ANCHORAGE - At Lake Hood, with a north wind blowing just nippy enough to remind us what's coming, Howard "Mike" Hunt climbed into the cockpit of a blazing-yellow AT-6 Harvard warbird. Dressed in his old World War II pilot's uniform, which couldn't have fit him better had it been issued yesterday, the two looked like they were made for each other.
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Hunt is awfully fond of this airplane. He's flown it for 16 years.
But it's the end of an era for him and the old plane. And the beginning of a new one for the Alaska Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.
Hunt has donated his Harvard to the newly formed Alaska Wing of the CAF, which received its official charter a little more than a year ago. It's the Wing's first acquisition.
With maybe a dozen-and-a half members, the group still has a lot of room to grow. But its members are no less committed to the national mission of preserving vintage military planes. And not just for looking at, but for flying - at airshows, for instance.
It's not a cheap proposition keeping vintage planes in airworthy condition. Members of the CAF tend to think of it as an adoption. And like Hunt's old World War II uniform, the Harvard was a perfect fit for this group.
"They were rassling with what kind of plane they could get," Hunt said, "and headquarters was trying to push a C-46 on them. That was way too much airplane for this organization here. That's a big plane.
"I got the idea, well, why don't I donate the Harvard?"
This plane, an AT-6 Harvard Mk IV, has been good to him - unlike some of the others he has flown since he first soloed as a teenager in Iowa. Its engine never quit on him, leaving him in a 5,000 foot freefall before he could get it started again. No chicken hawk ever came crashing through the windshield with such force he thought he'd been shot.
And so on.
"Old Yaller" is the plane's name. It's painted right there on its nose.
"I love this plane," said Hunt, who's flown a whole alphabet soup of planes in his military and civilian aviation career - B-17s, C-46s, P-39s, DC-3s, C-123s. And that's just for starters.
But parting with it was the right thing to do.
Carol, Hunt's wife of more than 40 years, had a saying that he, too, believes: Better to give with a warm hand than a cold one.
"I'm 85 and I know I can't take it with me," Hunt said. "The Commemorative Air Force here, I figured with all the colonels they have, why, they'll take good care of it."
Carol was a pilot too. She earned her private license in 1951 and was one of the founding members of the Alaska chapter of the Ninety-Nines, International Organization of Women Pilots. He adored her and took to calling her "Queenie" because she treated him like a king.
She's the one who actually owned the Harvard.
"I just got to fly it," Hunt said.
She's "flying with the angels" now, as he put it. She's been gone two years. "I just ... a woman ... that ..."
This happens now and then, when he thinks about her. Words get stuck in his throat and he has to thump his chest to get them moving again.
Carol's name is still painted on the side of the plane. Hers on one side of the cockpit, his on the other. The CAF Alaska Wing plans to keep it that way.
The AT-6 Harvard Mk IV, the Canadian version of the North American AT-6, was a high performance, advanced trainer built for World War II pilots. The "Yellow Peril" it was called. Once trainees mastered the aerobatic and formation flying skills the Harvard demanded, they moved on to fighters and bombers.
The Harvard is a propeller-driven, tandem-seater, tail-dragger with a radial engine that makes a sound as distinctive among airplanes, Hunt says, as the sound of a Harley-Davidson among motorcycles.
The pilot-in-training would sit up front and the instructor, with his own set of controls, right behind.
Hunt's Harvard was built in 1952 and has a sexy past as part of the Goldilocks aerobatics team.
"This very plane," Hunt said. "I have a book which lists all the Harvards and it shows several pictures of this one performing ... in its youth, when it was on active duty with the Royal Canadian Air Force."
Besides Hunt, Lt. Col. Robert "Cricket" Renner is the only Alaska Wing pilot officially "checked off," as they say, to fly "Old Yaller." Renner is an F-15 pilot at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
"Flying an F15 is like driving a Ferrari," he said "Flying this Harvard is more like flying a 1960s Corvette."
Hunt handed over the Harvard last October, but it's taken this long to get the paperwork in order. The Hunts always kept it in California, along with other vintage planes they've owned, taking them to various air shows.
Carter Teeters, an instructor for Alaska Airlines and CAF member from Tacoma, Wash., volunteered to fly the plane up in late August.
"He did it on his own time off," said Alaska Wing maintenance officer Cliff Belleau. "I don't know about you but I have enough to do in the summer without helping somebody out a couple thousand miles away."
Teeters' flight went smoothly, he said. He flew the plane to Seattle, then took two days following the Alaska Highway. The weather "severe clear," as pilots say, with very little turbulence.
Hunt left a lasting impression with him, and not just because he still runs at 85 in all the local races, and has armloads of medals to show for it, some won against youngsters in the 70-plus age group. "I hope I'm still able to say the word 'airplane' at age 85," Teeters said. "Let alone get in one and fly it."
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