‘Pilot Makers’ roost here

'Pilot Makers' roost here Donald Boggs of Sioux City, IA, sitting in front, taxis to the terminal at Harold Davidson Field in Vermillion after completing a memorable flight aboard a World War II vintage AT-6 Texan airplane. By David Lias Donald Boggs of Sioux City, IA, is quite familiar with the design of the AT-6 Texan, a plane built in the 1940s to prepare American pilots for war.

He had never flown in one, however. He has built models of the aircraft, and flown them by remote control.

�This will be my first time flying in a real plane like this,� he said. �I�m excited about going up.�

On Friday, like a kid in a candy shop, he climbed into the front cockpit of the two-seated plane after it taxied to the terminal at Vermillion�s Harold Davidson Field.

After Boggs donned a parachute and was strapped in, the pilot in the rear cockpit gunned the engine. With a loud, distinctive roar rarely heard in modern aviation, the plane gained speed on one of the airport�s runways, and was quickly airborne.

Two AT-6 Texan airplanes, owned and operated by North American TopGun, Inc. of St. Augustine, FL, landed at the Vermillion airport Friday.

The planes and their owners offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those who choose to � for a fee � take a ride.

Once the plane is at a safe altitude, the passengers are offered an opportunity to briefly take over the controls and experience the joy of flying.

The two planes are similar in design, but one is painted a bright yellow; the second is a dark blue with a light belly.

They offer thrills to people across the country today. But first, they helped insure this nation�s freedom.

Thousands of young men from all parts of the country were strapped into this version of airplane and taught not only to fly, but to engage a menacing enemy air force in Europe and in the Pacific during World War II.

As Tony Palesotti, one of the plane�s pilots, so aptly put it: �We took kids during WWII and stuck them in these planes. Then we put them in a P-51 and sent them off to war.�

North American TopGun�s yellow plane was made by North American Aviation. �It�s the same company that made the P-51 Mustang,� said Justin Palesotti, a member of American TopGun�s crew. �They were advanced trainers beginning during World War II, and were used as trainers during the war, and during the 1940s, �50s and early �60s.�

The blue plane is a Navy version of the AT-6 Texan.

�It�s the exact same airplane,� he said. �The only difference is a couple of minor things like the landing gear operation, and they used tail hooks on the Navy version for landing on aircraft carriers.�

North American TopGun has been in business for 13 years. It purchased the nostalgic planes from a private owner in Florida.

�There were a little over 100,000 of these kinds of planes built,� Palesotti said. �There are about 400 left in the United States.�

The planes are equipped with 13,040 cubic inch Pratt & Whitney, 600 horsepower radial engines.

�The round engines have nine cylinders, and these airplanes weigh about 5,000 pounds,� he said. �They�re relatively light for their size, because their structure is supported by the skin of the aircraft.�

The planes have a cruising speed of about 180 miles per hour.

�These aircraft were dubbed ?the pilot maker� because every pilot that trained to fly in the Mustangs and the Corsairs and such going into World War II flew in one of these aircraft,� Palesotti said. �They started out in a basic trainer like a Stearman or a Cub, and they would move from that to the Texan.

�In the Texan they would learn advanced fighting techniques, they would learn complex aircraft landing gear operations � a little bit of everything,� he said.

North American TopGun, Inc. presently is touring the nation with its historic planes. Two planes, with two pilots and a crew, are touring the East Coast, and the two aircraft that spent last weekend in Vermillion are part of the company�s Central Tour.

�Both tours are on the road for about nine months out of the year,� Palesotti said.

During the winter months, the planes stay in Florida.

Friday afternoon, the planes� powerful engines worked extra hard in the light, super-heated air, as temperatures neared 100 degrees in Vermillion.

Boggs� ride ended after 30 minutes. His plane taxied to the terminal, stopped and a crew member helped free him from the cockpit.

He stepped out onto the wing, and raised both arms in joy.

�That was an awesome ride,� he said. �I have a remote control model of this plane, and I now I know what it�s like to actually fly one.�

Boggs, worrying about an old neck injury, wasn�t planning to take part in any aerobatics during his flight.

His evidently changed his mind while airborne.

�We did loops and we did a barrel roll,� he said. �Best of all, I got to take the controls and fly the airplane.�

Tony Palesotti sought refuge in the air-conditioned terminal Friday afternoon while his plane was being fueled.

�I started flying part-time for these guys this year,� he said. �They trained me how to fly these. Most of my experience has been in flight training, but not with this model of plane.�

He only needs one word to describe the yellow AT-6 Texan he was flying Friday.

�Awesome,� he said. �It�s stable, rugged and easy on the controls.�

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