Restorative Genius

A young military airplane craftsman makes his mark.

wunderkind Erik Hokuf and a friend in Minnesota. (Xavier Meal)
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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.

More and more people I talk to and the more I learn, I’m sure there are hundreds of airframes just lying around the world waiting to be found. There are very few P-40s left that are projects sitting around that people don’t know about. We hear rumors every once in a while about a P-40 sitting in a barn. The numbers of airplanes and parts that were built…most of these parts are in other countries. The number in the U.S. is pretty low. With us and the P-40, we’re getting pretty close to being able to build the airplane from scratch. At some point we’ll be able to do that. It wouldn’t be an original airplane, but it would still sound and fly like one.

Jerry Beck of Tri-State Aviation in Wahpeton, North Dakota, has been a role model for us. He’s getting ready to build ten A-model P-51s. He’s actually produced all the fuselage parts. The Midwest is getting know more and more for warbird restoration.

A & S: Will you be showing the same P-40 at Oshkosh again this year? If not, what will you be bringing to the show?
Hokuf: The goal is to bring the P-40, the P-38, and our P-51. The P-38 flew into Granite Falls two and a half years ago and just needed a whole lot of TLC. We hadn’t done anything on it until January 2007. It’s all torn apart right now and we’re working hard on getting it to fly to Oshkosh.

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