A little piece of history flew out of Billings on Saturday morning and ended an era in local aeronautics history.
At about 11 a.m., a Douglas B-26K propeller airplane lifted off the runway at Billings Logan International Airport, circled the airport twice and then headed south to its new home.
The camouflage-painted World War II-era aircraft was the last plane owned by the Lynch family that had been part of the Billings aviation scene since 1940. The family of Denny Lynch, who bought the plane in 1978 and passed away in 2006, came up to the Corporate Air hangar to watch the plane take off.
“This is the last thing of my parents we have, and to watch it fly away is bittersweet,” said daughter Rhonda Richling, who choked up with emotion a few moments before the plane was airborne.
Denny Lynch and his younger brother Tom were both part of the family-owned Lynch Flying Service.
In 1964, Denny Lynch, a lover of World War II airplanes, started another aviation business, Lynch Air Tankers, and that’s when he bought his first B-26.
Hollywood director Steven Spielberg hired him to fly two of his B-26s as a stunt pilot in the movie “Always.”
The B-26K that left town Saturday was another plane Lynch bought in a package deal in 1978, his son Randy Lynch, said Saturday.
“Over the years of owning this K model, after doing some research, we realized this was the only one left of its kind that can still fly,” said Lynch, the only one of the five siblings who flies planes.
Some restoration work was done on the plane, and it was flown to a number of air shows. Denny Lynch flew it for the last time several years ago.
Since then the plane has mainly sat outside on the north side of the airport, near the tanker base. That can be damaging for a vintage plane, Randy Lynch said.
With fuel at $6 a gallon and a plane that burns 160 to 180 gallons an hour, the aircraft is pricey to operate. It also takes a team effort to maintain such an airplane and lots of volunteer help.
“So we thought it was best to let it get to a new group and let them work their magic on it,” Randy Lynch said.
The Lynch family sold the plane to a group of investors in Texas, he said. The plan is to take probably a couple of years to restore it and then fly it to air shows.
“It’s going to good hands, to a group I trusted,” Lynch said. “One thing I didn’t want was to see it go to a museum. I was really excited to get this group to restore it real nice and fly it.”
Al Maxwell, a pilot and airplane mechanic out of Houston, traveled to Billings to fly the plane down to Dallas, along with pilot Steve Swift. Maxwell, a retired airline pilot who does contract flying, shared a little history about the B-26K.
Built in 1944 by the Douglas Corp., for use in WWII and the Korean conflict, it was one of 40 B-26 planes the U.S. Air Force paid the On Mark Corp. to modify for use in the Vietnam War. This particular plane was one of the later aircraft to undergo remodeling, Maxwell said, and it didn’t see action in Vietnam.
The original B-26 planes could hold 4,000 pounds of bombs in their bomb-bays. Modifications to the B-26K included adding eight wing pylons to hold 8,000 pounds of bombs. The plane also had eight .50-caliber machine guns on its nose.
“This was more of an attack airplane,” Maxwell said. “With eight machine guns in the front here, it was very good air support for ground troops.”
The machine guns are gone now. A few dummy bombs sit inside the bomb bay, and the pylons that used to hold bombs on the wings are still in place.
“The plane needs a lot of restoration, but it’s airworthy for our flight today,” Maxwell said.
He and Swift intended to fly the plane to Dallas, with one stop in Denver. Then Swift will be part of the crew that will do the work on it.
As the plane came to life on Saturday, the propellers filling the air with gray smoke and noise, Randy Lynch stood outside with his brother Leonard and sisters Rhonda Richling and Lennis Ryan, as well as with his uncle, Tom Lynch. A third sister, Leigh Ann Bandet, lives in California.
They watched the plane leave the runway for the sky, taking photos to remember the moment. Lynch called it the end of a legacy.
“Just about anywhere in the world you go, someone’s heard about Lynch Flying Service or Lynch Tankers,” he said. “This was the last airplane I had to sell. Now that it’s gone, it puts the period at the end of the sentence for the reputation, for the name.”