the plane land in Lewistown, and then return on Sunday, is a huge plus for the community.
“Having a C-54 landing here is fun for locals,” Moline said, “but it also benefits the community in other ways.”
Moline said the more pilots who learn about Lewistown’s airport, and the more planes that land here, the more the word gets out to the flying community about what the airport and Lewistown have to offer.
“In this case, they learned our runways are strong enough and long enough to land this 50,000 pound plane,” Moline explained, adding the reason the Lewistown airport has such runways is due to it being used to train B-17 bomber pilots during WWII.
“Our runway is big enough to take this plane,” Moline said. “He [Chopp] said he needed 3,600 feet to land and we have twice that.”
According to Moline, the Spirit of Freedom and its crews will be in Lewistown until Tuesday, after which they will head to Greybull, Wyoming where there is a Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting.
“This is good for Lewistown,” Moline said.
Info box: Want to learn about the Berlin Airlift?
* A small boarding fee goes towards the non-profit foundation and maintenance for the Spirit of Freedom
• Where: Lewistown Municipal Airport
• When: Sunday, Sept. 11
• Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.