Steve Hinton

No doubt you've sat in the dark and eaten popcorn watching Steve Hinton fly - and next weekend millions will watch his work as a pilot and aerial coordinator for "Pearl Harbor." Or maybe you've sat in the sun with a hotdog watching him race at Reno. Steve grew up around warbirds at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, Calif., learned how to fly for the camera from the masters, raced, crashed and won gold at Reno - twice. Since 1990, he has flown the T-33 pace plane there to declare "Gentlemen, you have a race." In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Steve about making "Pearl Harbor," Reno, his B-25 camera platform, restoring warbirds, and flying for the movies.


Steve HintonSteven Hinton was born April 1,1952, in China Lake, California. When Steve was seven years old, his parents bought ahouse in Claremont, Calif., next to Ed Maloney. Ed’s son Jim became Steve’s bestfriend in second grade — they grew up together, became pilots together, andwork together in the museum Ed started, Planesof Fame Museum in Chino, Calif. Steve also married Ed’s daughter. Stevesoloed at 19, and has been immersed in warbirds ever since. Air shows and racingat Reno connected him with a group of pilots who flew for the movies and TV, andhe joined them to fly for "Baa Baa Black Sheep" in 1978. He also wonraces at Reno and Mojave that year in the Red Baron. He raced and won at Miami,Mojave, and set a world speed record at Tonopah in 1979, but crashed at Renoafter an engine failure. The crash broke his back, his leg and his ankle, but hecame back two years later to race again, and won again in 1985 in a modifiedCorsair F2G.

Chino is also home to Steve’s company, FighterRebuilders, which restores and preserves warbirds. In 1986 Steve helped JohnSandberg build Tsunami, then raced it for four years. [Tsunami crashed onshort final in September, 1991 on a refueling stop in Pierre, South Dakota,killing John Sandburg.] Steve’s work for the movies finds him switching hatsas pilot in front of the camera, pilot of the camera ship, aerial coordinatorfor the flight scenes, and preparing warbirds. You’ll see that work in"Iron Eagle III," "Flying Misfits," "Always,""Forever Young," "Con Air," "Six Days, Seven Nights,""Air Force One," and this summer’s blockbuster, "PearlHarbor," which opens next Friday. He just returned from flying for a newMel Gibson movie "We Were Soldiers Once…And Young," which will openaround Thanksgiving, 2001. By then Steve will have made his 25th annualappearance at Reno, and 12th year flying the trademark T-33 pace planeannouncing "Gentlemen, you have a race."

When did you start flying?

I started lessons when I was 18 and got my license at 19. A CFI named JimNunn gave me the first 10 hours of dual, then I got my checkride from RuthJohnson, who had been a WASP in WWII and raced at Cleveland after the war. AfterI got my private, Jim Maloney and I started flying everything we could get ourhands on — Pipers, Cessnas, and everything on the airport. Growing up aroundthe museum we did every odd job you could think of trying to build flying time.A fellow named Ross Diehl, who was a retired Air Force pilot that flew forWestern Airlines, took Jim and me under his wing and with about 150 hours I gotchecked out in the AT6. I flew that a lot, then with about 300 hours I gotchecked out in a Mustang, and flew the Hellcat after that. Times were differentback then, and also we had been eating, sleeping and drinking airplanes since wewere kids. We had worked on them, everything from painting them to changingengines, so you really can’t compare it to somebody walking in off the streetwith 300 hours.

After that I got a job working for Leroy Penhall on the T-33s and F-86s hewas importing from Canada. I got checked out in a T-33 when I was 22. I canremember when Leroy asked me if I wanted to fly the jets around the county. Iwas so excited I got my commercial and my instrument in two weeks. I got theinstrument rating in a C-150 and my commercial in a P-51 with Ruth Johnson.

I flew the T-33 and Leroy’s P-51 around the country all of ’74 and half of’75. I wanted to be an airline pilot so I would have time off to work at themuseum. Jim and I had our vision of what we wanted the air museum to be, and Edwas very supportive of that. We were able to fly all the planes that werestored.

How did you get from airline pilot to racing at Reno and flying inHollywood?

It’s kind of all connected. Leroy’s company was called Fighter Imports, andwe delivered an F-86 and a T-33 to Gary Levitz. We took the planes to the airraces and crewed them while Bob Hoover did air shows in them, so that’s whereyou meet people and things happen. Leroy died in 1975 and Fighter Importsclosed, then Frank Sanders bought the hangar about a year and a half after that.When Leroy died we had nine T-33s, two P-51s and one F-86 that we were disposingof, and I met and checked out a lot of the pilots who bought them.

