Robert J. Pond

You might recognize Bob Pond's name from the Rutan-designed "Pond Racer" but he's owner of one of the world's most remarkable aircraft collections, and his love for speedy and graceful machines carries over to classic automobiles, too. In this Profiles interview, Pond shares stories from his 56 years and 20,000+ hours of flying and preserving warbirds, and talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about learning to fly, his naval career, preserving the WWII aircraft, and the state-of-the-art warbird he'd like to add to his collection.


Bob PondBob Pond was born in May of 1924 in Edina,Minn. As WWII wound down, he, like other naval aviatiors, had his eyes set on a careerwith the airlines. Instead, he went back to school and worked part-time in the familybusiness, Advance Machine Company. The landscape of Mom and Pop grocery stores were beingreplaced by supermarkets with standardized aisle widths. Among other things, Advance makesthose Zamboni-like machines that clean and polish industrial and commercial floors,like… supermarkets. Over forty some years, Bob marketed Advance into a nine-figurebusiness with a product in darned near every supermarket in the free world. Then he boughthis own airline.

It isn’t technically an airline. It’s a collection of at least one of every Navyfighter from WWII, a B-17, a B-25, and several British and German airplanes of the era.They’re housed at the beautiful new Palm Springs Air Museum. Bob’s owned and flownsingles, twins, seaplanes, turboprops, helicopters and jets. But it’s not all warbirds andglass cockpits. Bob just sold his prized 1946 Piper J-3 Cub. We talked at the PondeRose,his 20 acre estate outside Palm Springs, Calif.

Do you remember your first airplane ride?

My very first ride was in Chicago at what is now Meigs Field. It was in a Stinson witha customer of my father’s who took us up. The one thing I remember, at probably about age8 or 9, is that I stuck my hand out the window in the cockpit and the air velocity justabout took my arm off.

You graduated military school with WWII in full swing?

Right. I graduated from Shattuck Military School in 1942 and immediately attempted tosign up for the Navy Air Corps program. I was only 18 so my parents had to authorize me togo into the service, which they didn’t want to do. I finally talked them into it onDecember 7, 1942. I signed up for the Navy and ultimately was called into the V5 program,which was training for naval aviation.

What was the training program like?

First we went to Northfield, Minnesota for pre-flight school. We got all of our shotsand they checked us out for whether we could swim or not and, frankly, I had been swimmingall my life and was a senior lifesaver, but probably 10% of the class didn’t want to swim,or couldn’t swim, and were washed out right there in the matter of the first week. We wenton to get some physical conditioning and we learned to march and comport with all themilitary bearing. Since I’d gone to military school I was able to get along pretty finewith the military end of it.

We also learned about engines, learned about airplanes, what makes them fly. Navigationwas very important and that was really college-level stuff which some of the cadets reallycouldn’t handle. We had to learn both blinker and Morse code. There was no radio contactwith the carrier when you’re out in the Pacific so code was important, along with theflags. We even learned the semaphores so we could read the flags aboard the ships.

How about the flight training?

We next went to our first flying in Albert Lee, Minnesota. It was called war trainingschool, and we flew J-3 Piper Cubs. I still have one in the museum just like the one Iflew there. Sixty-five horsepower and cruises about 54 miles an hour. Although we didcontinue on with our code and our blinkers and our navigation, the principal thing we didwas to learn to fly. From there we went to Iowa Seahawks at the University of Iowa. TheIowa Seahawks were a football team, ranked very high, along with Army and Navy in thosewar days, and that was physical conditioning to the extreme. Hazardous situations whereyou’re shot down and you have to survive on your own and it really made men out of uslittle 18-year-olds. From there we went down to Corpus Christi, Texas to the naval airstation where we learned to fly the more sophisticated aircraft and got our wings. I endedup in multiengines, which I didn’t like at the time but I’ve appreciated it ever sincebecause most of the airplanes I’ve flown over the last 50 years have been multiengines.

Ensign Pond, 1943
Ensign Pond, 1943.

