Flying High at 94: Fairbanks WWII Vet Pilots Fighter Plane He Didn’t Fly During the War
Paul Bowen photo. Fairbanks' Urban Rahoi sits behind John Posson inside a dual-control P-51 Mustang during a flight earlier this month, January 2013, with Stallion 51 at Kissimmee, Fla. Rahoi, 94, had never had the chance to pilot a Mustang while serving as an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II.
FAIRBANKS — At 94, Urban Rahoi is still flying airplanes, and he doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon.
Rahoi’s latest exploit is piloting a P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter plane he never had the chance to fly while serving as an Army Air Corps pilot during the war.
Never one to pass up an opportunity, Rahoi traveled to Stallion 51 Flight Operations in Kissimmee, Fla., earlier this month to pilot one of the aviation company’s modified P-51 Mustangs.
Co-piloting the fighter-bomber with Rahoi was John Posson, a former Wien Air Alaska pilot.
Rahoi learned about Stallion 51 and its vintage planes on a TV program a few months ago, and made an appointment to take up a P-51.
Originally a single seater, the fighter plane has been modified into a two-seater with dual controls.
“Urban did most of the flying,” Posson said. “I did the take-off, and he did the landing.”
Rahoi’s natural ability to maneuver the airplane didn’t surprise Posson, since the longtime Fairbanksan has more than 20,000 hours of flight time.
“He didn’t have any trouble at all,” Posson said. “With his bush flying experience, he’s used to adapting to different airplanes and environments.
“For his age, he’s quite fit, has good vision, and he’s ambulatory and can climb into the airplane.”
Rahoi enjoyed the hour-long flight.
“It felt like I was right at home,” he said. “The plane trimmed out well; I did some maneuvers and came back in. We flew in formation with another P-51 and landed on airstrips.”
Rahoi took to the air as a teenager. A close family friend gave him two hours of instruction and he soloed at age 15, even though it was illegal. He was licensed in 1935 at age 16.
He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 during the early days of the WWII, and initially was a flight instructor in Arkansas.
Later, Rahoi flew B-17 bombers out of Italy and Africa. He had five missions to his credit when a general pulled him out and made him a check pilot.
“From then on, I checked [flight] crews and hauled people to Egypt or places like that,” he said.
Rahoi grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the oldest of five children. After high school, he worked for the state’s department of highways, surveying bridges and building roads.
He met his future wife of 70 years, Vienna, one snowy winter night. She and a girlfriend were walking home in a blizzard after a Friday night movie, and he offered to give them a ride home.
A couple of weeks later, Vienna turned up at Rahoi’s favorite watering hole and inquired, “Do you remember me?”
He did, and they were married eight months later on Rahoi’s 21st birthday.
Vienna’s father gave their marriage six months, figuring his daughter, an only child, would pull out.
It never happened. Vienna settled in after a few months, Rahoi said, and they were never separated for more than a few days during the following seven decades.
Vienna died in Urban’s arms three days short of their 70th wedding anniversary on Jan. 3, 2010.
“We never had a fight,” he said. “We had a wonderful life.”
Following WWII, and with a commercial license in hand, Rahoi traveled to Fairbanks in 1947 in his Piper Super Cruiser.
The day after his arrival, he started flying people to Chandalar Lake, about 180 miles north of Fairbanks near the Brooks Range.
“Every time I flew, I would take a different way back to learn the country. I knew all the dog team trails and cabins,” he said, explaining that in case of an emergency, knowing where there was food, shelter and help meant survival.
Within a short time, Vienna joined him.
“We both have loved Alaska. She loved it from the beginning even though it was rough and challenging,” Rahoi said.
Together they raised three children here.
When Rahoi wasn’t flying for various air services, he was big game guiding near the Canadian border in what is now Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
In addition to building Ptarmigan Lake Lodge, near the Alaska-Canada border, beginning in 1951 the Rahois were business partners in developing Lakeview Terrace in Fairbanks.
Rahoi sold Lakeview after Vienna’s death, but continues to fly supplies to the lodge in his Cessna 182.
“My doctor asked me recently when I was going to quit flying,” Rahoi said.
“I told him, when I can’t lift those oil barrels into the airplane anymore, then I’ll quit.”
(The 15 gallon barrels weigh 135 pounds each.)
Rahoi has outlived most of his contemporaries, but younger relatives and children of his friends know him well from legend and interaction with him.
“He’s always feisty and full of energy,” said Leif Wilson, 40-Mile Air director of operations in Tok. “He’s always got a project or a plan he is working on or doing.
“He’s always giving us good advice, especially because we’re pilots, and he’s been flying in this country for a long time, too.”
Wilson, like many others, has a great deal of respect for how Rahoi deals with people and problems.
“I’ve never heard Urban say anything negative. He always has a positive attitude, even if he doesn’t like something, then he’s trying to change it,” Wilson said.
His longtime friend and employee, Mike Dolan, agrees.
“I’ve seen people who have done less than admirable things to him, and he’s turned around and given them another chance.
“He’s probably the most no-nonsense man I’ve ever met. He is a man of his word and if he tells you he will do it, he will,” Dolan said.
Rahoi’s work ethic also is legendary.
“He’s a guy who just works all the time,” Wilson said. “If something needs to done, he just does it.”
“He doesn’t believe in ‘can’t’ -- that’s a cop-out,” Wilson said. “He believes there is always a way to get something done.”
As Rahoi’s passenger on many flights across the years, Wilson describes Rahoi’s flying prowess as, “He’s like part of the plane. He has a gift and he doesn’t make a big deal of it.”
Wilson said Rahoi has flown many air evacuations and rescues and has never taken credit for them.
“It’s always summed up as ‘An unnamed pilot…’” Wilson said.
Rahoi’s nephew, Jonathan Ewig, also a pilot, began visiting his Uncle Urban as a teenager, spending summers in Alaska and working for him.
Ewig credits Rahoi for making his life and the lives of his relatives interesting and exciting.
“He was always cooking up something. He always had ideas he needed help with.”
Ewig shared many adventures and trips with his uncle across the years.
“He still seems ageless in his ideas and energy,” Ewig said. “He is always planning for Fairbanks — where the roads go, and highways, where there should be power and dams. Sometimes he’ll drag out drawings that he did 40 or 50 years ago.”
Rahoi was a member of the first Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly from 1964-1966, and put his name on the ballot a half dozen more times in the years since.
During his lifetime in Alaska he has been an outspoken booster of the Susitna Dam project, and various railroad and highway projects.
In the 1950s, he and Robert Mitchell built the railroad track between Fairbanks International Airport and Fort Wainwright, financing the endeavor themselves.
Ewig said his uncle has a drive that is different from most people.
“He looks way ahead. He kind of lives in the future too. He was on the original committee to build the Susitna Dam.
“He’s lived a colorful life. He’s had a great life and done a lot of things that others said couldn’t be done.
“He’s had both knees replaced. We thought that would slow him down, but it didn’t take him but a day to recover. Now they’re worried he’s going to wear them out,” Ewig said.
Rahoi continues to seize each day as it comes and work to make his dreams come true, aviation and otherwise.
Flying the P-51 Mustang wasn’t at the bottom of Rahoi’s bucket list. He has a lead on a B-17 that may be available to fly in May in Anchorage.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's Mary Beth Smetzer can be reached at 907-459-7546.