Restorative Genius

A young military airplane craftsman makes his mark.

wunderkind Erik Hokuf and a friend in Minnesota. (Xavier Meal)
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Twenty-eight year old Erik Hokuf is considered something of a prodigy in the world of warbird restoration. His remarkable work on a couple of rare Curtiss P-40K Warhawks garnered him respect as well as awards. At 2006’s EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, one of Hokuf’s P-40s won Grand Champion Warbird. The two aircraft belong to businessman Ron Fagen, who has the same devotion to authentic restoration methods as Hokuf. Air & Space’s Bettina Chavanne spoke with Hokuf from his home base in Granite Falls, Minnesota, where his restoration company, Warhawks, Inc., is based.

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A & S: Why do you think people are so interested in how young you are? Have you met any other people of your generation who are as avid about warbirds as you are?
Hokuf: That’s the first question I get when people come in [to Warhawks Inc.]. I was born in 1979. There aren’t many people my age actually restoring airplanes, although there are plenty of enthusiasts.

A & S: How did you become interested in warbirds?
Hokuf: I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. My dad was an industrial arts teacher and I had three brothers. Three of the four of us are now in aviation, and my dad surprisingly had nothing do with it. Neither did mom. No one in the family was involved in airplanes or aviation. It actually started with 4-H [the National 4-H Council is a national youth leadership organization]. One of the projects we had involved aerospace. You could build model rockets, plastic models, and radio-controlled airplanes. That’s what really got us interested in aviation.

My oldest brother, Shawn [age 35], went to the United States Air Force Academy. I was in junior high school when he was at the Academy, so that served as inspiration for me too. He got his pilot’s license when he was 17, and I was always tagging along. I got to ride in the back seat when he was working on his instrument rating. He’s an airline pilot for SkyWest now.

My younger brother’s an airplane mechanic for Bemidji Aviation. He still lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. The farm where I grew up is halfway between Bemidji and the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where my dad taught for years. My younger brother sort of followed what I was doing. I was so interested in airplanes and aviation by the time I got to high school that I figured out how to get a job at the airport as a mechanic the summer before my senior year in high school. I was a mechanic’s apprentice at the time. Then I worked on the job-training program in high school, so the second half of the school day I spent out at the airport getting high school credit and working toward my airframe & powerplant license. Very few people go that route today because it takes 30 months of on-the-job experience before you qualify. Then you take the same FAA test that technical school students do. I got my A&P license when I was 20, and at that time already had three years of experience.

A & S: How did you become involved with this P-40K Restoration project in particular?
Hokuf: After working for Bemidji Aviation, I worked for a charter company in Minneapolis for about four years. While I was there, I worked with Ron Fagen’s two nephews. That’s just one of my many connections to Ron. I knew of him because both of his sons went to college at Bemidji State University. Evan, Ron’s youngest son, is only two days younger than me. I used to see him up at Bemidji Aviation, when Ron would fly his P-51 Mustang up there. In an even stranger twist of fate, my parents actually grew up about 10 miles away from Granite Falls, so Ron knows my dad’s cousins and family.

I always knew about Ron and about his airplanes. When I was working with his nephews, I kept bugging them to tell their uncle that he needed to hire a new mechanic. One day, Chris actually did say, “Ron, you’ve got to hire this guy.” Then I didn’t hear anything for six months. One morning, a 6:00 a.m. call came in from Ron’s office. I was working second shift at the time. Finally, Ron said, “Come on out [to his headquarters in Granite Falls].”

A & S: Do you have any flying heroes?
Hokuf: I think that [Charles] Lindbergh is somebody I definitely look up to. His accomplishment, what he did at that time…it was very cool. As far as World War II aviation, a couple of books I can remember reading in high school…Robert Johnson’s Thunderbolt and Pappy Boyington’s book about the Black Sheep Squadron.

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.

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