FORTINE – There is no roadside-attraction billboard directing visitors to the Stonehenge Air Museum off U.S. Highway 93. In fact, after leaving the blacktop and driving deeper into the woods near Fortine, they won’t find any signs at all, leading them to believe that maybe they’ve gone the wrong way.
But those concerns are quickly quelled after emerging into a wide clearing with three massive hangars and a mile-long runway tucked in the shadow of the Whitefish Range.
Inside those hangars are more than two-dozen historic military and civilian aircraft owned by James Smith, a Montana native and retired engineer and entrepreneur. Smith, 78, has been fascinated with planes his entire life and when he retired in the 1980s he started collecting them. Now, after years of socking them away in a private hangar, Smith has decided to share the collection with the public. The nonprofit Stonehenge Air Museum opened for business in January.
“I’ve had these airplanes for nearly 30 years and I needed to figure out what to do with them. It was either time to sell them or let people see them,” he said.
Included in the collection are many rare and unique pieces. The 1917 Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” is the oldest warplane in the collection and was built for the U.S. Army Air Corp during World War I. The one on display was deemed surplus after the war and sold to a Hollywood studio where, according to legend, it was flown in the 1957 Warner Brothers movie “The Spirit of St. Louis.”
Further down the display line sits a 1941 Curtiss P-40E/N “Kittyhawk” built for the Royal Canadian Air Force. An Alberta farmer purchased the aircraft for parts after World War II and once he’d harvested what he wanted he buried it in a 13-foot deep hole. When the plane was exhumed in the 1970s, it was in surprisingly solid condition, the dry ground having preserved its exterior.
Perhaps the most unique plane on display is the 1961 Goodyear “Inflatoplane.” Goodyear created the compact craft at the request of the military, which was scouting for models that could be boxed up and dropped from the sky to downed pilots in hostile territory. Using the small engine provided in the box, the pilot was able to blow up the plane before taking off to safety. Only 12 “inflatoplanes” were ever built and of the three that survived, the one in Fortine is the only on public display.
The man tasked with preserving the aircraft at the Stonehenge Air Museum is Curator Sam Winefordner. Windfordner is a self-described “aviation geek” who spends his days giving tours and doing research.
“I just love airplanes and I love being able to share the history of each one,” he said. “I can never stop learning and there’s always just so much to read.”
Helping Winefordner run the museum is James Smith’s daughter, Jeri Talcott, who serves as director. She said while the airplane hangars were built in the early 2000s, it wasn’t until the last few years that they decided to open up a museum. In preparation for that, they built an extension to one of the hangars with offices, bathrooms, a lobby and an area for a yet-to-be established gift shop. According to Talcott, about 1,500 people have visited the museum since it opened and most have learned about it by word of mouth. For now, the museum’s marketing efforts have been limited (so far the museum’s only sign is made of paper and taped to the front door) but Talcott said that’s for good reason, because they want to start small. They also do not publish the directions to the museum online, asking visitors to call ahead to make an appointment, at which point they’re told where to go.
Besides the airplane museum, there is also a full-size replica of Stonehenge on the property that was built in the early 2000s. The massive monument is made of 41 stones, some weighing more than 80,000 pounds. The Stonehenge replica, like the air museum itself, seems a little out of place among the mountains of Northwest Montana, but it proves that hidden gems exist in unlikely places off the blacktop.
For more information, visit www.stonehengeairmuseum.org.
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