Steve Hinton

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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 a house in Claremont, Calif., next to Ed Maloney. Ed's son Jim became Steve's best friend in second grade — they grew up together, became pilots together, and work together in the museum Ed started, Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, Calif. Steve also married Ed's daughter. Steve soloed at 19, and has been immersed in warbirds ever since. Air shows and racing at Reno connected him with a group of pilots who flew for the movies and TV, and he joined them to fly for "Baa Baa Black Sheep" in 1978. He also won races 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 Reno after an engine failure. The crash broke his back, his leg and his ankle, but he came back two years later to race again, and won again in 1985 in a modified Corsair F2G.

Chino is also home to Steve's company, Fighter Rebuilders, which restores and preserves warbirds. In 1986 Steve helped John Sandberg build Tsunami, then raced it for four years. [Tsunami crashed on short final in September, 1991 on a refueling stop in Pierre, South Dakota, killing John Sandburg.] Steve's work for the movies finds him switching hats as pilot in front of the camera, pilot of the camera ship, aerial coordinator for 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, "Pearl Harbor," which opens next Friday. He just returned from flying for a new Mel Gibson movie "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young," which will open around Thanksgiving, 2001. By then Steve will have made his 25th annual appearance at Reno, and 12th year flying the trademark T-33 pace plane announcing "Gentlemen, you have a race."

Here's a list of films and TV shows Steve has flown in

When did you start flying?

I started lessons when I was 18 and got my license at 19. A CFI named Jim Nunn gave me the first 10 hours of dual, then I got my checkride from Ruth Johnson, who had been a WASP in WWII and raced at Cleveland after the war. After I got my private, Jim Maloney and I started flying everything we could get our hands on — Pipers, Cessnas, and everything on the airport. Growing up around the 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 for Western Airlines, took Jim and me under his wing and with about 150 hours I got checked out in the AT6. I flew that a lot, then with about 300 hours I got checked out in a Mustang, and flew the Hellcat after that. Times were different back then, and also we had been eating, sleeping and drinking airplanes since we were kids. We had worked on them, everything from painting them to changing engines, so you really can't compare it to somebody walking in off the street with 300 hours.

After that I got a job working for Leroy Penhall on the T-33s and F-86s he was importing from Canada. I got checked out in a T-33 when I was 22. I can remember when Leroy asked me if I wanted to fly the jets around the county. I was so excited I got my commercial and my instrument in two weeks. I got the instrument 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 the museum. Jim and I had our vision of what we wanted the air museum to be, and Ed was very supportive of that. We were able to fly all the planes that we restored.

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

It's kind of all connected. Leroy's company was called Fighter Imports, and we delivered an F-86 and a T-33 to Gary Levitz. We took the planes to the air races and crewed them while Bob Hoover did air shows in them, so that's where you meet people and things happen. Leroy died in 1975 and Fighter Imports closed, 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 disposing of, 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 from Texas 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 Sheep Squadron" and when the series came out John asked me to fly. I was 25 years old and I said "Sign me up!"

About that time I got involved with the Red Baron racing team, and raced and won Reno in 1978. I got hired by Western Airlines in 1979 so lots of things were happening at once. My dad always told me to do something I enjoyed doing, and even though a lot the pace was pretty quick none of what I was doing seemed like hard 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 was flying, Jim Applebee was flying, Jim Gavin, who was the premier Hollywood motion picture pilot, was running the show, Tom Friedkin, who I knew from the air show business, was flying, and in that group I was all ears. I did what they asked me to do, I had been trained by my buddy Ross Diehl to do the formation flying, and I 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 the chance to work with them. I just finished working with Jim Gavin flying Skyraiders 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 for myself and try and achieve them, and that applies to learning something or restoring an airplane or putting up a hangar.

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

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

This was such a big job that it took two of us to do it. I worked with Alan Purwin, who owns Helinet. He and I coordinated the movie, and after several meetings with the director and the production staff, we moved to location scouting and got more specific instructions and ideas. Gradually you plan how to do some things and rule some things 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 disclosure agreements 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 expensive than flying the real airplanes. To give you an idea, when we shipped the planes to Hawaii, Disney insured them for over $50 million, because that's how much it would 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 to build 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 Bob Pond in Palm Springs, a helicopter from Helinet, a Zero and a T-28 from David Price, and another Zero from Champion Air Group. The Zeros from Champion are 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 prep before that. We had 32 people in our aerial department, including mechanics and camera 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 with the Navy, the FAA, the airlines, and the smaller operators about how we would be operating in our confined space, and we had noise abatement procedures to comply with. 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 were getting replaced as the show progressed, and of the five weeks in Hawaii I did two 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 look like he's flying it's a lot easier to communicate with an actor who is already a pilot.

You do hear the stories about prima donna actors but I can say to this day I haven't run into too many jerks. I guess you could say that some listen more than others. One funny thing happened on Pearl Harbor. Alec Baldwin, who plays Jimmy Doolittle, was in the B-25 with me. He's in the left seat and I'm flying from the right seat. I've got the airplane tucked into formation with another B-25 that is filming him flying, and they're also filming him from my airplane from 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're concentrating 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 I didn't and we'll have to see when the film comes out, but I finally started laughing and figured "oh well."

