Pelican's Perch #12:
Warbird Crews Wanted!

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

The last time you were at an airshow, did you wonder what it takes to keep all those warbirds up and running? Ever wanted to get

Pelican's PerchWarbird Crews Wanted!

Would you like to fly or work on one of these grand old machines? Itís not that hard to do, and itís really not that hard to get an opportunity. Like anything in this business, you need to be at the right place at the right time, and have an idea how to act. As always, it helps to know someone, but itís not necessary.

In this column, Iíll talk about warbirds in general, and some of the problems, then will cover the three organizations I have the most experience with, and finally, some of the legal requirements.

"Warbirds"

b17smoke.jpg (3126 bytes)I hope the purists will forgive me. For lack of a better shorthand, I use the term "warbird" loosely in this column to include all the old airplanes from the WW II era, most with "Big Round Motors" of the reciprocating radial persuasion, and a very few with "Hot Water Twelves," the liquid-cooled V-12 Allisons and Merlins.

Technically, of course, "Warbirds" would refer only to military (or even just combat) aircraft, but most of the civilian types saw military duty, so the dividing line can be very blurred. Another name is "Antiques," which they certainly are. All are more than 40 years old, some more than 50, and a few over sixty (the DC-3, for example). They are loosely divided into "Bombers/Transports," "Fighters," and "Liaison" aircraft.

Where Are They?

The vast majority of the flying warbirds are located in the Southern USA, primarily Florida and the Southern California area. Part of this is probably because of the weather. Few warbird owners can afford to keep them under any kind of cover, and the warm weather assists greatly when working on them outdoors, and flying them. Not many are well-equipped for IFR work, and very few have working heaters, so reasonably good (and warm!) flying weather is needed, and again, that points to the South.

For the same reasons, airshows are concentrated in warmer regions, and itís the rare flying warbird that doesnít depend on airshows to pay some of the costs. Most of these old airplanes utterly depend on donations and other help to keep flying. There are a few very wealthy individuals around who have the interest and the money to pay to "Keep Ďem flying," but the vast majority are owned by individuals or small groups, often operating "non-Profit" by one means or another, and who depend on volunteer help and donations to keep them going.

Who Foots the Bills?

Airshows used to be quite generous in donating fuel, oil, accommodations, transport, and money for warbirds to show up, but times are getting tough. These days, a lot of airshows seem to lose money, and that has filtered down to reduced benefits for everyone. At many of the airshows, there used to be long lines of people waiting to walk through the airplane in return for a buck or two in the donation jar. Now, we seldom see lines at all, and more people turn away when they see that donations are requested.

But still, by picking airshows carefully, and getting a few hundred gallons of 100LL here and there, and by doing the tours, and some rides, many of the warbirds get by, at least paying for most of the expenses, so their owners are not too much out-of-pocket. Most owners do it as a labor of love, of course, often over heavy resistance from the home front!

Parts and Other Problems

We are often asked about parts for these old airplanes. Surprisingly, there are still lots of surplus parts available, and they can often be swapped, or bought for shockingly low prices. Most warbird owners quickly accumulate stockpiles of parts, against the day they might be needed.

Several outfits have PMA authority to make new engine parts for most of the old engines, and Precision Airmotive, in the Seattle area, could probably make a new R-2800 from scratch, if they wanted to.

Some of the more special parts are a growing problem: some of the aircraft have unusual tires, no longer made, and things like heat-treated landing gear structures could be very hard to find. We live in constant fear of breaking something really special, for that could ground an airplane forever. Another little nasty is that most of the warbirds in museums cannot be disturbed due to government restrictions at the time of the gift, so we canít just find an airplane in a museum, and swap out parts.

Construction of these old airplanes was stone-simple, with most of them heavily overbuilt, using standard, even primitive, construction techniques. Generally, they were designed for field maintenance and repair, under combat conditions, and this works to the advantage of the modern owner. Today, it is relatively easy to fabricate almost anything for them, right down to the level of main spars and other primary structure. All it takes is knowledge, time, and money.