After the Battle of Midway the need for naval aviators began to slowly decrease. We hadbuilt up to a crescendo in the end of ’42, which was a remarkable job when you considerthat we only started in 1941, so in a matter of two years we had built tens of thousandsof airplanes and trained thousands of pilots for the Air Force, the Navy and the MarineCorps. The Marines trained with the Navy and got their Navy wings. From Corpus Christi,where I got my wings, I went down to Florida at the end of ’44. I was exposed to most allof the multiengine aircraft the Navy flew from the PBY Catalina to the PB4Y Navy versionof the B-24 to the JM1, which was a B-26 Navy version, so I had a lot of training but,again, the war was winding down and at least in the Navy there wasn’t a great need for thepilots. I was scheduled to go out to Honolulu on July 4, 1945, and, of course, the warthen came to a halt and so I actually missed seeing any service in the Pacific. We learnedall the carrier tactics and carrier landings, all of this was done in a simulated form andit was a great experience, probably the best three years in my life, save whatever my wifeis connected with; I’d have to put anything I’ve done with her first.

Any scary moments in the training?

Not really. I was a pretty conservative pilot and you hear all the stories about peopleflying under bridges and scaring cattle and one thing by low-level flying. I wanted to bea pilot so bad and I wanted to continue on with my training and commission, and I justnever felt proper about stepping too far out of line; that went for the nightlife as wellas the actual military service.

Did you want to stay in the service after the war?

I got out in October of 1945; I didn’t consider staying in the service and I wantedeventually to fly for the airlines. All of us that got serious multiengine training, thatwas a logical step, so I went back to school. I had been in school about six months whilewaiting to get into the Navy in 1942, but I really had to pick up as a freshman again. Igot my degree in 1948 in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota. Fromthere, I went into a small family machine shop which did repair work for the the flourmills in the Minneapolis area.

I was the bookkeeper for the first six months and then went into sales. We weredeveloping floor scrubbers and vacuum cleaners for the floor cleaning industry. I did alot of traveling from about 1950 through my retirement in 1989. Millions of miles, mostlyin our own aircraft. Started out with a Cessna 180 and then graduated to a brand-newCessna 182; I paid $12,500 plus the trade-in of my Cessna 180 of about $5,000, so I flewthat many, many hours until I stepped up to a Bonanza. From the Bonanza to the TwinBonanza to the Cessna 310 and on and on and on, until our first jet in 1970. Then westarted travelling overseas. We had a factory in Wales in the U.K. and distribution in 80countries, so I’d go over to England about every six to eight weeks to work with oursalesmen. We had about 14 salesmen in Europe and 70 overall.

I had a wonderful co-pilot and a wonderful mechanic/co-pilot by the name of KermitLaQuey and he was the only man I ever admitted was a better pilot than I was (chuckles).We would fly together and we’d fly overseas or anywhere in the world in any kind ofweather. We were very, a very good team.

How did the warbird collection start?

In the early 1970s I’d been in the charter business, and I decided that really theinsurance companies and the banks were making all the money on the deal, so I decided toget out of the charter and leasing business and had an opportunity to buy a Curtis P-40and a North American P-51 Mustang. I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with thembut eventually, through some motivation on the part of some friends of mine, we decidedwe’d start up a small museum, which initially was made up of three airplanes, the P-40,the P-51, and a TBM Avenger. That started the collection. I now have 17 flying WWII warbirds, including a B-17, B-25 and most of the fighters. I’m a little heavy on the Navyend; I have an F6F, and the F7F, and the F4F, and the F8F, all of the Grumman Cats fromthe Wildcat to the Tiger Cat.

It’s against the rules to use the words "justify" and "airplane"in the same sentence, but you came close.

People used to accuse me of running my business to support my flying habit and Advancedid turn out to be the leader in the industry, so we were able to make good use ofairplanes in the business. At one time we had four aircraft and we were able use them tocall on every distributor in every small town. We didn’t have to restrict ourselves towhere the airlines flew, so we would travel wherever we had distribution, which was insome 400 cities in the United States and 80 countries throughout the world. My dad wasscared to death I was going to kill myself in an airplane so he was never on board withthe flying program until we got into the jet airplanes. Then he decided that that was theonly way to go so he enjoyed it in his later years.

