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Alaska aviation centennial gets special gift from long-time bush pilot

He's lived here since the territorial days and has forgotten more about flying than most will ever know. Meet Mike Hunt, a WWII veteran, old school Alaska bush pilot and donor of a special aircraft to commemorate Alaska's 100th anniversary of flight, on July 4. Dashelle Goff photo

Alaska’s Centennial of Flight celebration now includes a particularly special aircraft, a BT13B World War II training plane that was formally donated to the Commemorative Air Force Thursday by longtime Anchorage resident Howard "Mike" Hunt. The BT13B flew earlier this month in Kenai as part of aviation celebrations underway across Alaska all summer, culminating in Fairbanks on July 4. 

Hunt first came to Alaska during World War II as a pilot for the Air Transport Command, ferrying "Lend-Lease aircraft for the Russians," he said, and "flying just about everything into Ladd Field in Fairbanks." Hunt flew dozens of aircraft during the war, "everything but the P-38 and Connie [Lockheed Constellation],” he recalled. His favorite aircraft is the B17, which he commanded at Boeing Field even though he was just a 20-year-old with 80 hours of flight time.

"You think you’re indestructible when you’re 20," and with Hunt's success flying every plane the Army gave him, it's no wonder why. Hunt just kept on flying.

After the war, Hunt returned to Alaska where he “put four stakes in the ground in the Muldoon area and said 'this land is mine.'" He became manager for the short-lived Air Transport Associates (ATA), a veteran-owned airline that owned and operated military surplus C-46s providing nonscheduled service. Flying at the end of the free-wheeling bush pilot era, ATA lost its certificate in a conflict with their competition and the Civil Aeronautics Administration (predecessor to the FAA) over the regularity of its irregular schedule.

Hunt found his permanent place in the territory when he was offered a position as flight inspection pilot for navigational aids, working under Jack Jefford, an Alaska Aviation Museum hall of famer. Hunt flew the C47, C54, Convair 580, and Sabreliner for the CAA and FAA, working more than two decades in the skies over Alaska as the government modernized the old navaid system.

When retirement came, Hunt took up flying a helicopter.  “I had about 70 mining claims, and it takes a lot of work to hike up and down mountains. It’s a lot easier to land on them in a helicopter!”

The BT13B was a new challenge, an enormous investment of time and work over the last few years. Hunt and his partners “bought five truckloads of pieces and then built an aircraft out of it.” The parts, acquired from a collector, had a serial number but reassembling it took more than five years. Hunt traveled down to California about one month each year to join two full-time mechanics on the project. A couple of years ago, however, his partners decided to sell the aircraft. Hunt found himself in a bidding war against an Australian collector to buy them out.

“It wasn’t going to Australia,” he said. “It was staying here in America, where it was built, where the vets flew it and where it belongs.”

Hunt won. Plans were laid to donate the BT13B to the Commemmorative Air Force, where Hunt was a well-known patron, having donated the first-ever aircraft to the CAF -- Alaska's Wing of the force -- back in 2007. The AT-6 was also recently exhibited at the Alaska Aviation Museum. 

After more than seventy years of flying and 18,000-plus hours, Mike Hunt isn’t done yet. Since his first clandestine flights as an Iowa teen, he's been determined to stay up in the air. Even in his 90s, his dedication to Alaska aviation hasn't flagged. Barring any outstanding squawks, the BT13B will arrive in Fairbanks to mark a century of Last Frontier flight.

Hunt expects to be happily be on board. Hopefully all Alaska's aviators enjoy his aircraft and appreciate the generosity and vigor of a man who's been here longer than most, and whose legacy will live on for many years to come.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com