My intent was still to be an airline pilot when I got involved with the"Baa Baa Black Sheep" television series in 1978. John Stokes fromTexas had a Corsair, and I had met him when we had moved some B-25s for him.Gerald Martin had flown John’s Corsair in the TV movie, "Black SheepSquadron" and when the series came out John asked me to fly. I was 25 yearsold and I said "Sign me up!"

About that time I got involved with the Red Baron racing team, and raced andwon Reno in 1978. I got hired by Western Airlines in 1979 so lots of things werehappening at once. My dad always told me to do something I enjoyed doing, andeven though a lot the pace was pretty quick none of what I was doing seemed likehard work because I was enjoying it all.

How did you learn the craft of flying for the camera?

  Steve Hinton

On "Baa Baa Black Sheep" I was the kid in the group. Frank Talman wasflying, Jim Applebee was flying, Jim Gavin, who was the premier Hollywood motionpicture pilot, was running the show, Tom Friedkin, who I knew from the air showbusiness, was flying, and in that group I was all ears. I did what they asked meto do, I had been trained by my buddy Ross Diehl to do the formation flying, andI tried to do it all safely. Being the kid in the group gave me some notoriety,and Gavin and Friedkin were doing a lot of work in Hollywood and gave me thechance to work with them. I just finished working with Jim Gavin flyingSkyraiders for a new Mel Gibson movie called "We Were Soldiers Once."

I’ve just always tried to learn as I went and do my best, and set goals formyself and try and achieve them, and that applies to learning something orrestoring an airplane or putting up a hangar.

How do you apply that process to staging a shot for a movie? Do you get aconcept of what the director wants to see and do the planning yourself, or is itmore of a team effort?

It depends. Let’s take "PearlHarbor," for instance. It’s a big, big show, probably the biggest showin the last 30 years with airplanes. You spent a lot of time talking in generalterms about what you could do, what’s available, then after you read the scriptyou have your version of how it should look and how to accomplish it, then youget into the budget, and you talk directly with the director and start planningit out. In the case of "Pearl Harbor" we came up with a huge, mondobudget that was much higher than the studio had in mind, so we had to trim itdown.

This was such a big job that it took two of us to do it. I worked with AlanPurwin, who owns Helinet. He and Icoordinated the movie, and after several meetings with the director and theproduction staff, we moved to location scouting and got more specificinstructions and ideas. Gradually you plan how to do some things and rule somethings out and figure out what you can do and a budget you can do it with.

Can you tell us what that number is without violating your disclosureagreements with Disney?

I can’t, but I will tell you something about the budget. You see a lot of CGI— computer generated imaging — in a lot of films, but it’s much more expensivethan flying the real airplanes. To give you an idea, when we shipped the planesto Hawaii, Disney insured them for over $50 million, because that’s how much itwould have cost them to CGI the flying sequences if the planes didn’t get there.Industrial Light and Magic says they’re still 10 years away from being able tobuild a computer flying sequence for the same money as filming an airplane.

How many planes did you ship from Chino?

Planes of Fame shipped four airplanes,five from the Confederate Air Force, two from John Paul in Boise, one from BobPond in Palm Springs, a helicopter from Helinet, a Zero and a T-28 fromDavid Price, and another Zero from Champion Air Group. The Zeros from Championare Russian replicas, the one from Planes of Fame is original.

How many days were you on the set?

  Steve Hinton

We were there for five six-day weeks, and there were several trips over for prepbefore that. We had 32 people in our aerial department, including mechanics andcamera people, and we had one of the big seaplane hangars all to ourselves.

The Navy let us operate the airport with our own people. We coordinated withthe Navy, the FAA, the airlines, and the smaller operators about how we would beoperating in our confined space, and we had noise abatement procedures to complywith. So it was a big deal to get all this coordinated.

Can you compare it to another film you worked on, say "Six Days,Seven Nights?"

I did some work in that film, but I wasn’t a big part of it. People weregetting replaced as the show progressed, and of the five weeks in Hawaii I didtwo and a half, then I did some stuff in LA down at Malibu beach.