I've had directors say "Make it look like you're flying," and they want you to grunt and bob around instead of sitting there and flying like most of us do. A director will ask "What does a pilot say when he's flying?" 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 you want me to say and I'll say it."

Can you walk us through the P-40 chase in "Pearl Harbor"? How did 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 director about the best place for the cameras, then talk to the special effects people about what they had in mind, then have a detailed safety briefing. There were a couple of times when the Navy stepped in — rightfully so — because we were talking about flying 250 miles an hour 10 feet off the ground in a populated area, or turning around a hangar, and they weren't comfortable with it. So once everybody's in agreement, we'd take off and have radio communication with the coordinator who's right next to the director. Then we would do some practice runs so we were comfortable with what we had to do in the air and while they got the timing right on the ground. We took out one scene with the P-40 because from the ground it looked like we could get through this one little space, but once we 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 would there be a take two. There might be a lot of practice runs, but once it really went off that was it. This movie was really strict on the budget and as much as any one person or group thought that we should do a scene again, the director knew what he wanted and once he got it we were done.

When you're the aerial coordinator on a historical picture are you in charge of historical accuracy, too?

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

I didn't make the movie. I was part of the crew that provided the action and the director made the movie. He'll get all of the credit and deserves every bit of 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 the last shot when we take off from the Constellation, but I think when the dust settles it'll have a strong impact on a lot of people and it'll be one of the better 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 that airplane will do for anything close to that price. It's a big, rugged, overbuilt airplane that can carry a big load, stay up a long time, go fast or slow, you can bolt something on the outside of it, bolt something on the inside of it, you can fly it off of dirt strips, it has great engines and plenty of power, you can look right out the tail without any obstructions, carry a crew of ten if you have 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 can hang 240 pounds back in the tail and still be within CG. You can carry a ton of film, you've got 400 amps of 24V power that will run just about anything you can bolt in the airplane. Paul Mantz operated B-25s for a lot of years. So I use a B-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 it a little more cutthroat than that?

Guys are guys and companies are companies, and everybody would like to have the job, so there's some competition. But we're also very cooperative and friendly, and the industry does a pretty good job of weeding out new people that don'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 in warbirds. Most of the time the aerial coordinators in the movies are helicopter pilots because every movie has a helicopter, whether it's flying as part of the story or holding a camera.

  the crew from Always
  The crew from "Always" Steve's in dark blue.
We formed a group called the Motion Picture Pilots Association about three years ago. We wanted a united voice to deal with the regional FSDO bureaucracy of the FAA. They're not bad guys but the rules change when you go from Chicago to Van Nuys or Boise. What really sparked it was one of our guys was doing a Mel Gibson movie and it called for a scene where guys rappel down from a helicopter onto a building. The FAA would not give them a permit to do that. It has been done a thousand times, the military does it, the police do it, and in this case the FAA insisted that the helicopter have a way of dropping its external load. That wasn't going to work because there's no 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 to form a group and make recommendations. So we did, and they're going into Chapter 52 of the Inspector's Handbook and I think now we'll get the conformity and consistency 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 a Rolls-Griffon engine, counter-rotating props, clipped wings, an extended tail and 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 I knew it pretty well. The owner, Ed Browning, was a first-class owner and he didn't spare any expense to make the airplane as safe as it could be, but there's always a risk when you're pushing equipment harder than it was designed for.

I raced it at Reno in '78 and won, went to another race and won, and in '79 we won the Miami and Mojave races, then we set a world speed record with it in August. At Reno the engine failed and I couldn't make the runway. I landed short and through no skill of my own I lived through it. I hit the ground and hit a rock pile and the plane exploded into a zillion pieces and a big fireball, and I ended 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 my back, my leg and my ankle, and got banged up real good. The next week in intensive care was like a day, then the next month in the hospital seemed like two years. My girlfriend at the time — my wife now — and all my friends got me going again and up and I started flying at Western Airlines again until I was furloughed about a year later.

I was really lucky. Some people get injuries like that skiing. I was 27 and I healed pretty well. I don't run as fast as I used to and I lost about an inch of my height, but I give my orthopedic surgeon a lot of credit because all my bones point 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 it in '82, '83, '84 and won in '85. That was a great project for the museum. The Super Corsair was modified for racing, but our mods were variations on mods that had already been done before. People had put big engines in the Corsairs, but nobody done what we did in terms of redesigning the cowling, and using oil cooler inlets, and wingtips, and mods like that. It was a great learning experience.

After we won Reno in '85 a friend of mine, John Sandburg, asked me to work on Tsunami, and we got that ready for Reno in '86 and raced it for four years. That was another great learning experience. I had never flown a plane that had never flown in some form before — one that came from a piece of paper. We did a lot of testing, working our way up to 500 MPH, changing flight controls, changing the scoops. We never won Reno but we did win the Dallas race with it. It was plagued with mechanical problems most of which were engine problems and looking back 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 you back on the race course?

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

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