Flying back toward bygone days
It was loud.
The engine churned and roared, and as we took off down the runaway at Merrill Field last Wednesday, the small WW II T-6 trainer plane shook as if with effort.
But the takeoff was surprisingly smooth, and as I sat smugly fastened within the strangest seatbeat buckle I’d ever seen, in my regulation army green seat, with a control panel in front of my face, it felt as if I were soaring atop a giant bird.
The T-6 trainer ride was part of a media event to promote the upcoming Arctic Thunder Open House July 26-27 at JBER.
The two-seater T-6 was originally used to train pilots. According to Chuck Miller, a pilot who flies out of Merrill Field and a member of the Alaska Air Show Association, the T-6 was more of an “observer” plane.
“It wasn’t fitted out with any type of war-related gear,” he said. “It wasn’t a real fast plane.”
Still, as we glided past lush, green mountains on our way toward Eagle River, it felt fast enough. As we flew, foot pedals that controlled the rudder moved back and forth and the pilot’s intercom crackled in my ears over my headphones but I couldn’t hear a word and I preferred it that way, lost in that airspace of blue sky and green mountains and the thin curving strand of Eagle River parting the landscape.
According to Miller, whom I spoke with before the ride, WW II planes are popular among history and aviation buffs.
“There was a phenomenal transition in technology,” he said. “It was such a leap forward.”
That’s when planes became faster, he explained. WW I may have been the dawn of aviation but the planes were still primitive.
“I think the WW II (planes) are aesthetically pleasing. Look at them,” he said, pointing over to the bright yellow Harvard (AT-6) training aircraft parked by the hangar and gleaming in the sunlight. “They’re beautiful.”
Plus, he said, these are the stories that we heard growing up, stories about WW II battles and experiences, stories told to us by parents and grandparents.
“There’s something almost romantic about WW II,” he said.
Liz Chapman, board member of the Alaska Air Show Association, agreed. Being up in the air, in an old aircraft (and these are decades old, she pointed out), is almost indescribable.
“If you had a car that was this old it wouldn’t be drivable,” she said with a laugh.
Riding in the T-6, I forgot how old it was, that it belonged to a war fought almost 70 years ago. We soared and glided, climbing higher as we approached the mountains, and as I peered down over the town of Eagle River, everything looked so compact and perfect that it was impossible to believe that this plane had once trained pilots for war. It felt so ageless, flying, and so timeless. I could have stepped down after landing and found myself in another era, another country.
But after we returned to Merrill Field and I climbed down the wing (the T-6 doesn’t have any steps, you must climb up the wing and hoist yourself up inside a narrow opening), I saw the Chugach Range in the background, smelled the assault of hamburgers from the Wendy’s across the street and I knew I was back where I belonged, where I was supposed to be, still firmly caught in the present.
The Arctic Thunder Open House takes place 9am-4pm July 26-27 at JBER. The event features aerial demonstrations, music and more. The event is free, and both the Boniface and Richardson gates will be open. View the schedule at www.jber.af.mil/arcticthunder.