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Lindbergh returns to Montana with war on the horizon

Just before the U.S. entered World War Two, Charles Lindbergh made his first flight into Billings in 12 years and spent his first on-the-ground time in the city in 17 years. In 1927, he flew over the city without landing, and in 1922, he lived several months in Billings as a wing walker and parachute jumper.

Lindbergh’s July 1939 visit to Billings allowed him to catch up with someone as influential as anyone in his progression from barnstormer to famed pilot, his former boss and friend whom he had met in 1922, Bob Westover. Their brief meeting at the Billings airport was captured by the Laurel Outlook (July 12, 1939), the newspaper in the town immediately west of Billings.

In fact, two generations of the Westover family were part of Lindbergh's circle in 1922, according to the Outlook. Westover's son, also named Bob, was a youngster when Lindbergh first came to Billings and got to know him. By 1939, Bob Westover, Jr., was an assistant cashier at a Laurel bank.

The Outlook said the senior Westover had a hunch Lindbergh was coming to Billings on July 6, 1939, but he had no definite word. He went home from his garage in downtown Billings at around noon, and then the telephone rang. It was Lindbergh calling to say he was at the Billings municipal airport, atop the Rimrocks, about 2 miles from the heart of the city. Westover hurried to the airport.
Here's the Outlook's description of what happened next:
“Lindbergh was in the administration building at the airport, talking casually with a small group of pilots when Westover came in. The two friends exchanged greetings, as they shook hands and Westover said, ‘I don't know whether to call you Colonel or Slim.’ Lindbergh said something to the effect that ‘you can forget about the Colonel part.’ “
When Westover walked into the main airport building, Lindberg excused himself from the conversation he had been having with the pilots.

“I'll be seeing you," he said to them, according to the Outlook. The brief conversation between the longtime friends consisted mostly of Lindbergh asking questions, and Westover answering them, about pilots and other people Lindbergh had known in Montana almost two decades earlier.
“ ‘What pleased me most,’ Westover said afterwards, ‘was that he has not changed. Although he is now 37 years old, he looks like 25. He is still slim despite having put on just a little more weight. The position and fame he has achieved has not gone to his head. He is just like he used to be.’ “
Lindbergh and Westover moved into the airport restaurant, sat down and chatted a few moments, and then Lindbergh signaled his need to go.

"Well, I'll have to be moving along ,’ he said. The two walked outside to where Lindbergh's Curtiss pursuit plane was parked. There weren't many bystanders yet, although Billings residents, alerted to Lindbergh's arrival by an announcement on KGHL radio, were driving up to the airport to see the famous visitor.

Westover watched Lindbergh get ready to take off and continue his survey of the country's aviation facilities, which was commissioned by Major General Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Army Air Corps. Lindbergh had fueled in Missoula and had enough to fly to Minneapolis but he took on more gasoline.
Although "a seeming daredevil," the Outlook said Lindbergh maintained his record of taking no avoidable chances when flying. He inspected the plane, tested the engine and checked everything required for safe flying. Then he taxied to the end of the runway, took off into the prevailing west wind, circled and flew into an eastern blue sky.
Their 1939 reunion, although brief, allowed Westover and Lindbergh to do something they couldn't in 1927. That summer, when Lindbergh was on his nationwide, Guggenheim Foundation-sponsored tour of all 48 states, he was scheduled just to make Montana stops in Helena and Butte. Westover wired Lindbergh while he was in Helena, inviting him to come to Billings. Lindbergh replied that he couldn't make an unscheduled stop. He did, however, make a 400-mile detour while flying between Helena and Butte. His route took him over Yellowstone National Park and then along the Yellowstone River Valley to Billings. He circled over the city, flying above the Westover garage, and he stuck his head and shoulders out of a side window of The Spirit of St. Louis to wave greetings, then headed west. Many Laurel people saw his Billings flyover, the Outlook said.

Lindbergh had left Seattle that morning in July 1939, flying east, with his first stop in Missoula.

Flying alone, Lindbergh was in Missoula for about an hour before he took off in his fast, all-metal Army pursuit plane, a Curtiss P-36, according to the Missoulian (July 4, 1939),
Lindbergh touched down at 11:15 in the morning in what the paper called a “pretty landing.” The only advance notice that he would stop in Missoula came in an Associated Press dispatch a short time before the “thundering motor of his Army plane was heard above the city.” The AP bulletin said Lindbergh had left Seattle that morning without disclosing his destination or plans, although Seattle officials reportedly thought he would make a refueling stop in Missoula.

About 35 people were fortunate enough to be at the airport and see Lindbergh land. They saw the “Flying Colonel,” as the Missoulian described him, dressed in a “trim Army uniform” climb out of the cockpit to be greeted by H. O, Bell, chairman of the Missoula County airport board.

By the time Lindbergh's plane was refueled and he was ready to take off, word of his appearance had gotten out. A crowd of more than 250 people had gathered at the airport, and a steady stream of cars was heading in that direction.

“Cameras appeared by the dozen with shutters clicking almost constantly to get a shot of the distinguished visitor,” the Missoulian reported.

Those who overhead Lindbergh said his conversation showed a slight British accent, the result of several years that he and his wife, Anne, spent in England with their two young sons, Jon and Land. He refused to discuss anything other than the task of refueling his plane.
“The Colonel would say nothing of where he'd been, where he was going, nor of his future plans, saying he had ‘adopted a policy I can't break’ of making no statements for publication,” the Missoulian said.

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Jamie Larson