Sticks for Hire

“Uh oh. Why is this piston rod left over?” Meet the pilots who are gutsy enough to fly freshly restored airplanes

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MATT JACKSON IS NOT AN OFFICE GUY. WEARING A T-SHIRT AND JEANS, the burly 44-year-old reports to work each morning at Los Angeles County’s Van Nuys Airport, a busy airfield where business jets take off from an 8,000-foot runway surrounded by strip malls and 1950s stucco houses. At Van Nuys, Jackson operates a shop that specializes in restoring “old, junk airplanes,” as he puts it. And as much as he loves refurbishing aircraft, the ultimate reward for Jackson is that he gets to fly them afterward.

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“I test fly airplanes every day,” says the pilot, who must make sure that the airplanes leaving his shop are safe to operate. Jackson also tests aircraft that have never been in his shop. He is one of a handful of pilots in the United States whom other pilots trust with their airplanes and ultimately with their lives. When an airplane has sat for a decade and needs to be moved, or a one-of-a-kind antique has undergone an extensive restoration, or you need a hot stick to race your highly modified warbird at the National Air Races in Reno, Nevada, these are the pilots you call.

They come from a variety of backgrounds; they are engineers, pilot-mechanics, airline pilots. In an age of glass cockpits and computerized flight management systems, these pilots do it the old-fashioned way: stick-and-rudder flying mated to decades of experience with old aircraft systems.

John Mohr’s experience began with his family business. He grew up on Crane Lake, in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, where he helped maintain airplanes at the seaplane base operated by his grandfather and father. There, surrounded by Piper Cubs and Aeronca Champs on floats, he built his own kit helicopter, a Rotorway Scorpion, at age 17. At 49, he has logged more than 30,000 hours of flight time. During the week, he works as a DC-9 captain and flight instructor for a major airline, and on the weekends during airshow season, he flies an aerobatic routine in his Stearman biplane. His test flying work involves 1920s and ’30s aircraft, most of them restored for the Golden Wings Museum in Anoka, Minnesota.

“There’s no typical career path for a warbird pilot,” says Doug Rozendaal, who became qualified to fly World War II bombers and fighters for the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force after logging thousands of hours hauling freight in a Beech 18. Rozendaal flies P-51 Mustangs, Corsairs, PBY Catalinas, and B-25s when he’s not running his business, which sells lubricating oil to farmers and truckers. The reputations of pilots who fly piston-powered airplanes are built over the course of years in the close-knit warbird, antique, and air racing communities, and new business originates strictly by word of mouth. “You don’t just call someone up and ask to fly their warbird,” says Rozendaal.

People who know the community at Van Nuys Airport probably knew Matt Jackson’s dad before they knew Matt. The senior Jackson ran Pacific Continental Engines, a well-known business that rebuilt aircraft engines. Matt hung out at the airport, trading odd jobs like washing airplanes and pumping gas for flying lessons. He bought his first airplane when he was 14. By the time he was 18, he’d had a pilot’s license for a year and logged 400 hours, much of it moving airplanes for his father’s customers. At 19 he flew his first Mustang, ferrying it back to the airport from the Reno Air Races. There have been many Mustangs since.

It takes more than experience, however, to hop in somebody else’s treasure and make sure it’s put together right. It takes authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA requires pilots to obtain a letter of authorization (LOA) for a particular airplane—a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, say—by passing a flying proficiency test, stipulated by sections of the Code of Federal Regulations governing pilots and aircraft operation. Since most aircraft dating back to World War II and earlier seat only one—the pilot—the FAA or an FAA-designated examiner observes the check flight from the ground. Jackson, John Mohr, and Doug Rozendaal are among only a dozen or so pilots with unlimited letters of authorization for piston-powered airplanes: They are authorized by the FAA to fly all piston-powered airplanes. (To receive such an unlimited LOA, a pilot must have at least three individual prop-airplane LOAs.) These pilots have the authority to sign off on any piston-powered aircraft they have test flown, clearing its return to service. (Before even a test pilot can go up in a recently restored airplane, though, a licensed airframe-and-powerplant mechanic must first inspect it for airworthiness.)

The “unlimited” authorization also increases the pilots’ earning power. Jackson’s test flying brings in $50,000 a year. His fee starts at $500 a day plus expenses and goes up based on the degree of risk. “I’ve got five children, and a wife, and a dog, a couple goldfish,” he says. “And I have six or seven people that work for me that rely directly on the ability of me to be there every day to make their living. I have to consider all that. So the first thing I do is go and inspect the airplane. And if the airplane meets my requirements in quality in the restoration process, then I will consider doing the test flying.”

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.

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