Warbirds Nest in Anchorage

Alaska has quite a number of warbirds that still earn their keep carrying freight and passengers. If you spend a few days around Alaskan airports, you’ll hear and see retired military transports such as Douglas C-118 Liftmasters (DC-6), C-47/R4D/C-117 Skytrains (DC-3), DHC U-6/L-20 Beavers, and even the odd Curtiss C-46 Commando. Imagine my surprise though when I drove by the ramp at Anchorage’s Merrill Field and spied a few trainers and even a fighter in the distance.

Honestly, the first airplane that caught my attention wasn’t a warbird at all, but a bright orange, rather ungainly-looking monoplane – Alaska Air Museum’s American Airplane and Engine Pilgrim 100B, still wearing its original NC709Y registration. After hastily (and carefully, I might add…) reversing course, I pulled into a parking lot and there sat a number of warbirds near the Pilgrim; a pair of silver T-6s, a yellow Harvard, and – wait – was that a Zero replica? Looking closer, I was amazed to gaze upon an actual Mitsubishi Zero. As I walked up to the chain link fence, a pilot driving through an exit gate mentioned that I could probably get on the ramp for photos if I asked someone inside the adjacent hangar. And so I did, and the door opened for me to the Wings of Freedom Alaska Flying Museum.

The museum is a collection of flyable warbirds, housed in a state rich in aviation history. The pair of North American AT-6/AT-6D trainers, along with a Canadian Car and Foundry Harvard Mk. IV are familiar sights further south, but very few call Alaska home. The Zero, an A6M-3 version, is complete with folding wingtips. FAA records show it was built in 1942, but is retrofitted with a Pratt and Whitney R-1830 radial engine, a common practice with the handful of restored/replica Zeros still flyable. Early in World War II, it was a downed Zero recovered from an Alaskan Island that solved many mysteries about the Japanese fighter. Having an example in Alaska makes a historic full circle. One more surprise tucked away in a hangar (while a wheel was being repaired) was a Consolidated Vultee L-13A observation plane, built just after the end of World War II.

With emphasis on airworthy aircraft, this Museum is definitely on the map of interesting aviation sites to see while visiting Alaska. Rides for sale in the rear seat of the T-6s are a draw for locals and tourists alike. The flying museum has taken the opportunity to show off their aircraft at various airport open houses, including the big Arctic Thunder air show at nearby Elmendorf AFB. With an abundance of radial engine activity in Alaska, the Wings of Freedom Alaska Flying Museum stands out as a collection of airworthy veterans that operates for their historic value, not just for their payload.

Ken Kula

Footnote: The Pilgrim is one of just three airframes that still exist in the U.S.. The Army Air Corps ordered four Y1C-24 versions of the -100B before World War II, but NC709Y is a civilian rebuild of an earlier -100A airframe.

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