Warbird Crews Wanted!
Would you like to fly or work on one of these grand old machines? Its not thathard to do, and its really not that hard to get an opportunity. Like anything inthis business, you need to be at the right place at the right time, and have an idea howto act. As always, it helps to know someone, but its not necessary.
In this column, Ill talk about warbirds in general, and some of the problems,then will cover the three organizations I have the most experience with, and finally, someof the legal requirements.
I hope the purists will forgive me. For lack of a bettershorthand, I use the term “warbird” loosely in this column to include all theold airplanes from the WW II era, most with “Big Round Motors” of thereciprocating radial persuasion, and a very few with “Hot Water Twelves,” theliquid-cooled V-12 Allisons and Merlins.
Technically, of course, “Warbirds” would refer only to military (or even justcombat) aircraft, but most of the civilian types saw military duty, so the dividing linecan be very blurred. Another name is “Antiques,” which they certainly are. Allare more than 40 years old, some more than 50, and a few over sixty (the DC-3, forexample). 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, primarilyFlorida 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 weatherassists greatly when working on them outdoors, and flying them. Not many are well-equippedfor IFR work, and very few have working heaters, so reasonably good (and warm!) flyingweather is needed, and again, that points to the South.
For the same reasons, airshows are concentrated in warmer regions, and its therare flying warbird that doesnt depend on airshows to pay some of the costs. Most ofthese old airplanes utterly depend on donations and other help to keep flying. There are afew very wealthy individuals around who have the interest and the money to pay to”Keep em flying,” but the vast majority are owned by individuals or smallgroups, often operating “non-Profit” by one means or another, and who depend onvolunteer 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 ofairshows 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 theairplane 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 100LLhere and there, and by doing the tours, and some rides, many of the warbirds get by, atleast 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 homefront!
Parts and Other Problems
We are often asked about parts for these old airplanes. Surprisingly, there are stilllots of surplus parts available, and they can often be swapped, or bought for shockinglylow prices. Most warbird owners quickly accumulate stockpiles of parts, against the daythey might be needed.
Several outfits have PMA authority to make new engine parts for most of the oldengines, and Precision Airmotive, in the Seattle area, could probably make a new R-2800from scratch, if they wanted to.
Some of the more special parts are a growing problem: some of the aircraft have unusualtires, no longer made, and things like heat-treated landing gear structures could be veryhard to find. We live in constant fear of breaking something really special, for thatcould ground an airplane forever. Another little nasty is that most of the warbirds inmuseums cannot be disturbed due to government restrictions at the time of the gift, so wecant just find an airplane in a museum, and swap out parts.
Construction of these old airplanes was stone-simple, with most of them heavilyoverbuilt, using standard, even primitive, construction techniques. Generally, they weredesigned for field maintenance and repair, under combat conditions, and this works to theadvantage of the modern owner. Today, it is relatively easy to fabricate almost anythingfor them, right down to the level of main spars and other primary structure. All it takesis knowledge, time, and money.
Those Magnificent Volunteers … and Their Flying Machines
A LOT of volunteers! Bless thevolunteers, for without them, few of the old airplanes would ever fly again. Thesewonderful people freely and eagerly give of their time and expertise, often working in thesun, the rain, and the wind. Sometimes they cheerfully work under time pressure to get theairplane out to a show, with no pay and very little reward, other than getting to seetheir 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 longhours in the sun, rain and wind, taking donations, answering questions, and wiping the oiloff the airplane. Often, they pay for their own food, and sometimes lodging as well, justfor the pleasure of being around these magnificent old machines, and preserving a littleslice 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 theairplane. Our reward is the incredible honor of flying a piece of history, and associatingwith others who feel the same way. There are still a few left who served in WWII, butthese good men and women are passing all too quickly, now; all are in their seventies, ormore.
Where do we find these people? There has been a fair supply of qualified people, untilfairly recently. We are now beginning to feel the pinch, and its getting more andmore difficult to find qualified people who are interested enough to help out, whether itis working on them, or flying them. We still seem to attract enough people with theinterest, and we can sure use them, but the real problem is finding people who know theseold machines, who have worked on them in the past, or flown them.