Those Magnificent Volunteers ... and Their Flying Machines

aeroncal3_2.jpg (3781 bytes)A LOT of volunteers! Bless the volunteers, for without them, few of the old airplanes would ever fly again. These wonderful people freely and eagerly give of their time and expertise, often working in the sun, the rain, and the wind. Sometimes they cheerfully work under time pressure to get the airplane out to a show, with no pay and very little reward, other than getting to see their baby fly away after they have done all the hard work, then see it come back dirty, in need of more TLC. Some volunteers will go along to the shows, only to put in more long hours in the sun, rain and wind, taking donations, answering questions, and wiping the oil off the airplane. Often, they pay for their own food, and sometimes lodging as well, just for the pleasure of being around these magnificent old machines, and preserving a little slice of history.

Pilots are almost always volunteers, too. A lucky few get paid to fly these machines, but most of us donate our time, and it will often cost us money to get to and from the airplane. Our reward is the incredible honor of flying a piece of history, and associating with others who feel the same way. There are still a few left who served in WWII, but these good men and women are passing all too quickly, now; all are in their seventies, or more.

Where do we find these people? There has been a fair supply of qualified people, until fairly recently. We are now beginning to feel the pinch, and itís getting more and more difficult to find qualified people who are interested enough to help out, whether it is working on them, or flying them. We still seem to attract enough people with the interest, and we can sure use them, but the real problem is finding people who know these old machines, who have worked on them in the past, or flown them.

Pilot Shortage

My main concern is pilots, for I have the honor to serve as instructor and check pilot on three of the old birds in three very different organizations. The aircraft are the Douglas DC-3, the Martin 404, and my all-time favorite, the Curtiss-Wright C-46 "Commando."

Generally speaking, most of the pilots on the older airplanes I see at shows are quite old, most in their sixties, many in their seventies, and a few older. At 59, I feel like a youngster, again! The crews on the three airplanes Iím most involved with are a bit younger, mostly because of aggressive action to make that happen. Nevertheless, all three operations are critically short of qualified pilots, and very few have any young folks coming along (i.e., under sixty!).

Let me tell you a little about the three operations I work with. There are many such operations around the country, but these are the ones I know best, and while they are different from each other, all the other operations will be similar in one way or another.


The Confederate Air Force (CAF)

The largest and best of the "flying museums," the CAF has about 140 examples of WWII aircraft, with about 120 of those on active, flying status. It is the worldís finest and most complete collection of flyable WWII aircraft. Its charter is:

The Confederate Air Force is a patriotic organization dedicated to the preservation of the worldís great combat aircraft, 1939 - 1945.

It sure didnít start that way, nor did the original founders have the faintest idea of what it would become. In the mid-fifties, a small group of ex-military pilots in Texas first acquired a P-40, then a P-51. Since they were all "Texas Good Old Boys," and full of fun, someone jokingly painted "Confederate Air Force" on one of the airplanes with a spray can, and they probably anointed each other with beer sprayed from bottles, with suitable renditions of "Dixie" (after the flying was done, of course).

This was long before anyone thought of being "PC." Today, for some, the name carries some unfortunate baggage from the days of slavery and segregation, and there has been much internal debate within the CAF over this. On the other hand, the current name has been around for more than forty years, it is a distinguished, patriotic organization, and many feel it would be silly to change the name because of a passing silliness, or because some twist the words into meanings never intended. There is, of course, no connection whatsoever to those ugly chapters in American history.

As time went by, a loose organization was formed, and again, with fun in the forefront, it was decided that everyone would be a "Colonel" in this "Air Force." Pure nostalgic whimsy.

By about 1960, more pilots had acquired warbirds, and they started to get calls to display them and fly them at airshows. The formal organization came into place, with the specific intent of acquiring one of each type used in World War II. None too soon, either, for the United States was busily converting all of them into cotter keys and paper clips, in the various "boneyards" of the desert Southwest.

The original organization was limited to 200 people, but it quickly outgrew that, and membership was opened to anyone with an interest. With all the old fighters and bombers, the CAF became informally known as "The Ghost Squadron." Originally founded at Harlingen, Tex., the CAF outgrew the facilities there, and after a long search for a better place, moved everything to Midland, Tex. a few years ago.

With plenty of room to grow, the Midland Headquarters has a huge hanger capable of holding several B-29s (CAF has the only flying B-29 in the world), a very nice Headquarters Building with classrooms, offices, a press center, and the central Operations Center. This building is connected to one part of the museum, with the rest of the museum in the big hangar. All very clean, beautifully organized, very well done.