Do you remember the first time you took your dad flying?

Yes, I sure do and it was in a King Air, 1968.

That’s a pretty nice first flight.

It was the Minnesota-Wisconsin football game in Madison, Wisconsin. I also remembertaking him on his first helicopter ride. I had just gotten my type rating in an Alouettehelicopter and took him and my stepmother for a ride down the Minnesota River.

56 years and 20,000 hours without an emergency?

I’ve had a couple off-airport landings and survived without a scratch, and I’ve had acouple of engine failures in single-engine fighters so you just had to duck your nose downand get down to the nearest field. As I rap on wood I have a greater love of flying thanever before and amazed with all of the safety and convenience that has come to me throughmy flying activities. I started out at age 10 making models and right now I’m sponsoringthe building of scale models of the USS Lexington and some various other ships in the Navyby a sculptor named Skeeter Wachtendonk from Wild Rose, Wisconsin. He spends about ninemonths on these projects, roughly 10- to 12- foot versions, exacting versions. The tallestis the Rasher submarine. He calls himself The Flying Dutchman. He sculpts in metalto exacting standards, right from the Navy Department drawings. They’re now on display atthe Palm Springs Air Museum.

In addition, we have a tremendous amount of art, principly the art of Stan Stokes, who lives nearby in Palm Desert,California and has done over forty paintings for me, including three murals that measuredup to 100 feet in length and 20 feet in height. He just finished one for us at the museumof the Battle of Midway, showing a Dauntless diving down from 10,000 feet and sinking twocarriers and mortally wounding a third.

So you’ve flown every airplane that you’ve owned?

Yes, I’ve never bought an airplane that I didn’t want to fly or that I couldn’t fly.

It’s like asking which kid you like better, but do you have a favorite airplane inthe collection?

Well, I think the P-51 Mustang is such a fabulous airplane. It’s wonderful to fly. It’sgot the longest range and it’s also the fastest of our fighters, so that’s certainly afavorite. The next favorite would be the B-25 Mitchell bomber because I’ve got severalhundred hours in that and then, of course the B-17. It flies like a 1930s airplane butit’s so dependable and so capable of getting the pilots home that we’ve seen B-17s with athird of the wing shot off, with the tail half gone, and still very capable of flying andbringing the pilots and the crews home.

Are all of the airplanes in the museum now flyable?

Yes, they all fly. We have one, an OS2U Kingfisher that was lent to us by theSmithsonian and we have an F-14 and a Navy versionof the F-16 that the Navy has lent to us, we hope in perpetuity. These aredisplayed on the outside of the museum and will hopefully draw people in to see ourcollection, which is principally World War II. The museum has a maintenance staff, and wehave a good relationship with Fighter Rebuilders and the Planes of Fame Air Museum at Chino, California.Steve Hinton, who heads it up, has rebuilt most of our airplanes and I don’t know whatwe’d do without him. He has not only the background of 20 years rebuilding those airplanesbut also flying them, and he is a most competent pilot, helicopter pilot, and jet fighterpilot. I’ve flown with him in probably 25 different airplanes.

Are you constantly on the prowl for airplanes that are showing up for sale?

There are some Russian jets and a few French jets or trainers, some of them Czech, butI’ve never really been interested in the jet end of it, other than for a static displayout in front of the museum. At the museum we’re propeller folks; it’s got to have apropeller and a reciprocating engine to get us excited.

Do you wind up going against Kermit Weeks and other people that are doingcollections too?

(Laughs) I’d say that if Kermit Weeks decides he wants to buy something, there’s nocompetition. He’s a young man who has built a wonderful museum in the Orlando area, andit’s more of a Walt Disney-type attraction than it is a museum, but it is a wonderfulplace to visit and he’s got a wonderful collection of all types of airplanes. Anythingthat flies, I think, Kermit has one of.

Let’s talk about cars. How did that collection start?