My main concern is pilots, for I have the honor to serve as instructor and check piloton three of the old birds in three very different organizations. The aircraft are theDouglas 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 quiteold, most in their sixties, many in their seventies, and a few older. At 59, I feel like ayoungster, again! The crews on the three airplanes Im most involved with are a bityounger, mostly because of aggressive action to make that happen. Nevertheless, all threeoperations are critically short of qualified pilots, and very few have any youngfolks coming along (i.e., under sixty!).
Let me tell you a little about the three operations I work with. There are many suchoperations around the country, but these are the ones I know best, and while they aredifferent 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 examplesof WWII aircraft, with about 120 of those on active, flying status. It is the worldsfinest 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 worlds great combat aircraft, 1939 – 1945.
It sure didnt start that way, nor did the original founders have the faintestidea of what it would become. In the mid-fifties, a small group of ex-military pilots inTexas first acquired a P-40, then a P-51. Since they were all “Texas Good OldBoys,” and full of fun, someone jokingly painted “Confederate Air Force” onone of the airplanes with a spray can, and they probably anointed each other with beersprayed from bottles, with suitable renditions of “Dixie” (after the flying wasdone, of course).
This was long before anyone thought of being “PC.” Today, for some, the namecarries some unfortunate baggage from the days of slavery and segregation, and there hasbeen much internal debate within the CAF over this. On the other hand, the current namehas 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, orbecause some twist the words into meanings never intended. There is, of course, noconnection 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 todisplay them and fly them at airshows. The formal organization came into place, with thespecific 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, andmembership 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 atHarlingen, Tex., the CAF outgrew the facilities there, and after a long search for abetter place, moved everything to Midland, Tex. a few years ago.
With plenty of room to grow, the Midland Headquarters has a huge hanger capable ofholding several B-29s (CAF has the only flying B-29 in the world), a very niceHeadquarters Building with classrooms, offices, a press center, and the central OperationsCenter. This building is connected to one part of the museum, with the rest of the museumin the big hangar. All very clean, beautifully organized, very well done.
Somewhere along the line, local units all over the USA opened up, called”Squadrons,” and “Wings,” and while all aircraft are owned by the CAFin Midland, they are “loaned” out to the various units, where they aremaintained, 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 oneairplane, which usually “rotates” back to HQ once every two years, for athree-month “home-display” in the museum. There is some “friendlycompetition” between some of the units, with hijinks and fun taking place atairshows.
The SoCal Wing
One of the very best of the unitsis the Southern California Wing, based at Camarillo, just northwest of Los Angeles, andwhile Ive 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 oneday (no one told me), and in my absence got elected as “Wing Training Officer,”with primary duty on the C-46 “China Doll.” Id flown C-46s years ago, andsomeone thought that meant I still could, and since no one else was dumb enough….
At times, the Wing has been down to just one qualified pilot on this airplane. We aredoing better now, with four, but two are full-time airline pilots in the real world, oneis a full-time stockbroker, and one is a retired airline pilot. All are qualified in otheraircraft, and when we do go to a show, they usually want more than one of our machines.Weve also got a Grumman F8F Bearcat (two of our C-46 pilots also fly it) and a NorthAmerican AT-6 (all four of us fly it). So, even with four captains on the C-46, itsalways a scramble to find someone who can take the weekend (or longer), and go do theshow. Weve only got three or four copilots, all of whom work, so we often have toput two captains together, making it even more difficult. On the other hand, training timeis very limited and expensive, so the more people we assign, the more wear and tear onthis 56-year-old monster. Its also not easy to keep everyone current with threefull-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 mainorganization, which costs $200 the first year, $160 per year thereafter. Then you find themost convenient unit, and join that, an additional $25 to $40 per year. For that, you getto call yourself “Colonel,” you get wings and some patches, and several nicenewsletters and magazines, plus the knowledge that you are helping to support this veryworthy cause for future generations.
