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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During Jackson’s final test flight in the transport, which lasted two and a half hours, the airplane performed flawlessly. Afterward, Jackson signed off on the aircraft, authorizing its return to service. Since then, it has logged more than 150 hours as Keck’s personal aircraft (“I use it like it’s a King Air, but it’s a lot more fun to fly,” he says).

Keck and Jackson are part of a group of warbird owners and pilots based at Van Nuys. When not flying, they often gather at nearby Millie’s Café to talk shop. Test pilot Skip Holm is one of the regulars, and also a perennial rival of Jackson’s at the Reno air races (“We’re all friends and we’re all trying to get one up on each other,” confides Jackson).

Unlike Jackson, Holm got into the business of test flying warbirds based on his experience as a pilot for the U.S. Air Force. During the Vietnam war, Holm flew three tours of duty in F-105s and F-4s, and by the end of the war he had become the U.S. fighter pilot with the highest combat time: more than 1,000 hours. After Vietnam, Holm joined Lockheed’s Skunk Works, where he became a test pilot for the F-117 stealth fighter program. Fellow Skunk Works pilot Bill Park introduced Holm to Mustang enthusiast Dave Zeuschel, and in 1981 Zeuschel asked Holm to fly a P-51, Jeannie 69, at the Reno air races.

Holm had barely any experience flying World War II aircraft, but he ended up winning his race with an average course speed of 450 mph. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. Over the last 20 years, Holm has flown a dozen different racers at Reno, including well-known winners like Dago Red, Stiletto, Out-of-Bounds, and Rare Bear. Charging $600 a day plus expenses, Holm also test flies 15 to 20 client aircraft a year and has flown for a number of movies, including The Right Stuff and Hot Shots.

Naturally, Holm’s friend, Wayne Wainwright, chose him to help test fly his 1945 Russian-built Yak-11. Wainwright had spent 10 years and 14,000 hours restoring and modifying the airplane. He had stuffed a Pratt & Whitney R-2000 radial engine (taken from an old DC-4 airliner) into the nose. He had reworked the cowling to improve air flow over the cylinders. He had a craftsman in Texas fashion a new prop spinner, and had almost all of the metal reworked and painted a glossy two-tone gray. When he was through, Wainwright had a 515-mph hot rod that climbed at 5,000 feet per minute through 16,000 feet, a rate of climb better than that of most civilian jets. But he hadn’t flown it, or much of anything else, in two years. Being a cautious man, he wanted an experienced test pilot like Holm to accompany him in the rear cockpit while he reacclimated himself to his airplane.

On an overcast afternoon last October, Holm drove his bronze Mercedes through the gates of the airport in Camarillo, California, and past a duo of Lockheed Constellations. At Wainwright’s hangar, Holm and Wainwright pored over the Yak like two high schoolers who had just been given the keys to their first car. Holm nonchalantly cross-examined Wainwright about modifications made to the Yak, and Wainwright beamed while he explained the details. As the two men climbed into the cockpit, Wainwright shouted back over his shoulder, “Don’t assume anything.”

The Yak snapped off the runway, went wide in the pattern to avoid much slower traffic, and made three good landings. Afterward, Wainwright presented his logbook to Holm for endorsement, smiled, and asked, “What are you doing Saturday?”

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