“To see the whole town down there was something that I will never forget. Waving flags, the line of people at the hospital, hotels, businesses and to see all those flags waving while we pulled up hard and up into the clouds… I’m speechless. Truly an honor and I might not know who passed away, but they were with me, trust me! Love you, Shelby!”
This was the Facebook post made by Helena’s Kevin Danz, iFlyBigSky, after his five-lap tribute flight over Shelby on the afternoon of April 21. Prior to his arrival, the American Legion carefully placed 29 flags, six feet apart, across the courthouse lawn and five large flags at the base of the courthouse stairs. The 29 representing the current number of COVID-19 cases found in Toole County and the five in remembrance and honor of those who have died from the virus. Since than one more has died.
Many from the community ventured outside to witness the event, some standing on rooftops and others from their front porch. No matter where they stood or the distance in between, it was in unity and for the first time in weeks the old feeling of “community” was felt.
“The honor flight by iFlyBigSky was an unforgettable moment for Toole County in this midst of the COVID-19 situation,” said Tressa Tokerud-Keller, Marias Medical Center. “It granted us time to unite under blue skies as a community as well as an opportunity to remember those who we've lost, have hope for those who are still fighting, and express gratitude for those who have recovered. We are thankful to our community and all who continue to support us during this time.”
Danz reached out to Shelby on April 18, via Facebook, sharing his desire to do a tribute flight and it was met with almost an immediate response of “yes, please!”
“I grew up in Bigfork and I know small towns,” said Danz. “Knowing Shelby had lost five people, and now six, that really bothered me. I knew it would be inspirational to me if someone did a flight tribute so that’s what I decided to do.”
Aviation has been inspirational in Danz life since he was seven-years-old. By age 16 he had a pilot’s license and his wife affectionately refers to him as “a nerd with wings.” He created the first air race in Montana, Big Sky Air Race, and his drone business iFlyBigSky is in its fifth year of operation.
His tribute flight last Tuesday was not his first flight over Shelby. It was the first physical flight, but Danz performed the flight virtually, thanks to Google, and in his mind many times before actually taking to the air.
“I memorized the town and flew it virtually a few times first,” said Danz. “It was really windy, but I have an awesome plane and it was fun. To see so many people outside watching, it was amazing.”
Making videos and putting them to music is one of his many talents, one he plans on putting to use for Shelby. Danz is planning to return to Shelby, this time by car and with his drones, in hopes of doing a social distancing meet and greet. While here he will be shooting video of the area to use to create a video promoting Shelby that he will be giving to the Chamber of Commerce and the community to use if they so choose.
“The whole meaning behind this for me was to create a morale booster, to give some hope,” said Danz. “I’ve received over 2,000 messages since the flight, thanking me. I know how close small communities are, I love Montana and the people here and think we need to get back to the basics, family, friends and faith.”
Danz’s tribute flight brought smiles and a good feeling to the community. It was a light–a source of good energy–for a community that desperately needed it. And he will be back, to help yet again.
“I’ve seen and done a lot,” concluded Danz. “But that is one day that will stay with my heart forever. It meant a lot to me. I didn’t know the five that had passed, but I truly felt they were with me. We are in this together, we are a family.”