I’m guessing that when you have a scene where an actor is supposed to looklike he’s flying it’s a lot easier to communicate with an actor who is already apilot.

You do hear the stories about prima donna actors but I can say to this day Ihaven’t run into too many jerks. I guess you could say that some listen morethan others. One funny thing happened on Pearl Harbor. Alec Baldwin, who playsJimmy Doolittle, was in the B-25 with me. He’s in the left seat and I’m flyingfrom the right seat. I’ve got the airplane tucked into formation with anotherB-25 that is filming him flying, and they’re also filming him from my airplanefrom over his shoulder. If he’s going to show up on camera from the other B-25,we have to get in close, so we’re about 10 feet away, tucked in there tight.

I told him "When you’re flying formation, you’re looking at him,you’re not looking forward, or looking around, or looking down, you’reconcentrating on him. I must have told him 20 times, and he looked down,and around, but he never looked at the other plane. Maybe he knows something Ididn’t and we’ll have to see when the film comes out, but I finally startedlaughing and figured "oh well."

I’ve had directors say "Make it look like you’re flying," and theywant you to grunt and bob around instead of sitting there and flying like mostof us do. A director will ask "What does a pilot say when he’sflying?" and you tell them, and they say "That doesn’t sound right.What did they say in Top Gun?" and finally I say "Tell me what youwant me to say and I’ll say it."

Can you walk us through the P-40 chase in "Pearl Harbor"? Howdid you lay it out and get it on film?

  Planning in Pearl Harbor.

We start by briefing who was going to fly what, then we’d meet with the directorabout the best place for the cameras, then talk to the special effects peopleabout what they had in mind, then have a detailed safety briefing. There were acouple of times when the Navy stepped in — rightfully so — because we weretalking about flying 250 miles an hour 10 feet off the ground in a populatedarea, or turning around a hangar, and they weren’t comfortable with it. So onceeverybody’s in agreement, we’d take off and have radio communication with thecoordinator who’s right next to the director. Then we would do some practiceruns so we were comfortable with what we had to do in the air and while they gotthe timing right on the ground. We took out one scene with the P-40 because fromthe ground it looked like we could get through this one little space, but oncewe saw it from the air we didn’t think we could do it.

Once the smoke was on and all the pyrotechnics were firing, rarely wouldthere be a take two. There might be a lot of practice runs, but once it reallywent off that was it. This movie was really strict on the budget and as much asany one person or group thought that we should do a scene again, the directorknew what he wanted and once he got it we were done.

When you’re the aerial coordinator on a historical picture are you incharge of historical accuracy, too?

Not at all. If you’re a total nut for historical accuracy and one detail outof place is going to ruin your day, don’t see this film. We went out of our wayto get the right airplanes if they were available. We couldn’t find any earlyP-40s so we used later ones. The history buffs will tell you that the Zerosweren’t green — and they’re right, they were gray — but if they’re all graythe general audience wouldn’t know a Zero from a Val. The director wantedsomething menacing and that was his call, and they look great. Some of themarkings are a little off, but if people can get past that I think they’ll enjoythe picture.

I didn’t make the movie. I was part of the crew that provided the action andthe director made the movie. He’ll get all of the credit and deserves every bitof it. The Navy supported this 100 percent. They’ve seen it and they love it.I’m still kind of close to it, having followed it from the first script to thelast shot when we take off from the Constellation, but I think when the dustsettles it’ll have a strong impact on a lot of people and it’ll be one of thebetter films of all time.

Why are you using a B-25 as your camera plane?

It’s an old airplane but there isn’t an airplane that will do what thatairplane will do for anything close to that price. It’s a big, rugged, overbuiltairplane that can carry a big load, stay up a long time, go fast or slow, youcan bolt something on the outside of it, bolt something on the inside of it, youcan fly it off of dirt strips, it has great engines and plenty of power, you canlook right out the tail without any obstructions, carry a crew of ten if youhave to, I could go on and on about it.

For "Pearl Harbor" we put a gyro-stabilized 35mm camera on the tail— it’s the only fixed-wing plane ever to carry a gyro camera — and you canhang 240 pounds back in the tail and still be within CG. You can carry a ton offilm, you’ve got 400 amps of 24V power that will run just about anything you canbolt in the airplane. Paul Mantz operated B-25s for a lot of years. So I use aB-25 because it’s the only plane I can do all that with. Plus, we’ve got one.