Bob Pond, Chrysler & Tucker
Bob with his pristine 1935 Chrysler AirFlow and 1948 Tucker.

Well, the car collection started when I was a kid. I’ve always been a nut about cars.My dad and my uncle had a special interest in anything mechanical but particularlyautomobiles, so I got an early start. I was driving regularly when I was 12. Back in thosedays you didn’t even have to have a license, but you were supposed to be 15. I would sittall in the seat and drive on behalf of my sister, who was 15. I always had three carswhen I needed one, and six cars when I needed two, and now today I have 100 cars and Ineed one, but these are the cars that I love.

They range from a 1906 Model T Speedster to the latest Ferrari, a 1998 456. I have 18Ferraris, four non-Ferrari race cars, two Eagles, and one Nissan that won 8 of the 10races it entered in 1988. We’re still driving those cars but we’re driving them in vintageracing. One of them is a 1968 that came in second at the Indy 500, driven by Dan Gurney,and we have a 1981 Eagle that’s an honest-to-gosh 200 mph car, and the #88 Nissan was therecord breaker, as far as I’m concerned is as dynamic a race car as there is today.

The collection includes some special cars that are special to me. One is a ChryslerAirFlow, 1935; another is a 1948 Tucker that drives as well as it did when Tucker wastrying to show them off to the public; and about seven Rolls Royces that go back to the’30s; Packards from the ’30’s,a 1931 Coupe, 1934 convertible, Victory convertible, andseveral others of lesser renown. I’ve also been a Lincoln man. I bought my first Lincolnas a car for my own use back in 1954 and today I have a 1941 Lincoln convertible,beautiful car; a 1937 convertible; 1946 convertible; and a Mark II, a 1956 ContinentalMark II. All of these cars are of the highest quality and I, until actually owning thesecars, didn’t realize how dominant Ford Lincoln was in those years with this Lincolnautomobile. I’m sure they never made any money, and I think the last year they built theMark II they only sold 44 of them at $10,000 a copy. We have Maseratis, Lamborghinis, aChevy Bel-Air, beautiful car, and several Thunderbirds. The ’57 T-Bird is a magnificentcar that you could inspect in any place and you won’t find a drop of oil or grease exceptin the crankcase, where it should be. Then I’ve got a ’63, a magnificent restoration, a’65, and all of these cars we drive regularly.

Every one of the cars are like the airplanes in that they are to be driven and I try todrive a different car every day. It doesn’t always work out that way because we run intodead batteries and sometimes run out of gas because the gas gauge doesn’t work and wedidn’t realize it didn’t have any gas in it. This is a regular occurrence, by the way.(laughs) My wife Jo never gets in my cars without her telephone.

Any particular car you’ve got your eye on now?

Decisions, decisions…

Not really. I have a desire some day to get a Dusenberg, but they’ve always been in themillion-dollar range and I’ve got so many other cars in that same class like LaSalles andCadillacs and Rolls Royces, and to pay that kind of money for just one more car in thatclass has just always been out of the question. I think I have everything else that I’dlove to have. I’ve got a Porche Speedster. I’ve got a Vector, which was an American-made,a 200-mph car, one of six made, and a Cobra. I drove the Cobra yesterday for the firsttime in a couple of years. I just couldn’t believe what a wonderful car that is.

What’s the focus these days at Bob Pond Racing?

It was once airplane and car racing. I was involved for years at the Reno Air Races and after about 10 years of sponsoringcars and enjoying the racing scene, I decided to build a racer that would compete withthese WWII airplanes that were being destroyed throught both the racing itself and thesevere use of the engines. The engine we liked was a Nissan engine that had been changedfrom air-cooled to water-cooled and developed about 800 horsepower.

