Proud Owner of the Last Flying Wildcat

How Steve Craig keeps his Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat in working order.

Airline pilot Mark Watt flies Steve Craig's Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat at an airshow in 2005. (Doug Fisher)
Air & Space Magazine

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A&S: Do you get paid for your airshow appearances?
Craig: We do try to get paid. And most of the time we do. I recently [September 2006] flew the plane out to the University of Iowa for the dedication of the Nile Kinnick Memorial Stadium. Nile Kinnick was “Mr. Everything” at the University of Iowa in the late 1930s. He was president of the senior class, captain of the football team, track team. Heisman Trophy winner. Phi Beta Kappa. And on top of all of that, he was a very modest person. So he’s attained mythical, iconic status within the state of Iowa, as well he should. He joined the Naval Reserve and then was activated two days before Pearl Harbor, went into Navy flight training, and tragically was killed flying a Wildcat. And so the University of Iowa was rededicating its stadium—after a $90 million renovation—to Nile Kinnick and unveiling a 12-foot bronze statue [of Kinnick]. They learned I had the world’s only flying Wildcat, and asked me to come up and participate. That was very special. And I waived that fee.

But for most of these airshows, there’s a promoter involved who’s making money. So most of us [who] fly these [vintage airplanes] try to get compensated because they are expensive to operate.

A&S: Getting back to Nile Kinnick, was his a combat death?
Craig: He was killed training in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela in preparation to [deploy] to the Pacific. He had an engine failure. I’ve actually had a couple of people come up to me, including one man who saw him crash, a gentleman that was on a destroyer that was “plane-guarding” when the crash happened. It looked like a textbook ditching—that [Kinnick would] just climb out of the cockpit and be rescued. But it didn’t work out. Who knows what happened? A parachute harness—something—got caught, and he went down with the plane.

A&S: Do you maintain the F4F yourself?
Craig: I participate, and I read a lot. I view myself not only as the pilot of this airplane, of course, but as its caretaker and crew chief almost. But a talented aircraft mechanic I am not. So I’m not even qualified to do much of the work under FAA regulations. So I enlist people like Pete Regina and Matt Jackson in particular. Pete’s done a tremendous amount of wonderful work on this airplane to keep it historic and original and safe.

A&S: How do you find replacement parts when needed?
Craig: The instruments are relatively easy to find, and engines and engine parts are relatively plentiful. The propeller is a little tougher to find, but I have a spare. Now airframe parts are tough [to find].

A&S: The four guns have been demilitarized, right?
Craig: Yeah, the ATF, the FBI, and all those people would really frown on me having operable .50-caliber machine guns—[the ones on the airplane] look real but they’ve been rendered useless.

A&S: Have you outfitted the aircraft with modern radio and navigation equipment?
Craig: The radios that were in the plane, interestingly, are still there, but they’re not operable—the tubes and things on the inside have been removed. Over in the corner, we have two [modern] radios and a transponder, which is required to fly in today’s airspace. About a year after flying the plane, I installed a GPS that mounts in an area that doesn’t detract from [the Wildcat’s] originality. It’s a Garmin 500, which is probably, if not the best, certainly one of the two or three best GPS systems today.

A&S: How does the F4F compare to other aircraft you’ve flown?
Craig: It actually is a lot of fun to fly. And relatively speaking, as these warbirds go, it’s a simple airplane. And it’s a very straightforward airplane. It has a big Grumman wing—forgiving. It has a gentle stall. It was designed for young men to bring aboard carriers, and to operate out of primitive airstrips in the Pacific. It does not handle crosswinds well at all, so you have to be very, very careful. But it actually is a very nice airplane to fly.

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