Then,YOU SHOW UP, once in a while. This is really the key factor in the CAF. Justshow 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 well also see those who still have to work for a living.”Workdays” end up being a mixture of fun, camaraderie, chit-chat, and sometimeseven a little work gets done. If you have any interest at all, it wont take you longto 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 doesnot need is someone with the airline captain attitude, who wants to show up, fly, and gohome. Thats just not the way it works, in the CAF.
By way of illustration, I brought a friend in who obviously got interested. He showedup on his own a few times, got to know folks, got his hands dirty on one engine of theC-46, and I think he went along to one airshow. The day before an airshow, we were shortof a copilot, and we were about to cancel, when I said “How about Bob? He attendedthe ground school out of interest, I could take him out right now and give him the copilottraining, and hes free to do the show tomorrow, too.”
Just like that, we had a new copilot. It doesnt often happen that fast, but itcan.
I would be less than honest if I did not utter a word of warning, here. Not all thelocal units are like the SoCal Wing. There are, unfortunately, a few CAF units with anairplane where there is just one longtime “good ole boy” qualified as captain. Someof those never share the flying, considering copilots nothing more than a warm bodyrequired by the FAA. One of these jerks has been heard to say to a prospective new member”Itll be a cold day in hell before you fly MY airplane, but you can come alongand wipe oil, ifn you want.”
Well, its 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, andshould be instantly and permanently removed from the seat, in my opinion. But I thinkthese are the exceptions, and like I said, were short of pilots. Were alsocritically short of instructors, and in all fairness, some of the pilots arentconfident enough to let others fly these priceless machines. In the SoCal Wing, allcaptains 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 ofsome CAF members. This happens, and its most unfortunate. Many of the people wholove these airplanes go along to shows, but they are not “people oriented,” andthey dont come across well to the public. They may seem terse, even rude, especiallytowards the end of a long, hot day, having dealt with hundreds of people. They get tiredand 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 themoney it takes. In the past, with lots of qualified people wanting to fly, the CAF wasable to insist that prospective pilots first “sponsor” an airplane just to geton the waiting list for any seat. But I hate it when I hear someone launch right into themoney discussion these days, it turns too many good people off, and we cant affordthat, these days, we need the pilots!
Far better, in my opinion, to get someone interested, get to know them, maybe evencheck them out as copilot, with no mention of money. We have even checked people out ascaptain in the C-46, without getting any money from them, when desperate for pilots (thistakes a waiver from HQ).
Once a member gets to know the organization, and sees the benefits, if hes trulyinterested (aka “hooked”), then the one-time (deductible) donation of $3,500 tosponsor 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 minutesper month, and gets priority for routine flying to airshows, and the like, so there aredirect benefits, too.
Some of the units will absolutely require sponsorship before even talking about apilots seat. Sadly, all too many of those are the very ones with one captain in hislate sixties or even seventies, hogging all the flying. Not the intent of the CAF, Ithink, and we really need to work hard at getting new members first, then getting theminvolved, and hoping they will help as they are able.
If you are interested in joining, please e-mail mewith your snail-mail address, and Ill be glad to see to it that you get the forms. Ican do them in PDF too, and email them to you, if you prefer.
Oh, and by the way, Im giving annual initial/recurrent ground school in the C-46in Midland, Tex. on 1/9/99 (two days) and again in Camarillo, Calif. on 1/23/99 (twodays). Free for CAF members, join before attending, or pay $200 for the course (which willbe donated to the CAF).
Airliners of America
This is a very new “flying museum,” the result of one man with adream. Jeff Whitesell is an airline pilot, with a long family history of involvement inaviation. 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 andincluding a number of Douglas DC-7s, which he operated as an airline. One of them was aMartin 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 museumanywhere with an interest in the early (non-jet) airliners. Sure, there was the occasionalairliner 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(dont tell him it looks like a Convair 440, the poor fellow is quite sensitive onthat subject!).