Is the community of motion picture pilots a kind of brotherhood, or is ita little more cutthroat than that?

Guys are guys and companies are companies, and everybody would like to havethe job, so there’s some competition. But we’re also very cooperative andfriendly, and the industry does a pretty good job of weeding out new people thatdon’t know what they’re doing. If you do a good job you’ll be remembered for it.

There are a lot more helicopter guys than there are guys that specialize inwarbirds. Most of the time the aerial coordinators in the movies are helicopterpilots because every movie has a helicopter, whether it’s flying as part of thestory or holding a camera.

  the crew from Always
  The crew from "Always" Steve’s in dark blue.

We formed a group called the Motion PicturePilots Association about three years ago. We wanted a united voice to dealwith the regional FSDO bureaucracy of the FAA. They’re not bad guys but therules change when you go from Chicago to Van Nuys or Boise. What really sparkedit was one of our guys was doing a Mel Gibson movie and it called for a scenewhere guys rappel down from a helicopter onto a building. The FAA would not givethem a permit to do that. It has been done a thousand times, the military doesit, the police do it, and in this case the FAA insisted that the helicopter havea way of dropping its external load. That wasn’t going to work because there’sno way you’re going to drop a human being off a helicopter.

So we went to Washington and they said the only way to handle this was toform a group and make recommendations. So we did, and they’re going into Chapter52 of the Inspector’s Handbook and I think now we’ll get the conformity andconsistency that we were looking for.

Tell us about your 1979 crash at Reno.

I was flying the Red Baron. It was a highly modified P-51 with aRolls-Griffon engine, counter-rotating props, clipped wings, an extended tailand a very small cockpit. It was a Mustang that was designed just for air racing— to go as fast as it could go. I was part of the crew that built it, and Iknew it pretty well. The owner, Ed Browning, was a first-class owner and hedidn’t spare any expense to make the airplane as safe as it could be, butthere’s always a risk when you’re pushing equipment harder than it was designedfor.

I raced it at Reno in ’78 and won, went to another race and won, and in ’79we won the Miami and Mojave races, then we set a world speed record with it inAugust. At Reno the engine failed and I couldn’t make the runway. I landed shortand through no skill of my own I lived through it. I hit the ground and hit arock pile and the plane exploded into a zillion pieces and a big fireball, and Iended up in a part of the cockpit away from the fire.

Were you conscious?

I hit so hard it didn’t even seem hard, then it was like a dream. I broke myback, my leg and my ankle, and got banged up real good. The next week inintensive care was like a day, then the next month in the hospital seemed liketwo years. My girlfriend at the time — my wife now — and all my friends got megoing again and up and I started flying at Western Airlines again until I wasfurloughed about a year later.

I was really lucky. Some people get injuries like that skiing. I was 27 and Ihealed pretty well. I don’t run as fast as I used to and I lost about an inch ofmy height, but I give my orthopedic surgeon a lot of credit because all my bonespoint in the right direction and I have full movement.

I raced again in ’81 in a Mustang, then we built an F2G Corsair and raced itin ’82, ’83, ’84 and won in ’85. That was a great project for the museum. TheSuper Corsair was modified for racing, but our mods were variations on mods thathad already been done before. People had put big engines in the Corsairs, butnobody done what we did in terms of redesigning the cowling, and using oilcooler inlets, and wingtips, and mods like that. It was a great learningexperience.

After we won Reno in ’85 a friend of mine, John Sandburg, asked me to work onTsunami, and we got that ready for Reno in ’86 and raced it for four years. Thatwas another great learning experience. I had never flown a plane that had neverflown in some form before — one that came from a piece of paper. We did a lotof testing, working our way up to 500 MPH, changing flight controls, changingthe scoops. We never won Reno but we did win the Dallas race with it. It wasplagued with mechanical problems most of which were engine problems and lookingback there are some things we probably could have done differently.

You look pretty content in the T-33. What’s it going to take to get youback on the race course?

Did that. Priorities change. I like being involved with the pace plane. Maybeif I didn’t have all these other things in my life I’d be interested in it, butto be competitive takes a lot out of you. Bill DiStefani has been glued to itfor 15 years and Lyle Shelton has been at it longer than that. It’s a greatadrenaline rush. I haven’t flown combat but I know guys that have, and they saythere’s nothing like Reno. Even the astronauts and the test pilots say it reallygets their heart going.

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.