CUTBANK - People who have flown, whether as passenger or pilot, commonly comment at some point about one's change in perspective inspired by flight. They no longer look in the same way at the terrain, the sky or clouds, the horizon or distances.
But to gain a perspective from the air on intangible things such as history, sacrifice and honor, it takes, perhaps, a flight in a fully restored combat airplane.
Monday, the B-25J Mitchell Bomber called "Maid in the Shade" arrived at Cut Bank International Airport to give people a chance to tour the twin-engine bomber, speak to its crew members from the Commemorative Air Force in Mesa, Arizona, and even tour the plane's interior or go for a flight.
Among those who went up in the B-25's first flight that afternoon was Jim Geiger of Valier. Geiger flew B-17 Mitchells on 35 missions during World War II. After his tour of duty, he returned stateside to Malmstrom Air Force Base, where he flew B-25s until he was discharged to go home to the family farm he's worked since then.
"It was a good thing," he said about his flight, glancing over his shoulder at the plane, "like I remember them."
The B-25 bomber was made famous shortly after the United States entered World War II. April 18, 1942, then-Lt. Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle led a fleet of 16 B-25s and 80 airmen on what is known as the Doolittle Raid into Japan. Doolittle's bombing raid was made in retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Maid in the Shade saw action in Corsica, an island region of France in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy where the United States Air Force had several bases of operation. Between Nov. 3 and Dec. 31, 1944, the plane was flown on 15 missions into Italy and Yugoslavia, mostly bombing runs to destroy railroads and bridges.
On its one combat mission, it was the only B-25 to return of the four that went. The 18 other crew members in the three planes that didn't return were killed, said Commemorative Air Force pilot Russ Gilmore.
After being returned stateside in 1945, Maid in the Shade was used as a transport and utility airplane until 1958. It was eventually sold on to a succession of buyers, ultimately ending its useful career as an arial bug spray applicator to kill red ants, said Gilmore, a retired airline pilot with more than 30,000 hours flight time.
Then, in 1981, three people in Minnesota purchased the plane and donated it to the CAF aviation museum, whose volunteers stripped it down at Falcon Field in Mesa and restored it over the next 28 years. During the restoration, Gilmore said, volunteers rebuilt some parts, repaired normal wear and tear, removed post-war modifications and filled wartime bullet holes.
The paint scheme on the plane's polished aluminum skin was also restored to original specifications, except for the addition of the nose art to go with its new name, Maid in the Shade.
Almost 10,000 B-25s were built during WWII. Originally designed as a medium-altitude bomber, its design was altered in several versions, adding .50-caliber guns in the nose, mid- and tail sections and making it useful for low- and high-level bombing and strafing runs, said the CAF website, azcaf.org.
The B-25 was considered the most versatile air weapon in the fleet, said Jim Drew, a Mesa police officer who uses comp-time from work to tour with the B-25 as flight administrator.
Powered by two 1,700 hp Wright "Cyclone," 14-cylinder, radial engines, bigger than those in a DC-3, the plane burns about 300 gallons of fuel and two gallons of oil an hour, said crew chief Roland Smith. This particular B-25J could carry 4,000 pounds of bombs, at least one nine-yard-long strand of .50 caliber bullets for each of its 11 guns and six crew members.
As a nonprofit, historical aviation museum, the Commemorative Air Force operates almost entirely on the service of volunteers interested in preserving and sharing the history of war planes.
People can tour the CAF aviation museum in Mesa all year and take flights in any of the six restored planes available for public flights, but in summer months, the museum's B-17 and B-25 Mitchell bombers are on tour around the country at air shows and other events to bring a piece of history to a wider audience.
"We call these tours a flying heritage experience," said co-pilot Larry Kline, a retired airline pilot.
One tour stop in Springfield, Missouri, even allowed them to reacquaint the B-25 with a WWII veteran named Rusty who was surprised to find it was the very same plane he had flown in as tail gunner on two missions, said Gilmore.
The gunners in the nose, dorsal and tail sections sat in glass bubbles to better see their targets, though that also left them exposed to the enemy.
"What a thrill to meet this World War II veteran," Gilmore added.
Starting today and through the weekend, the B-25 will be in Medicine Hat, Alberta, before going on to Edmonton, Alberta.
The gleam of the sunlit, aluminum-clad plane with its rows upon rows of perfect rivets seemed to define the wartime efforts of those who stayed at home supporting troops with hours and expertise in factories. It was easy to imagine an assembly line of Rosie the Riveters applying themselves to the creation of this plane.
WWII veteran Jim Geiger of Valier rides behind the pilots during the B-25 flight that left from Cut Bank International Airport.
Sitting in the airplane, surrounded by artillery, hearing the roar and pop of the revving engines, smelling the hot oil and exhaust that is soon cleared out by a steady flow of fresh air as the B-25 takes to the sky brings a sense of significance to the efforts of the WWII airmen.
But nothing drove that home more than crawling to the end of the tail section to sit on the tail gunner's pedestal seat and look out behind the B-25 through the glass turret to a wide-open north-central Montana sky and landscape.
How many men, everyday people like the veteran who simply said his name was Rusty, sat in that tail turret open to the sky and the enemy, alike, finding the courage to keep firing their guns despite their vulnerable perch?
"We never want to forget the sacrifice of our veterans then and now," Gilmore said.
Sitting there makes forgetting unlikely.