Urban Rahoi was back in a B-17 Friday, and while he would have much preferred to be at the controls of the Flying Fortress above the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the veteran Fairbanks flier settled for a place as a passenger in the "Arsenal of Democracy" tour marking the anniversary of the end of fighting in Europe during World War II.
"It was a good ride, and I had a Secret Service guy in front of me," Rahoi, 96, said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "They don't trust anyone back here."
Rahoi flew in one of dozens of vintage planes from World War II that cruised over the Potomac River and near the major monuments in an aerial armada that marked the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe and the surrender of Nazi Germany. Thousands of people gathered below, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, to witness the low-altitude procession.
Rahoi, a pilot since 1934, flew B-17s in Africa and Italy during World War II, serving with the 15th Air Force, 463rd Bomb Group. Rahoi had more than 1,500 hours in the four-engine plane. He said he could have flown the B-17 Friday over Washington, but the airspace restrictions and the bureaucracy of the nation's capital landed him in a back seat.
Rahoi began a long career in Bush flying after a 1947 trip to Alaska in a Piper Super Cruiser. In Alaska, he became a big-game guide in 1950 and has operated a lodge, worked for airline companies, flown charters and built a trailer park. He still flies to his lodge near the Canadian border.
He said he thinks of the B-17 as a "four-engine Super Cub" and got the chance in 2013, when he was 94, to fly one again outside Detroit. "It was one helluva experience," he told a reporter two years ago about his flight in the Yankee Lady, a restored Flying Fortress.
Rahoi told an Associated Press reporter this week that the words "impossible" and "can't" are missing from his dictionary. He has also said that "no" is a word he seldom uses. "I get mad at people that are defeatists," he told a Fairbanks audience a few years ago. "The big failure in our lives today is that word 'no.' "
While the voters said "no" to him several times when he ran for a seat in the Alaska Legislature, he said he managed to inject common sense into some political debates. For decades, he has been among the most outspoken people in Fairbanks, bordering on cantankerous when the need arises. He served on the first Borough Assembly in Fairbanks, and his most prominent public involvement has been as an outspoken advocate for enterprises like the proposed Susitna hydro project.
In 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration honored him with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, saying, "He has used his skill as an aviator to train airmen, fight a war and maintain the safety standard in commercial aviation. He has rescued people in trouble and supplied people in the Bush with the necessities of life."
Rahoi grew up in Iron City, Michigan, and married his wife, Vienna, in 1940. She died in 2010, and Rahoi says during their 70 years together they never had a fight.
His standard answer for those who ask when he plans to quit flying is when he can no longer lift a 15-gallon oil barrel into a plane.