Hearing there was one in Pueblo, Colo., he went there to see it, and was quitedelighted and surprised to see it was his old favorite, N636X, still with the gorgeousexecutive interior, still in fine shape, and still with some of the mods hed donenearly 30 years ago. The exterior and the engines were not as well-preserved, however, andit took him many months of hard work to get it into shape for a the ferry flight toSeattle, where he spent several hard years restoring it. Last year, feeling thatCamarillo, Calif. was an ideal place to start his museum, he moved his long-suffering wifeand family to Camarillo, rented some ramp space right next to the CAF hangar, and settledin.
While working on finding space, funding, and people to help make his dream of anairline museum come to life, he has continued restoration of the airplane, and has takenit to shows (including Oshkosh, this past summer). He gives local sightseeing rides, andhas had several on-board weddings, too. More recently, he is doing training in it, mostlyfor the purpose of getting some additional crew members (captains and copilots), becausewith his own working schedule and family, Jeff cannot do it all alone. There have alsobeen several people who wanted type ratings in this classic airliner, and weve putthem through a full ground school, flight training, and the check ride.
I was privileged to check out in the airplane early on, and since Ive helped alittle with checklists, procedures, and some training, Jeff jokingly calls me the”Director of Training,” and sometimes “Chief Pilot.” I think hesjoking, but sometimes I wonder!
Like the SoCal Wing of the CAF, Jeff has also attracted a quality group of volunteerswho work on the airplane, often doing jobs you couldnt 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 “PresidentsClub” ($1,500). Each level has rewards, up to five passes to ride along to shows, oron 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 onthe ground, drilling and reviewing, then about an hour and thirty minutes flying time inthe airplane. Hard to do it in less, since the FAA requires an actual engine shutdown andrestart in flight, and not less than three takeoffs and landings. We go beyond that, withsome additional airwork, a couple of instrument approaches, and enough landings to assurethe new copilot could get this 43,900-pound airplane on the ground if the captain keelsover. 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 thatanyone who does the training will be available for “line duty” (on a volunteerbasis), taking the airplane to shows, and the like. Thats one reason the prices areso low.
The current type rating program is also a flat fee, $7,500, which includes the groundschool, briefings, and flight training. Weve had one customer do the whole programin right at six hours flying time, including the check ride, and one took almost ten, soagain, this isnt making any big profits! Its not a “vanity rating,”either. We do the whole thing, to airline and FAA standards. This is a very complexaircraft with just about every system ever installed in these old prop jobs, and with atwo-person crew, its a handful! NICE flying airplane, though, and a very stableinstrument platform.
To me, one of the major attractions of these old airplanes is the camaraderie andfriendships 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 thesame motel, and by unanimous consent, almost all of us got together for dinner. Myfavorite restaurant was overwhelmed the first night (Saturday), but Sunday we all haddinner 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! Were planning another one in January (noflying, but there will be a real party! The airplane is down for winter maintenance), andprobably a full training week in April, before the show season starts.
Jeff Whitesell, President
Airliners of America
P. O. Box 3343
Camarillo CA 93010
(805) 388-2015 (FAX)
This is also a new organization, again with one very pleasant, very energetic man asthe sparkplug. John Pappas has an immaculate Douglas DC-3 named “Rose,” which hebases at Corona, Calif. His dream is specifically to provide old, exotic airplanes forothers to actually fly – “For Free”!
He now has the DC-3 and a North American AT-6 available, and is trying very hard to getenough people interested in getting a Convair PBY (big twin amphibian) that everyone couldfly. Future plans include a Stearman, and an F-51 Mustang, among others.
Free? Well, in a sense, yes, but theres a little matter of getting started, andgetting 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 doesnt take much training to makeit 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 allhis time in the right seat, with members doing almost all the flying in the left seat, andthis where the “free” comes in, any “line flying” the members do isfree. This not only allows gaining the DC-3 type rating, but actually getting realexperience in it, a very rare thing. Members can also round up a bunch of friends and flythe airplane out to Catalina for lunch, or anywhere they want, at the usual member rate.
Neat concept, I hope he makes it work!
(949) 472-9300 (FAX)
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 InstrumentRating.
Some of the airshows will give gas, oil, money, lodging or other”consideration” in return to active participation in the show, and if thishappens, 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 (forcaptains), and youre in!
Be careful up there!