“You’re doing what?” my incredulous sister-in-law exclaimed when I told her I was going to fly in a North American T-6 Texan. “Is this part of a crazy bucket list?”
“Not really. It just sounds like fun,” I responded but I soon learned that flying in one of the most iconic aircrafts in U.S. military history is the bucket list item I never knew I had.
The Golden Age of aviation is alive and well at the Heber Valley Airport, thanks to the Utah Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Museum, dedicated to the restoration, preservation and demonstration of the magnificent aircraft that dominated the skies during World War II. The museum offers the public the rare privilege of flying WWII trainers — a PT Stearman bi-plane and a North American T-6 — in gritty, gutsy or leisurely adventures, depending upon your comfort level.
With D-Day’s 75th anniversary this summer, there is no better time than now to experience history above one of the nation’s finest backdrops.
Life at Altitude
The T-6 MMMRRROARED to life, the 600-horsepower radial engine both deafened and pierced at the same time. We powered down the runway in the “Midnight Express,” the blast of cold winter air forgotten by my adrenaline rush. When we reached altitude, there was only light, space and freedom as I traced the unbroken spine of the Uinta Mountains.
I had envisioned all of it but what I did not anticipate was how challenging it would be to get in. For the vertically-challenged, it involves climbing on the wing, channeling Elastigirl as you stretch your leg to the foothold on the side of the plane, eventually giving up and accepting your pilot’s help into the cramped cockpit.
But if anyone could get me in that T-6 and up in flight, it was CAF volunteer David Gorrell whose elite 50-year flying pedigree includes eight years in the military and 30 years in commercial aviation.
He patiently walked me through everything. Strap on the parachute’s complex buckles. Check. Put on seat belt and five-point harness. Check. Curse the bulky (yet cute) jacket I wore because the aforementioned steps took triple the time. Check.
I listened with razor-sharp focus when he taught me what to do in case of an emergency: undo the seatbelt, climb on the edge of the plane, jump and activate the parachute by pulling the metal handle.
Except he kind of lost me at the “climb on the edge of the plane part,” and, knowing how much it took to get into the plane, a premature exit was not part of my survival strategy.
Fortunately, safety was the least of my worries with David and after his thorough briefing, I was left to enjoy what he does best: sharing his passion of flying with others.
He eased me into our adventure with a smooth take-off and then the fun began with a wingover where he raised the nose of the plane to a 90-degree angle of bank and reversed the direction 180 degrees. After retrieving my voice from my stomach, I squawked with delight at my literal bird’s eye view of Memorial Hill with the American flag waving from its summit.
I wore a headset with a voice-activated microphone to communicate with David, who customized my experience to my comfort level. While I did not prefer taking control of the plane, I loved the aerobatics. We pulled 2Gs, 3Gs and 4Gs, eventually topping out at 4.5Gs when David pulled the nose down before pulling up sharply. But the true show-stopper was the aileron roll where he raised the nose 10 degrees and rolled longitudinally, wrapping us in the warm embrace of the Heber Valley in all its 360-degree glory.
My flight in the T-6 was the adventure of a lifetime but more importantly, I gained an appreciation for what those brave young airmen accomplished during the biggest and deadliest war in history.
D-day Commemorative Events
The Utah Wing CAF Museum at the Heber City Airport will host events in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day – the main Allied invasion of continental Europe, which allowed the Allies to defeat Germany.
June 3 – 9
B-17 Bomber Event
Sentimental Journey, a historic B-17 bomber that played a major role in D-Day, will land at the Heber City Airport at noon and will be available for tours and rides.
Annual Swing Day Party
Dance your way into history with 1940s swing dance lessons and music by the Danny Newell Tribute Band. Period costumes are encouraged!
Annual Car Show
Vintage cars and aircraft will be on display. There will also be a 50s Swing Dance Party!
For additional information, visit cafutahwing.org.
Did You Know?
The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Museum was established in 2009 by four local Utah WWII veterans.
A few things you’ll find at the museum:
Restoration of a PT Stearman bi-plane in progress
Women in WWII display
The PT Stearman bi-plane and North American T-6
Memorabilia from WWII veterans
The museum is open to the public on weekends May through October.