Sticks for Hire
"Uh oh. Why is this piston rod left over?" Meet the pilots who are gutsy enough to fly freshly restored airplanes.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, July 2003
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One of the most expensive jobs Jackson ever took was test flying one man’s self-designed homebuilt. Though flight software indicated the never-flown airplane would be stable, Jackson still felt he was taking quite a risk. It turned out, though, the airplane presented no problems, and it “flew just as advertised,” says Jackson. For about three hours of flying, which took place over a period of months, Jackson earned $12,000.
The economics of restoring vintage airplanes makes owners seek only the most trustworthy test pilots. World War II-era P-51 Mustangs in good condition will fetch upward of $1.5 million, and they are expensive to maintain. Engines can give out after only 500 hours, and rebuilding one can consume more than $150,000. The engines are also fuel-ravenous: A Mustang in high-speed cruise can gulp up to 90 gallons of $3-a-gallon piston avgas per hour. Annual insurance can run to four percent of the aircraft’s value, and racing insurance can cost $100,000 for only 10 days of coverage.
John Mohr has tested about 30 one-of-a-kind aircraft, like a 1938 Cunningham-Hall and a 1936 Stinson Model A Tri-Motor. Though he relishes flying them, he warns that they can be a handful. “You can get yourself in a box in these airplanes if you are not careful,” he says. “They don’t fly well at all. The rudders are stiff. The elevators are mushy. The ailerons are heavy. The brakes are poor, and the braking systems are all different. You need to be pretty savvy on the brakes.” Consequently, Mohr still approaches each test flight carefully, doing extensive ground run-ups and taking other precautions. Nevertheless, “a lot of stuff doesn’t work when you first go up and fly it,” he says.
While Jackson is restoring an airplane, he simultaneously prepares himself for test flying it. “When I get in an airplane, I know every aspect of that airplane: how it works, what it took to put it together, what it takes to break it,” he says. “You’re basically becoming part of the airplane as far as systems go, and that’s done over a period of months, rather than just hop in and blast off into the sunset.”
On first flights after restoration or major maintenance, Jackson brings a long sheet of paper for writing down maintenance problems, or squawks; some of the things he typically finds are sticky cockpit canopies, radios that don’t work, and inoperative landing-gear lights, problems that are more of a nuisance than cause for alarm. In fact, Jackson says that most of his test flights pass without incident. “The majority of a test pilot’s job is not dealing with a problem, it’s noting to see if there’s a problem. The only reason why you want somebody that’s qualified there to deal with it is when there is a problem, you want the plane brought back. I mean anybody can jump out of one, and anyone can crash one. So the trick is to find somebody that can deal with an emergency, to bring it back so you can fix it.”
When a serious problem does arise, however, Jackson says that his response is measured, not heroic. “The flying is calculated because it’s the ‘You know what’s going to happen before it happens’ kind of thing,” he says. “Really, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. The [type of warbirds] that I fly after restoration have thousands and thousands of proven hours in them.”
Vlado Lenoch knows a thing or two about measured responses to inflight emergencies. An aerospace engineer with degrees from Purdue and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lenoch worked for Boeing as a test engineer and later for several major airlines as a pilot. In 1988 he bought a P-51 Mustang, which he raced at Reno. Within the Midwest’s Mustang community he soon earned a reputation as a skilled stick, and he occasionally would ferry the pricey warbirds for their owners.
When Mike Vadeboncoeur and his employee David Young needed someone to test fly a Mustang they had spent hundreds of hours restoring, they decided Lenoch was their man. Vadeboncoeur owns Midwest Aero Restorations, based in Danville, Illinois. Since 1999 he and Young had been working on Cripes A’Mighty, a P-51D owned by Ken Wagnon of Wichita, Kansas. Wagnon’s aim was to restore Cripes A’Mighty back to the colors and specifications of the U.S. Army Air Force’s World War II 352nd Fighter Group, and he spared no expense. The 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin engine had been completely rebuilt. New aluminum skins and new side cowling were fabricated. The colors were meticulously researched. At the 352nd’s old headquarters in England, the men’s room had been painted with the group’s original colors, so Vadeboncoeur and Young had a brick liberated from the wall and shipped Stateside so they could exactly duplicate the blue needed for Cripes A’Mighty’s nose.