Local Units

Somewhere along the line, local units all over the USA opened up, called "Squadrons," and "Wings," and while all aircraft are owned by the CAF in Midland, they are "loaned" out to the various units, where they are maintained, flown, and displayed. A few of these local units (there are about 90 of them) are very small, with only a few members, and no airplanes. Most have at least one airplane, which usually "rotates" back to HQ once every two years, for a three-month "home-display" in the museum. There is some "friendly competition" between some of the units, with hijinks and fun taking place at airshows.

The SoCal Wing

c46chinadoll_pnk.jpg (12409 bytes)One of the very best of the units is the Southern California Wing, based at Camarillo, just northwest of Los Angeles, and while Iíve joined a number of the local units around the country, this is my "home unit," and the one where I spend most of my time. I missed a meeting one day (no one told me), and in my absence got elected as "Wing Training Officer," with primary duty on the C-46 "China Doll." Iíd flown C-46s years ago, and someone thought that meant I still could, and since no one else was dumb enoughÖ.

The Roster

At times, the Wing has been down to just one qualified pilot on this airplane. We are doing better now, with four, but two are full-time airline pilots in the real world, one is a full-time stockbroker, and one is a retired airline pilot. All are qualified in other aircraft, and when we do go to a show, they usually want more than one of our machines. Weíve also got a Grumman F8F Bearcat (two of our C-46 pilots also fly it) and a North American AT-6 (all four of us fly it). So, even with four captains on the C-46, itís always a scramble to find someone who can take the weekend (or longer), and go do the show. Weíve only got three or four copilots, all of whom work, so we often have to put two captains together, making it even more difficult. On the other hand, training time is very limited and expensive, so the more people we assign, the more wear and tear on this 56-year-old monster. Itís also not easy to keep everyone current with three full-stop landings every 90 days!

Getting in the Door

How do you get to fly these machines with the CAF? Well, first you join the main organization, which costs $200 the first year, $160 per year thereafter. Then you find the most convenient unit, and join that, an additional $25 to $40 per year. For that, you get to call yourself "Colonel," you get wings and some patches, and several nice newsletters and magazines, plus the knowledge that you are helping to support this very worthy cause for future generations.

p40_2.jpg (5754 bytes)Then, YOU SHOW UP, once in a while. This is really the key factor in the CAF. Just show up, get to know the people, let them get to know you. The SoCal Wing has "workdays" on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, plus other days now and then, as needed. As you might imagine, the Tuesday and Thursday workdays see mostly retirees, while Saturday weíll also see those who still have to work for a living. "Workdays" end up being a mixture of fun, camaraderie, chit-chat, and sometimes even a little work gets done. If you have any interest at all, it wonít take you long to find something that you can do that will help out. That may be time, talent, resources, or even just money, but if you never show up, no one will think of you. What the CAF does not need is someone with the airline captain attitude, who wants to show up, fly, and go home. Thatís just not the way it works, in the CAF.

By way of illustration, I brought a friend in who obviously got interested. He showed up on his own a few times, got to know folks, got his hands dirty on one engine of the C-46, and I think he went along to one airshow. The day before an airshow, we were short of a copilot, and we were about to cancel, when I said "How about Bob? He attended the ground school out of interest, I could take him out right now and give him the copilot training, and heís free to do the show tomorrow, too."

Just like that, we had a new copilot. It doesnít often happen that fast, but it can.

The Jerks

I would be less than honest if I did not utter a word of warning, here. Not all the local units are like the SoCal Wing. There are, unfortunately, a few CAF units with an airplane where there is just one longtime "good ole boy" qualified as captain. Some of those never share the flying, considering copilots nothing more than a warm body required by the FAA. One of these jerks has been heard to say to a prospective new member "Itíll be a cold day in hell before you fly MY airplane, but you can come along and wipe oil, ifín you want."

Well, itís NOT "his airplane," it belongs to the CAF, and by extension, to all CAF members. As few as they are, such men are a disgrace to the organization, and should be instantly and permanently removed from the seat, in my opinion. But I think these are the exceptions, and like I said, weíre short of pilots. Weíre also critically short of instructors, and in all fairness, some of the pilots arenít confident enough to let others fly these priceless machines. In the SoCal Wing, all captains are encouraged to at least share the flying equally. Some do more.

Some people have told me that they have been turned off at airshows by the attitudes of some CAF members. This happens, and itís most unfortunate. Many of the people who love these airplanes go along to shows, but they are not "people oriented," and they donít come across well to the public. They may seem terse, even rude, especially towards the end of a long, hot day, having dealt with hundreds of people. They get tired and grumpy, and you would, too.