We had a twin-engine racer called The Pond Racer, and we achieved many of our goals,but not the one that we wanted most, which was to exceed the present world speed recordfor propeller and reciprocal engine aircraft. This was sad but we kind of gave up on theproject after having a major accident in the mid-’90s. I still love the car racing but Ikind of lost interest in the aircraft racing due to the destruction of so many wonderfulhistoric aircraft such as the Mustang and the Bearcat, and the failure of being able toperform with present-day designs. Burt Rutan designed the Racer and the difficulty was notin his design but rather in the mating of the proper engine in the design of his aircraft.I think if we had stuck on the project for another four or five years we would have metall of our objectives. Number one objective, of course, was the world speed record. [TheRacer crashed during time trials at Reno in 1993 fatally injuring pilot Rick Brickert.]

Pond Racer
The Pond Racer designed by Burt Rutan. Its goal was to break a world record and create a new class of racers to preserve the warbirds.

How can we get more people interested in flying?

I think every red-blooded American man and woman should have the experience of learningto fly. That’s assuming they’ve got the proper physical attributes which are not really asextensive as what the non-flying public might imagine. Almost anybody can learn to fly andit would be the thrill of a lifetime. Many people have no need for flying, but I stillthink they ought to have the exhilaration and the great thrill that comes with soloing anaircraft. Soloing is something that can be done in about the same length of time as ittakes to learn to drive a car well. Now, there’s a great deal more to flying than justsoloing the airplane, but self-esteem rises about ten points when someone realizes they’reup there alone in the sky. I’ve also parachuted out of airplane, but that doesn’t comparewith actually keeping an airplane under your control.

Anything new coming to the Museum?

We have access to a perfectly original Zero with the original Japanese engine. I thinkit’s a Sukhoi engine. We have access to a flying SBD Dauntless, which was actually inbattle at Rabaul in the Pacific, and we have access to the Flying Wing. All of these arethanks to Steve Hinton and Ed Maloney at the museum in Chino.

The building’s been open just for two years now, and so we’re crossing an importantmilestone. We completed the building as originally designed and now we’re working on theexpansion, about another 30,000 square feet where we can display exhibits and memorabiliato teach young people about WWII. Our two objectives at the museum are to educate thechildren and to honor the veterans of the various wars, particularly those that are livingin the Cochella Valley.

These airplanes are going on 60 years old now. Are there maintenance issues showingup now that didn’t show up before?

It’s very difficult to get original engines and cylinders. People are actually makingthe cylinders in a foundry and machining them like they came off of the original assemblyline. The thing is they’re terribly expensive. Where it used to cost maybe $20,000 tooverhaul an R-28 engine, it probably costs $60,000 now, so that’s one of the concerns, butthe skills of the people that are flying and maintaining those airplanes today are verygreat. They’ve had a lot of experience in repairing and replacing wing spars because ofrust. In our B-17 we’ve replaced a couple of spars in the horizontal stabilizer. Wecompare notes with other war bird operators and that’s been a very important part ofkeeping these airplanes flying safely. The airplanes, no matter how old they are, don’tseem to be the culprit when there’s an accident; it’s generally the pilot.

What airplane are you flying now?

A Cessna Citation 6 which is a great airplane and the beautiful Piaggio Avantiturboprop. My wife is Italian and to her the Avanti is the Ferrari of the sky.

Have you got your eye on anything else?

I do have another aircraft on order but I’m not sure that I’m going to complete theproject because of the length of time before it’s going to be delivered and that is aBell TiltRotor 609. Theynow have a civilian version which I’m acquiring it with my partner, Phil Hixon, who is oneof the most competent helicopter pilots that I’ve ever met. I just sold my J-3 Cub to himand he’s out flying it this morning.

What lies ahead for general aviation?

The new Advantage single engine jet and the Cirrus both have very interestingpotentials. General aviation is healthy thanks to our current economic prosperity whichhas driven the big increases in jet sales, and I just hope that during the next slowing upof our economy people won’t just forget about the advantages of GA in business and medicalservices and rescue work. All we need is just one trip to the airport, standing in line atboth the ticket counter and the baggage counter to understand why we must keep our privateaviation industry strong.

What challenges lie ahead for you?

This TiltRotor is a possibility of experiencing a new kind of flight. Who knows whatmight arise on the horizon. I’ve never passed up an opportunity that I felt was anextension of my flying career and don’t suppose I will in the future.