Eighty-year-old pilot Chuck Burruss stands near his 1941 Piper J-3 Cub that once belonged to Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, where it was used to train would-be pilots in the Army Air Force College Training Detachment. The flight training was done at the old Hale Field, near where Sentinel High School is now.
KURT WILSON, Missoulian
CORVALLIS – They came from Houston, Texas, and Iron Mountain, Michigan, Jessup, Pennsylvania, and Hollywood, California.
“Forget it,” they’d say, and “Aw, shucks, fellas,” and “He’s a swell egg.”
They arrived in Missoula in the middle of World War II, young men who would be pilots in the little-known Army Air Force College Training Detachment.
From March 1943 until a few weeks after D-Day in 1944 they bunked in Corbin Hall and other dorms on what was then the Montana State University campus in Missoula.
They studied math, physics, geography and physical education. They staged hops and musical extravaganzas, played intramural sports and, over at Hale Field, learned the rudiments of flying from Johnson Flying Service pilots.
Hundreds if not thousands cut their teeth in two-seat “cub yellow” Piper J-3’s, the primary aircraft of the Civilian Pilot Training Program and, later, Army Air Force programs that came to campuses and airfields in Montana and across the country.
For 57 years, Chuck Burruss has owned one of those J-3s – “N” number 41300.
“It’s as easy a plane to fly as you could ever learn in. They’re very good trainers, real forgiving, and they recover from a stall easy,” Burruss said the other day as he pushed open the doors to the hangar at his home northeast of Corvallis.
It won’t be here much longer.
As early as this week, the Piper Cub will join its brethren from the Johnson Flying fleet in the Museum of Mountain Flying at Missoula International Airport. Some of the others are on loan, but the museum, of which Burruss is a member, has long sought the J-3 for its own.
Thanks to generous donations and a grant, the board recently met the asking price of $15,000.
“The whole thing about buying this airplane is it was a Johnson plane. It came from Missoula. It’s historic, sort of an original J-3,” said museum board president Stan Cohen, who doggedly led efforts to obtain the plane.
It fits with the 20-year-old museum’s mission of collecting and displaying historic planes used by Johnson Flying Service since it was launched in 1926.
For now, the J-3 will fit under the wings of the hulking DC-3, the plane that transported smokejumpers to tragic deaths in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire north of Helena.
Cohen said a similar yellow Piper Cub that wasn’t a Johnson training plane will be returned to nearby Minuteman Aviation to make room.
Along with Burruss’ J-3 comes a scattering of log books and records, including the original forms completed when the plane came off the assembly line at the Piper Aircraft Corp. in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.
It’s dated Dec. 4, 1941 – three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the United States into war.
Burruss had just turned 7 on that day and would soon become infatuated with the doings at the airport in his hometown of Hamilton.
Bernie Wryn was 5, and in only a couple of years would share a similar fascination with what was going on at Hale Field in Missoula, on the eastern edge of the Missoula County Fairgrounds.
“I’d pedal out there with my bicycle and you could see all these J-3s standing on their noses, one stacked right after another in a hangar,” said Wryn.
Also a member of the flying museum, Wryn has long assumed Burruss’ J-3 was one of the planes he saw at Hale Field during and after the war years. He can’t remember how many Piper J-3 Cubs the military used for pilot training there and sold to Bob Johnson for $1 apiece plus “other valuable considerations.”
“I’m going to say I saw certainly a half-dozen and maybe a dozen,” Wryn said.
Where N41300 flew between the time it came out of the factory in late 1941 and when it joined the Army Air Force’s fleet at Hale Field remains a riddle that Dick Komberec aims to solve.
A historian for the flying museum, Komberec said there’s a decent chance it arrived in the wake of tragedy.
In the early Friday morning of Sept. 10, 1943, two J-3s on training runs south of Missoula collided above Buckhouse Bridge. Four men died – instructor pilots Clyde Reynolds and Stanley Hillman of Missoula, and students Robert Schwenter of Detroit and William Richards of Tarrytown, New York.
The students were members of the Army Air Force’s 317th college training detachment. A news account said the accident was the first in the training of students by the Johnson school and the first in the history of Johnson Flying Service.
“They would have needed two replacement airplanes, or at least one,” Komberec pointed out. “They lost two that day and still had the program. I’m just guessing that’s maybe where this one came in.”
He plans on making a request for Federal Aviation Administration records that will detail the history of Burruss’ plane.
The 317th was apparently the first of two college training detachments in Missoula, activated in March of 1943 under the Army Air Force’s Western Training Center. Cohen's collection at Pictorial Histories Publishing includes an invitation to the 317th's Farewell Hop on Feb. 18, 1944.
The detachment was replaced by the 3074th Base Unit, which trained and schooled at the university and at Hale Field until the nationwide program was discontinued at the end of June 1944.
Burruss can trace his plane’s history after the war. Bob Schellinger, a legendary helicopter pilot for Johnson Flying Service and a charter inductee into the Museum of Mountain Flying’s hall of fame in 1995, bought it from Johnson. Then it belonged to Don Dowling, of the Dowling funeral home family in Hamilton.
Burruss figures he was 22 when he bought the plane from Dowling in 1956 or '57.
“It needed fixing, so I bought it, re-covered the wings, and learned to fly in it,” he said. “I didn’t know how to fly when I bought it.”
He courted his future wife, Jeanne Clark of Corvallis, in the Piper Cub.
How do you do something like that? Burruss was asked.
“You meet her up behind C Butte (east of Corvallis) up in the grainfields. She leaves her horse in the corral and she jumps in the plane and goes flying with you,” he said with a grin.
Aside from the initial re-covering of the wings and some chrome work when American Dental was in business in Missoula, Burruss hasn’t altered anything since he got N41300, he said.
He’s added a Cessna 180 to his stable, but until recently he flew the Piper Cub several times a year, taxiing it out of the barn and taking off and landing on his 1,000-foot grass runway that slopes down from the house, at one point at a 9-percent grade.
With all those takeoffs and landings, and all those hours in the air – into the Selway, up to the Flathead, over to Butte and Dillon – he never had an accident or even a close call, Burruss said.
“It’s fun to fly,” he said. “Just the thrill of getting up, the thrill of leaving the ground and climbing into the air, and then the thrill of landing when you get back.”
But now it’s time to get rid of the old plane. Burruss turned 80 in November.
“I’ve been playing around with it for years, but the fabric is old,” he said. “It needs re-covering. It shouldn’t be flown any more because of that, and I’m getting too old to re-cover an airplane again.”
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