Both these types are not the norm, but can do immense damage.

Some will, when asked about flying as pilot, immediately get into discussions of the money it takes. In the past, with lots of qualified people wanting to fly, the CAF was able to insist that prospective pilots first "sponsor" an airplane just to get on the waiting list for any seat. But I hate it when I hear someone launch right into the money discussion these days, it turns too many good people off, and we canít afford that, these days, we need the pilots!

Far better, in my opinion, to get someone interested, get to know them, maybe even check them out as copilot, with no mention of money. We have even checked people out as captain in the C-46, without getting any money from them, when desperate for pilots (this takes a waiver from HQ).

Once a member gets to know the organization, and sees the benefits, if heís truly interested (aka "hooked"), then the one-time (deductible) donation of $3,500 to sponsor an airplane becomes almost incidental to his participation, pilot or otherwise. Under current regulations, a sponsor gets to fly the C-46 one hour and forty-five minutes per month, and gets priority for routine flying to airshows, and the like, so there are direct benefits, too.

Some of the units will absolutely require sponsorship before even talking about a pilotís seat. Sadly, all too many of those are the very ones with one captain in his late sixties or even seventies, hogging all the flying. Not the intent of the CAF, I think, and we really need to work hard at getting new members first, then getting them involved, and hoping they will help as they are able.

If you are interested in joining, please e-mail me with your snail-mail address, and Iíll be glad to see to it that you get the forms. I can do them in PDF too, and email them to you, if you prefer.

Oh, and by the way, Iím giving annual initial/recurrent ground school in the C-46 in Midland, Tex. on 1/9/99 (two days) and again in Camarillo, Calif. on 1/23/99 (two days). Free for CAF members, join before attending, or pay $200 for the course (which will be donated to the CAF).


Airliners of America

martin404.jpg (14287 bytes)This is a very new "flying museum," the result of one man with a dream. Jeff Whitesell is an airline pilot, with a long family history of involvement in aviation. His father William, an Eastern Airlines pilot until his retirement in 1960, bought, operated, and sold more than 500 airplanes in his lifetime up through and including a number of Douglas DC-7s, which he operated as an airline. One of them was a Martin 404, N636X, a forty-passenger airliner that had been delivered new to TWA in 1952, and retired in 1960. He used this for "Celebrity Charters," for Mohammed Ali, Howard Cosell, and others, using his sons Jeff and Bruce as crewmembers.

In recent years, Jeff began complaining about the fact that there was no museum anywhere with an interest in the early (non-jet) airliners. Sure, there was the occasional airliner in a museum, but not with the airline slant, and seldom in flight condition. Finally, he decided to start one, and went looking for his favorite, a Martin 404 (donít tell him it looks like a Convair 440, the poor fellow is quite sensitive on that subject!).

Hearing there was one in Pueblo, Colo., he went there to see it, and was quite delighted and surprised to see it was his old favorite, N636X, still with the gorgeous executive interior, still in fine shape, and still with some of the mods heíd done nearly 30 years ago. The exterior and the engines were not as well-preserved, however, and it took him many months of hard work to get it into shape for a the ferry flight to Seattle, where he spent several hard years restoring it. Last year, feeling that Camarillo, Calif. was an ideal place to start his museum, he moved his long-suffering wife and family to Camarillo, rented some ramp space right next to the CAF hangar, and settled in.

While working on finding space, funding, and people to help make his dream of an airline museum come to life, he has continued restoration of the airplane, and has taken it to shows (including Oshkosh, this past summer). He gives local sightseeing rides, and has had several on-board weddings, too. More recently, he is doing training in it, mostly for the purpose of getting some additional crew members (captains and copilots), because with his own working schedule and family, Jeff cannot do it all alone. There have also been several people who wanted type ratings in this classic airliner, and weíve put them through a full ground school, flight training, and the check ride.

I was privileged to check out in the airplane early on, and since Iíve helped a little with checklists, procedures, and some training, Jeff jokingly calls me the "Director of Training," and sometimes "Chief Pilot." I think heís joking, but sometimes I wonder!

Like the SoCal Wing of the CAF, Jeff has also attracted a quality group of volunteers who work on the airplane, often doing jobs you couldnít pay them to do in real life! Again, without them, the airplane would never get off the ground.

