A young military airplane craftsman makes his mark.
- By Bettina Haymann Chavanne
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
(Page 2 of 3)
A & S: Did you learn anything particularly interesting about the P-40K during the restoration process?
Hokuf: This was the first World War II-era aircraft I worked on. I think the thing that struck me at first, and probably always will, is the effort that was put into building these airplanes. Just the manufacturing part of it. Rosie the Riveter. You can imagine…people just basically off the street were brought in to work at an airplane plant. They were putting things together they had no idea about…I’ve heard stories like, “I built the trim tab on the elevator for the [Lockheed] P-38 [Lightning] and I never saw what the [completed] airplane looked like.” They just had one very specific job. It was a phenomenal effort that was poured into [the manufacturing process]. World War II was about five years long. Five years today, for us working on these airplanes, feels like it goes by in a flash. To think that they designed, put into production, and then built 10,000 of them in that amount of time is really just amazing. And then they learned how to fly and operate them.
I have six people working for me now, so I think about the organization of all that as well. You have to get people to know and understand what they’re doing. You’re teaching and keeping them busy on projects. You think back to those days when they taught hundreds of thousands of people to build planes.
Looking through original drawings here, we see, for example, a pilot’s seat with such-and-such office furniture company printed on it. Everything, everyone, was for the war effort. Today is so different. Society is so independent. With today’s society, I don’t know if we could do what we did back then.
A & S: Are there any other warbirds you’re interested in restoring in the future?
Hokuf: After working on the P-51 and being part of that project (Ron is having another shop restore it and I’m managing the process), and now with the P-38…those are neat planes. I would love to restore a [Republic] P-47 [Thunderbolt]. The list goes on. Every airplane is interesting. For me, warbirds are awesome, but I like every part of aviation. It’s still fun to help someone fly an ultralight. I own a [Aeronca] Champ myself.
A & S: Are you now the P-40 specialist? How many other P-40s do you think are out there to restore, and would you be able to undertake a rescue and restoration operation by yourself? Would you partner with a team or particular person?
Hokuf: I’d say I’m known as a P-40 specialist. That’s kind of what we want and what we try to do. We’re still learning. I can’t say we’re the first to do this, but maybe the first on such a large scale.
Our whole business plan is to own the projects outright. So what we’ll do is take a project, build and restore it here, and then put it up for sale when it’s ready to fly. Most shops take on a restoration, do a few different airplanes at a time, and not really specialize. And then they’ll bill the aircraft owner for the work they do. But it’s a two- to five-year process, and when you’re billing someone about $30,000 per month for five years, that’s a challenge. It’s hard on the owner, and sometimes halfway through they’ll say they’re burnt out and lost interest, so the project will end up getting sold. Projects like that tend to end up on the back burner. That’s not good for the shop and it’s not good for warbirds on the whole. They’re just not getting restored like they should be. The other issue is that sometimes an owner will arrive and try to tell the shop how to perform the restoration. And there are very few guys who know exactly how a plane should be built. They think they do, but they really don’t.
I kept the originality of the airplane and I do it correctly. I think that’s actually going to help the sale, because if you build a plane that’s totally stock, you generate hype and that adds to the value. We hope to have a plane ready to sell and then have several people interested in buying it. We’re also producing parts as well as selling airplanes. We do it production style. If there’s one part that we need and I’ve already had a few other guys ask for that part, we’ll make ten of them. Once you build the tooling and do the research, that’s where the time investment is. If you can make one correctly, the rest are pretty much free. That spreads out the cost. That’s making parts cheaper for us and for other people. And when you produce the part exactly the way the factory did originally, you have the original part. That’s what makes it a good restoration.
I tell the guys it’s kind of like a big puzzle. You could [use other parts], but that’s like taking a puzzle and jamming the wrong piece in to make it fit. You start building other puzzle pieces off the wrong one and that’s when your problems multiply. It’s easier, and some will disagree with me, to reproduce and make the part exactly the way it originally was rather than try to come up with a modern part. That’s where the arguments come in—is it really an original plane if you drill all the rivets out and re-make the parts? I think it’s fun to do things like put original stamping and marking on parts and to match paints.
That’s something we’re losing—there’s a place for flying airplanes and a place for airplanes in museums. People that argue those two sides of the coin—we’re trying to do a good job of documenting when we take something apart, and if there’s an original decal, we take photos and catalog it before we clean up the part. We try to preserve it. That’s where those original things are lost. Unfortunately, many of the planes restored since 10 years ago to just before the war, the original details weren’t very important. For us it’s exciting to find the original parts and uncover the mysteries.