A rainbow appears out the left side of the plane as we cross over Oahu’s North Shore. It had been a bumpy, rocky flight up to this point, proof that this 1944 Warbird was certainly built for speed and not comfort. But it’s all part of the experience, and I’m beginning to enjoy myself. Beyond the rainbow, I can see from mauka (mountain) to makai (ocean) and all the greens, yellows, and blues that color the island.

Over the intercom, my pilot draws my attention to a point offshore. That’s the direction the Japanese flew in from, he tells me, and now we’re going to pick up their path and follow it back to Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, all my grade school history lessons begin to come alive in front of me.  

But when we turn, and the pilot tells me we’re on the path, something changes. My mind hesitates for the first time. Should I really be enjoying this?  

On December 7, 1941, about 18 years before Hawaii became a state, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor. The attack began at 7:55 a.m. and took only one hour and fifteen minutes. More than 2,400 people were killed, and 19 ships were damaged or destroyed.

Nearly half of the total casualties occurred on the USS Arizona, and in 1962, a memorial was set up over its resting place in the harbor. Today, the ship’s grave is one of the most visited sites on Oahu, drawing millions of visitors annually. It is without question the most popular way to learn more about what happened that fateful day and to pay homage to those killed.

I can see one such group of visitors look to the sky as we fly over for the first time. I’m not surprised. How could they miss this screaming red-and-yellow two-seater? Owned and operated by Paradise Helicopters, the plane is part of a tour called Pacific Warbirds, which simulates the flight path of a Japanese fighter on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. The Warbirds fly over the North Shore and down through the center of Oahu to Pearl Harbor, where they make several circles overhead to view the still-active military base, including the USS Arizona Memorial and Ford Island, from above.

Even without the history, it’s a thrilling ride. The scenery is a draw for sure, but so is the plane: Built just a few years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it’s a true open-top two-seater, and you sit directly behind the pilot à la Maverick and Goose. Plus, putting on the old flight suit, the parachute (yes, a real parachute), and the old-school leather flight helmet is fun for aviation geeks and casual fliers alike. For me, though, the best part of the flight wasn’t any of that; it was the emotion of the occasion. There are plenty of scenic flights to take in Hawaii—this is the one you take because it’s tightly tied to world history.

As my pilot does a final circle above Pearl Harbor, I can’t help but imagine that day 75 years ago. I look down at the USS Arizona Memorial and think about the 1,000-plus servicemen that are still trapped in its wreckage, and I shiver in the Hawaiian heat. I’m here precisely because of that terrible day, when someone operating a plane not so different from this one was setting eyes on the island for a reason entirely unrelated to its beauty. The pilot had to have seen these same green fields, rainbows, and waterfalls. I wonder, did he even notice?

Pacific Warbird’s Admiral’s Warbirds Adventure tour in Honolulu is 45 to 60 minutes long and starts from $1,195.

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