WWII trainer, icon of flight, marks 75 years in sky
North American T-6 Texans fly over Culpeper, Virginia, October 9, 2013, as members of the North American Trainer Association practice formation flying
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the North American T-6 Texan, the muscular tandem-seat warbird in which countless pilots in dozens of countries honed their flying skills.
On Friday, some 30 Texans will set off from Culpeper, 60 miles (100 kilometers) outside Washington, and fly up the Potomac River, over the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, to mark a unique aeronautical milestone.
"There's a lot of history in this airplane. It trained so many air forces in the world," said Len "Stoney" Stonich of the North American Trainer Association, which represents owners, pilots and fans of the estimated 1,000 civilian-owned Texans around the world.
"They called it 'the pilot-maker' because if you can fly the T-6, you can be up in any World War II fighter and be confident you can fly the airplane," he told AFP.
Known as the SNJ in its US Navy version, and the Harvard in Canada's air force, the Texan distinguished itself with its agile handling and aerobatic qualities as it prepared fighter pilots for combat in Europe and Asia.
It remained in US military service through the Korean War in 1950-53 and into the Vietnam era -- and kept flying for many other air forces for even longer, until South Africa retired its fleet in 1995.
In its day, the Texan represented the cutting edge of aviation technology, a mere 35 years after the Wright brothers' first flight on a North Carolina beach.
More than 20,000 were built, most of them in Texas -- hence the name -- of which more than 500 have been restored to flying condition in the United States.
With its 600 horsepower Pratt and Whitney radial engine, the Texan can fly 200 miles per hour as its pilots enjoy a commanding view of the skies above and the ground below from within a sliding glass canopy.
Given how many were built, it remains the most popular of all World War II aircraft that turn heads at summer airshows all over North America, including the Culpeper Airfest this weekend that will attract 70 vintage aircraft and a estimated crowd of 10,000.
It's also starred in the movies, playing the role of Japan's Mitsubishi Zero fighter "Tora! Tora! Tora!" -- a 1970 dramatization of 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the United States into the war.
Today, a mint-condition Texan can change hands for about $150,000, according to the aviation classified paper Trade-a-Plane.
That's about half the price of a new Ferrari FF sports car -- but seeing how it burns 30 gallons of aviation fuel an hour, at $6 a gallon, operating costs add up.
"It's a millionaire's game," said retired airline pilot Andy Michalak, who owned a Texan when gas was cheaper and who still flies warbirds of all kinds for the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"It's guaranteed to make you broke and happy," added Mike Ginter, the coordinator of Friday's fly-by over Arlington, who got his Texan a year to the day he retired as a US Navy pilot.
Commercial pilot Dan Gleason enjoys the next best thing to owning a Texan -- flying the one that his employer owns, an experience he describes as deeply emotional and compelling, leavened with a powerful sense of history.
"My dad trained in one in World War II, so being able, what, 60 or 70 years later, to be flying the same plane ... it's just a fun connection, a little hard to describe," he said.
"It's a unique privilege for any aviator."
In lieu of a Texan, Mike Dale, founder of the Culpeper Airfest, went back to his native England to find the remains of a Percival Provost -- the same trainer in which he soloed as a Royal Air Force cadet as a teenager.
"It was just a wreck. It had not flown in decades. There isn't a single rivet, a single nut and bolt, in that airplane that wasn't a part of the rebuilding," he said, looking out at his pride and joy -- one of only four still flying in the world, and the only one in America.
While he sees lots of youngsters at Airfest every year, Dale -- who at 78 is building a replica of a World War II Nieuport 28 biplane -- mourns how aviation has lost the sense of adventure that made it so alluring in his youth.
"The interest in aviation is simply not there the way it was 50 years ago, when aviation was big technology," he said.
North American Trainer Association (NATA)