Biplane Touches Down Amid Cars and Motor Homes, But Then…
By Pat Hill
Airplanes don’t usually cruise down highways with cars and trucks, but don’t tell that to Bozeman pilot Bud Hall. Hall, now in his mid-70s, was flying back to Bozeman from the Yakima, Washington, Air Show on a sunny June day in 1987 when he noticed smoke billowing from beneath his World War II biplane, a vintage de Havilland DH82A Tiger Moth that he had restored himself. Hall was flying east along the Clark Fork River and Interstate 90 near Alberton, Montana, when he noticed the smoke, and figured the craft wouldn’t make it back to Gallatin Field. Instead, it would be the landing of a lifetime.
“I looked over the left side of the plane and said ‘Oh, dang me,'” Hall told a small crowd at the Gallatin County Pioneer Museum in May.
The rear pistons and rings on the biplane’s engine were burning up, the engine started missing, and the aircraft soon lost power. Hall then shifted to “glider tactics,” knowing full well that biplanes make poor gliders, and he prepared to touch down on the only safe landing surface in the narrow Clark Fork River gorges near Alberton-Interstate 90.
“I turned [the plane] back to the west, but there were no openings for me, so I turned back to land on the eastbound lane,” Hall said. “I was running out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas at the same time.” But Hall spied an opening behind a Volkswagen and bit the bullet.
“It was looking good but the concrete median dividers looked like they could be a problem,” Hall said, “but I sat it down and had a little sigh of reliefŠI thought I’d pulled the landing off.” The sigh of relief didn’t last long,
though, as the lower right wing of the Tiger Moth began to drag on the guardrail along the highway.
Hall said the aircraft swung around and the left lower wing slammed into the guardrail-“I was on my nose,” he said.
“It worked out good,” Hall said. “I had luck with the people in front of meŠI’m glad they didn’t look in the rear view mirror. And the people in back could see me.”
Hall said a motor home that he’d landed in front of sped by in the passing lane without stopping, but the next vehicle stopped. Hall said a woman exited the car and asked him, “Was the pilot killed?” Realizing that Hall was the pilot, that he was okay, and that no fatalities had occurred, she posed for a photo with Hall in front of the wrecked Tiger Moth.
“It was quite a ride, I’ll tell you,” Hall told the Pioneer. “It’s one of those things you take off your list of things not to do. It was the most exciting landing I ever made. I had the big guy right in my back pocket.”
A fellow Bozeman pilot, Wayne Edsall, had accompanied Hall to Yakima in his own aircraft, which was faster than Hall’s. Hall said Edsall
would occasionally circle his faster plane around in a 360-degree maneuver allowing the two aircraft to travel together, but Edsall had flown ahead to Missoula and missed Hall’s emergency landing on the Interstate. As Hall waited with his wrecked aircraft, the biplane along the Interstate was drawing attention: at one point, Hall said he noticed four drunk college girls sitting on his airplane taking pictures.
“We got the plane off the road and onto a flatbed,” he said. “And it worked out good.”
After getting the Tiger Moth back to Bozeman and repairing it, Hall said he flew the plane until 1995. Hall’s Tiger Moth was built in 1943; the de Havilland DH82A biplane served as a primary training aircraft in Britain during World War II. Hall said he got the flying bug during the war after the Army Air Corps constructed a base in his hometown of Lewistown, Montana. Hall’s family lived near the base at the end of runway 25.
“I remember December 7th, 1941,” he said. “I was playing out in the yard when we got the news. My mom and the ladies were all holding each other, the men were cussing the JapsŠon that day our lives changed.”
Hall said that “on December 7th I put my stick horse away and used a wooden tommy gun my brother made me instead.”
Hall said construction of the base began in early 1942, followed by the arrival of troops, then planes. He said he and his buddies who were already “playing war” decided to invade the base.
“We went up Casino Creek to blow up the base while playing Army,” said Hall. “We did it a couple of times.” Hall said that eventually he and his cohorts were found out, but managed to get away and fight another day. Hall and his buddies, though, finally “got busted” by two big MPs.
“We were trying to get to the Main Hangar that was our objective.”
“They threatened to shoot us. I started crying.” Hall said they were finally driven home from the base by the military after their parents were called.
“I got grounded,” said Hall, “and they took my tommy gun away-that really hurt.”
Hall said the base was officially shut down near the end of the war, and he and his young friends “got familiar with the old base.” Hall also got familiar with a Grumann F4F fighter, an aircraft he said was purchased by the Lewistown High School for one dollar (The school had plans of using the aircraft as an educational tool, plans Hall said never came to fruition). The F4F was a carrier-based fighter first used by the British and the U.S. Navy in World War II, and retired in 1945. After a week or two of checking out the plane, Hall got into the cockpit and closed the canopy, which he then couldn’t get open.
“I finally figured it out,” he said. “Opening that canopy was part of my ‘pre-flight check’ after that.”
Hall’s history as a real pilot began in 1968, after he learned to fly at Gallatin Field. The old Army Air Force base at Lewistown now serves as the town’s airport. Runway 25 is still there, and so is the familiarity.
“Even to this day Lewistown is my favorite place to fly into,” said Hall. “I can still see my house when I land on 25.”