Subscribe for 17¢ / day
Noted Billings pilot Blain, 77, dies of cancer
Gerhart Blain, center, is seen with his grandson A.J., left, and son Al on Christmas Eve 2003 before an annual flight of Santa. Gerhart had flown the illuminated Santa in previous years before handing off the tradition to sons Al and Gary.

Well-known Billings pilot Gerhart Blain died Wednesday morning, according to his family. Blain, 77, had battled cancer for 20 years.

"He was beyond tough," son Al said about his father's struggle with the illness.

Blain was born in Columbus and lived in Joliet before moving to Billings about 50 years ago.

A Joliet neighbor, Jack Waddell, taught a teenage Blain to fly in a converted glider after Waddell, a former Navy pilot, returned from World War II.

In 1950, Blain began a long career as a crop duster that lasted until the early 1990s. He also did aerial work in oilfields and hunted coyotes from the air in the 1970s when the animal's hides were bringing good prices, Al Blain said.

In the 1970s, Blain learned to fly a helicopter, starting a helicopter service south of town on the family farm, which had an airstrip and a hangar.

Blain was involved in many rescues with his helicopter and also started the HELP medical helicopter service through St. Vincent Healthcare, his son said.

"He lived in an airplane and helicopter," Al Blain said. "He was a real pilot's pilot kind of a guy."

Blain also took great delight in creating the Christmas Eve Santa flight around the Yellowstone River Valley. Blain rigged up a 10-by-30-foot flying billboard with Santa outlined in lights that hung 100 feet below a darkened helicopter. From the ground, it looked like Santa really did fly through the sky on Christmas Eve.

J.A. "Ziggy" Zeigler met Blain about 35 years ago, in April 1974, just three weeks after moving with his family to Billings from California. The Zeiglers had recently bought the Kampground of America, on Garden Avenue, and the Yellowstone River flooded, leaving about two feet of standing water across the property.

Blain drove up in an old pickup truck, hopped out and said,

"I'm Gerhart Blain, and I'm your new neighbor. What can I do for you?" Zeigler recalled.

"He was a very kind and gracious guy and would do anything for you," he said. "It's a loss."

But Blain was also a notorious prankster, and a bit mischievous.

In one near-legendary prank in 1993, Blain came to his 60th birthday party - where hundreds of people had gathered to celebrate - in disguise, donning a false beard and stuffing a pillow in his shirt. He spent much of the night wandering the party, hugging and patting the behinds of friends' wives, and only later did he reveal himself.

Jim Lemon, who knew him for 44 years, recalls another time Blain was asked to clear out some leaves that had piled up against his old home's sliding doors. He parked some of his planes in the yard and figured he could just swing one of them around, turn on the engine and suck the leaves out using the propeller. It didn't work, Lemon said, so Blain brought the plane to the other end of the house, figuring he could reverse the engine and blow the leaves out.

"He gave the engine some gas," Lemon said. "It blew the glass doors in and blew all the leaves into the house."

Flying, whether by plane or helicopter, was in Blain's blood, Lemon said, and he has left a legacy through his years of flight in Montana and across the country.

"We'll miss him," Lemon said. "Gerhart was to airplanes as Evel Knievel was to motorcycles."

Every one of his four children - sons Al, Gary and Robert and daughter Flori - are pilots, as are several of his 12 grandchildren.

His wife of 49 years, Aldonna, also survives him.

Smith Funeral Chapels is in charge of arrangements. Services are pending.