Strengthening Future Of Aviation By Honoring Its Past
by U.S. Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Erika Chapa
January 5, 2024
There is something so fascinating and exhilarating about aviation that compels people, especially from a young age, to want to fly. For some, the fascination seems to appear out of nowhere and grows over time. It is almost like these aviators were bitten by a bug, encouraging them to spread their wings and fly.
At least, that is one aviator’s theory.
July 1, 2023 - A T-6G Texan, a World War II-era trainer aircraft, is displayed at the Tinker Air Show at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma City. This aircraft is flown by Retired Col. Robert Prater, a former 137th Special Operations Wing Guardsman, who has been inspired to share Oklahoma ANG history with future generations. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Erika Chapa.)
“I have pictures showing me at 5 or 6 years old, and I’m carrying airplanes around. Where it came from, I don’t know,” Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Prater, a former 137th Special Operations Wing Guardsman, shared. “I want to be around it [aviation] all the time. I am ate up with it.”
Prater enlisted into the U.S. Navy, but separated shortly after – realizing he needed to follow his passion for aviation. He enlisted in the 138th Fighter Wing, Oklahoma Air National Guard, then transferred to a U.S. Air Force Reserves unit in Kansas as an A-10 crew chief, but still felt like something was missing.
He wanted two things ... to be back in Oklahoma and to fly.
Prater earned his private pilot license and started college at Oklahoma State University in their flight program. As if there were invisible strings pulling him towards his fate, he met a C-130 navigator with the then-137th Airlift Wing. He transferred to the unit as a flight engineer for C-130s with the 185th Airlift Squadron in August 1990.
“That first drill was like, ‘I’ve found a home, this is where I want to be.’ It just was always home” Prater expressed. “I fed on that comraderie, and I love this place.”
Prater progressed through several positions with the Oklahoma Air National Guard and retired in July 2022 after 42 years of service, but most of his aviation journey was propelled by his civilian endeavors. Prater was a flight instructor at Oklahoma State University and became a commercial airline pilot for 25 years.
As he sought opportunities in aviation, he was introduced to the world of warbirds just over two decades ago. Finding civilian aviators operating vintage military aircraft gave him a community of pilots with a goal of inspiring future generations by keeping aviation history alive. Prater got the opportunity to fly and showcase World War II-style aircraft such as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, B-24 Liberator, T-6G Texans, leading him to buying his very own T-6G Texan.
July 1, 2023 - Retired Col. Robert Prater (left), a former 137th Special Operations Wing Guardsman, shows air show attendees his T-6G Texan aircraft at the Tinker Air Show on July 1, 2023, at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma City. Prater has been flying World War II-style aircraft for over 20 years to share military history with future generations. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Erika Chapa.)
“It was just the matter of finding one that was in really good shape,” Prater elaborated, “It just kind of worked out when this one popped up.”
The vintage 1949 aircraft, once owned by the U.S. Air Force to train P-51 Mustang pilots, made its way into the private sector in the late 1970s.
“Take offs and landings in these things are probably the hardest part about flying it, and, in World War II, they actually called it the ‘pilot maker.’ If you could handle this airplane then it’d actually be easier to fly a P-51 [Mustang], P-47 [Thunderbolt] or P-40 [Warhawk],” Prater shared. “You’ve got to be flying the thing every second.”
Prater has painted the silver aircraft to pay tribute to his time in the 137th. By helping future aviators understand the past and progression of aviation from the beginning, he hopes to grow their passion for flying.
“I want to mentor that next group that will be coming in behind me and try to be that leadership example,” Prater said. “I just know that next person is going to say, ‘I want to do that,’ step right in behind me, and I can say, ‘It's all yours.’”
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