There is something so wonderful and exhilarating about aviation that it compels people, especially at a young age, to want to fly. For some, the fascination seems to appear out of nowhere and grow over time. It's as if these pilots were bitten by an insect, which encouraged them to spread their wings and fly. At least, that's one pilot's theory.
“I have pictures of me when I was five or six years old, carrying planes. Where it came from, I don't know,” said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Prater, a former officer with the Guard's 137th Special Operations Wing. “I want to be around him [aviation] All the time. I ate with her.
Prater joined the U.S. Navy, but separated soon after — realizing he needed to pursue his passion for aviation. He enlisted in the 138th Fighter Wing, Oklahoma Air National Guard, then transferred to a USAF Reserve unit in Kansas as an A-10 crew chief, but he still felt like something was missing.
He wanted two things: to return to Oklahoma and fly. Prater obtained his pilot's license and began college at Oklahoma State University in their aviation program. As if there were invisible strings pulling him toward his destiny, he met a C-130 navigator with the then 137th Airlift Wing. He transferred to the unit as a C-130 flight engineer with the 185th Airlift Squadron in August 1990.
“The first exercise was: I found a home, and this is where I want to be.” “He was always home,” Prater expressed. “I've fed off this fellow, and I love this place.”
Prater rose through several positions in the Oklahoma Air National Guard and retired in July 2022 after 42 years of service, but most of his flying journey was driven by his civilian pursuits. Prater was a flight instructor at Oklahoma State University and became a commercial pilot for 25 years.
While looking for opportunities in aviation, he was introduced to the world of warbirds a little over two decades ago. Finding civilian pilots flying vintage military aircraft gave him a community of pilots with the goal of inspiring future generations by keeping aviation history alive. Prater had the opportunity to fly and display World War II aircraft such as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, B-24 Liberator and T-6G Texans, which led him to purchase his own T-6G Texan.
“It was just a matter of finding one in really good condition, and it kind of worked out when this one came up,” Prater explained.
The 1949 vintage plane, once owned by the US Air Force to train P-51 Mustang pilots, made its way into the private sector in the late 1970s.
“Take-off and landing in these things is probably the hardest part of flying them, and in World War II, they called them a 'pilot builder.' If you can handle that plane, it'll be easier to fly a P-51.” [Mustang]p. 47 [Thunderbolt] Or P-40 [Warhawk]“You have to be flying the thing every second,” Prater shared.
Prater painted the plane silver to honor his time in the 137th century. By helping future pilots understand the past and the evolution of aviation from the beginning, he hopes to develop a passion for aviation in them.
“I want to mentor the next group that comes up behind me and try to be that leadership example,” Prater said. “I just know the next person is going to say, ‘I want to do that,’ and step in right behind me, and I can say, ‘It’s all yours.’”
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