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Montana family's legacy lives through model airplane collection

GIF model plane collection
Posted at 11:30 AM, Jan 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-16 13:30:07-05

GREAT FALLS - The Poletto Collection is the largest model aircraft and airliner collection in the world.

“There are 885 aircraft in the collection total,” said Benjamin Donnelly, the stepson of the creator and a Professor of History at the University of Providence.

Bary Polletto began the collection in the late 1970s, first put on display at the Great Falls International Airport.

It was then the collection grew, and a hobby became an overwhelming and unfathomable number of aircraft for one many.

With 885 total planes, there are 97 types of aircraft from 190 nations around the globe — some of which are not countries anymore.

GIF Model Plane Collection

Poletto worked for Pan American Airlines as a loadmaster in the 60’s creating a spark for a cabin in the sky.

For Donnelly, his love began with his biological father.

“My dad was in the Air Force, so I grew up around airplanes. So, my earliest memories are my dad taking me out to the to the tarmac out at Malmstrom. And there's he’s got a picture of me as a three-year-old hugging the landing gear, an F-4 Phantom fighter. And so, I've been around airplanes all my life today.”

As much as his love for planes began at a young age, Ben doesn’t call himself a model builder. He is a historian by trade and his vast knowledge of each aircraft in the collection is documented.

The collection grew and others donated to it, but time began to fade for his stepfather.

GIF model plane collection

Poletto built his final aircraft model in 2008 and five years later he passed away, leaving the collection to his stepson, Benjamin.

“It means a lot to me to be able to continue on their legacy of that. I mean, I may not be a model builder myself, but I can at least make sure that this is still here.”

Maintaining his stepfather’s collection may appear like a hobby, but it’s really an obsession – airplanes are an obsession.

That obsession is creating an opportunity for the public to visit the vast collection that was once Bary Poletto’s.

The History Museum recently hosted several model aircraft in the Ozark Club to share with the public and Donnelly was on hand to share knowledge about some of the most interesting and widely known models.

“It preserves history, not just so the history of airlines and airliners, but also provides kind of a touchstone for people who wouldn't have experienced this to see the different variations and so on of airliners that existed that came before the ones we have now.”

Facts about the Poletto Collection – As of January 2022
Opened: 1977 (Poletto began building in 1970)
Last Model Added: Still going!
Number of Models in the Collection: 885
Number of Airlines in the Collection: 454
Types of Airlines in the Collection: 97
Numbers of Nations in the Collection: 130
Most Numerous Airliner Type: Boeing 737 with 125 models. The second most is the 747 at 103.
Most Obscure Airline in the Collection: The Buttrey’s Foods Cessna 500 Citation. N416BF was based in Great Falls, and Buttrey’s presented a display model to Bary Poletto around 1979. It is on display.

Is it the Largest Model Collection in the World? It is the largest airline model collection in the word, as we know – there are larger military model collections. The collection at the Airplane Shop in Las Vegas, Nevada is larger (their collection is about 1,500-2,000), but as these are all diecast aircraft rather than kit models, the Airplane Shop does not consider their collection to be the largest.