He also sells various levels of membership, from "Observer" ($35), "Ground Crew" ($100), "Skyliner" ($200), and "Presidentís Club" ($1,500). Each level has rewards, up to five passes to ride along to shows, or on other flights.

Actually flying this one is much simpler, it just takes money! Copilot checkouts cost $1,500. This will consist of the full ground school, lots of briefing in the airplane on the ground, drilling and reviewing, then about an hour and thirty minutes flying time in the airplane. Hard to do it in less, since the FAA requires an actual engine shutdown and restart in flight, and not less than three takeoffs and landings. We go beyond that, with some additional airwork, a couple of instrument approaches, and enough landings to assure the new copilot could get this 43,900-pound airplane on the ground if the captain keels over. Sounds like a lot of money, but with a pair of 2,400 horsepower engines (R-2800-CB16s) burning 200 gph, the $1,500 barely covers direct costs. We really hope that anyone who does the training will be available for "line duty" (on a volunteer basis), taking the airplane to shows, and the like. Thatís one reason the prices are so low.

The current type rating program is also a flat fee, $7,500, which includes the ground school, briefings, and flight training. Weíve had one customer do the whole program in right at six hours flying time, including the check ride, and one took almost ten, so again, this isnít making any big profits! Itís not a "vanity rating," either. We do the whole thing, to airline and FAA standards. This is a very complex aircraft with just about every system ever installed in these old prop jobs, and with a two-person crew, itís a handful! NICE flying airplane, though, and a very stable instrument platform.

To me, one of the major attractions of these old airplanes is the camaraderie and friendships that ensue. We just had a big "Martin Training Week" in November, with people from all over, all helping in some way. All the out-of-towners stayed at the same motel, and by unanimous consent, almost all of us got together for dinner. My favorite restaurant was overwhelmed the first night (Saturday), but Sunday we all had dinner together there, and had so much fun, we repeated for the next four nights in a row, at the same place! Good company, good food! Weíre planning another one in January (no flying, but there will be a real party! The airplane is down for winter maintenance), and probably a full training week in April, before the show season starts.

Contact:

Jeff Whitesell, President
Airliners of America
P. O. Box 3343
Camarillo CA 93010

(805) 388-8618
(805) 388-2015 (FAX)

Email: topfun@ix.netcom.com
Website: www.airliners.org


Dream Flight

This is also a new organization, again with one very pleasant, very energetic man as the sparkplug. John Pappas has an immaculate Douglas DC-3 named "Rose," which he bases at Corona, Calif. His dream is specifically to provide old, exotic airplanes for others to actually fly ó "For Free"!

He now has the DC-3 and a North American AT-6 available, and is trying very hard to get enough people interested in getting a Convair PBY (big twin amphibian) that everyone could fly. Future plans include a Stearman, and an F-51 Mustang, among others.

Free? Well, in a sense, yes, but thereís a little matter of getting started, and getting the initial training. First, membership in "DreamFlight" costs $2,500, and the initial training for members is $568 per hour, a very good rate for this type. Non-members pay just under $1,000 per hour, so it doesnít take much training to make it economically feasible to join!

Once trained, John is desperate for crewmembers to help him do all the flying he has. Again, airshows, weddings, scenic flights, corporate rewards, etc. He spends virtually all his time in the right seat, with members doing almost all the flying in the left seat, and this where the "free" comes in, any "line flying" the members do is free. This not only allows gaining the DC-3 type rating, but actually getting real experience in it, a very rare thing. Members can also round up a bunch of friends and fly the airplane out to Catalina for lunch, or anywhere they want, at the usual member rate.

Neat concept, I hope he makes it work!

Contact:

John Pappas
DreamFlight

(949) 472-9612
(949) 472-9300 (FAX)

Email: dreamflight@sprynet.com
Website: www.vintageflight.com


The Legal Stuff

What does it take to fly these old birds, as far as the FAA is concerned? Not much, frankly!

You must have a Private Certificate or better, with the Multiengine-Land class rating. An instrument rating is not absolutely required, but that would limit the operation to "VFR only." In order to do any IFR work, both pilots must possess the Instrument Rating.

Some of the airshows will give gas, oil, money, lodging or other "consideration" in return to active participation in the show, and if this happens, the FAA says it requires a Commercial Pilot Certificate to take the "compensation." Both pilots must meet this requirement.

Beyond that, a couple days ground school, a bit of flight training, a check ride (for captains), and youíre in!

Be careful up there!