Robert J. Pond

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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 career with the airlines. Instead, he went back to school and worked part-time in the family business, Advance Machine Company. The landscape of Mom and Pop grocery stores were being replaced by supermarkets with standardized aisle widths. Among other things, Advance makes those Zamboni-like machines that clean and polish industrial and commercial floors, like... supermarkets. Over forty some years, Bob marketed Advance into a nine-figure business with a product in darned near every supermarket in the free world. Then he bought his own airline.

It isn't technically an airline. It's a collection of at least one of every Navy fighter 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 flown singles, twins, seaplanes, turboprops, helicopters and jets. But it's not all warbirds and glass 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 with a customer of my father's who took us up. The one thing I remember, at probably about age 8 or 9, is that I stuck my hand out the window in the cockpit and the air velocity just about 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 to sign up for the Navy Air Corps program. I was only 18 so my parents had to authorize me to go into the service, which they didn't want to do. I finally talked them into it on December 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 shots and they checked us out for whether we could swim or not and, frankly, I had been swimming all 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 went on to get some physical conditioning and we learned to march and comport with all the military bearing. Since I'd gone to military school I was able to get along pretty fine with the military end of it.

We also learned about engines, learned about airplanes, what makes them fly. Navigation was very important and that was really college-level stuff which some of the cadets really couldn't handle. We had to learn both blinker and Morse code. There was no radio contact with the carrier when you're out in the Pacific so code was important, along with the flags. 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 training school, and we flew J-3 Piper Cubs. I still have one in the museum just like the one I flew there. Sixty-five horsepower and cruises about 54 miles an hour. Although we did continue on with our code and our blinkers and our navigation, the principal thing we did was to learn to fly. From there we went to Iowa Seahawks at the University of Iowa. The Iowa Seahawks were a football team, ranked very high, along with Army and Navy in those war days, and that was physical conditioning to the extreme. Hazardous situations where you're shot down and you have to survive on your own and it really made men out of us little 18-year-olds. From there we went down to Corpus Christi, Texas to the naval air station where we learned to fly the more sophisticated aircraft and got our wings. I ended up in multiengines, which I didn't like at the time but I've appreciated it ever since because 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 had built up to a crescendo in the end of '42, which was a remarkable job when you consider that we only started in 1941, so in a matter of two years we had built tens of thousands of airplanes and trained thousands of pilots for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps. 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 all of the multiengine aircraft the Navy flew from the PBY Catalina to the PB4Y Navy version of 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 the pilots. I was scheduled to go out to Honolulu on July 4, 1945, and, of course, the war then came to a halt and so I actually missed seeing any service in the Pacific. We learned all the carrier tactics and carrier landings, all of this was done in a simulated form and it was a great experience, probably the best three years in my life, save whatever my wife is 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 people flying under bridges and scaring cattle and one thing by low-level flying. I wanted to be a pilot so bad and I wanted to continue on with my training and commission, and I just never felt proper about stepping too far out of line; that went for the nightlife as well as 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 wanted eventually to fly for the airlines. All of us that got serious multiengine training, that was a logical step, so I went back to school. I had been in school about six months while waiting to get into the Navy in 1942, but I really had to pick up as a freshman again. I got my degree in 1948 in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota. From there, I went into a small family machine shop which did repair work for the the flour mills in the Minneapolis area.

I was the bookkeeper for the first six months and then went into sales. We were developing floor scrubbers and vacuum cleaners for the floor cleaning industry. I did a lot of traveling from about 1950 through my retirement in 1989. Millions of miles, mostly in our own aircraft. Started out with a Cessna 180 and then graduated to a brand-new Cessna 182; I paid $12,500 plus the trade-in of my Cessna 180 of about $5,000, so I flew that many, many hours until I stepped up to a Bonanza. From the Bonanza to the Twin Bonanza to the Cessna 310 and on and on and on, until our first jet in 1970. Then we started travelling overseas. We had a factory in Wales in the U.K. and distribution in 80 countries, so I'd go over to England about every six to eight weeks to work with our salesmen. 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 Kermit LaQuey 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 of weather. 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 the insurance companies and the banks were making all the money on the deal, so I decided to get out of the charter and leasing business and had an opportunity to buy a Curtis P-40 and a North American P-51 Mustang. I didn't have any idea what I was going to do with them but eventually, through some motivation on the part of some friends of mine, we decided we'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 war birds, including a B-17, B-25 and most of the fighters. I'm a little heavy on the Navy end; I have an F6F, and the F7F, and the F4F, and the F8F, all of the Grumman Cats from the 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 Advance did turn out to be the leader in the industry, so we were able to make good use of airplanes in the business. At one time we had four aircraft and we were able use them to call on every distributor in every small town. We didn't have to restrict ourselves to where the airlines flew, so we would travel wherever we had distribution, which was in some 400 cities in the United States and 80 countries throughout the world. My dad was scared to death I was going to kill myself in an airplane so he was never on board with the flying program until we got into the jet airplanes. Then he decided that that was the only 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 remember taking him on his first helicopter ride. I had just gotten my type rating in an Alouette helicopter 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 a couple of engine failures in single-engine fighters so you just had to duck your nose down and get down to the nearest field. As I rap on wood I have a greater love of flying than ever before and amazed with all of the safety and convenience that has come to me through my flying activities. I started out at age 10 making models and right now I'm sponsoring the building of scale models of the USS Lexington and some various other ships in the Navy by a sculptor named Skeeter Wachtendonk from Wild Rose, Wisconsin. He spends about nine months on these projects, roughly 10- to 12- foot versions, exacting versions. The tallest is the Rasher submarine. He calls himself The Flying Dutchman. He sculpts in metal to exacting standards, right from the Navy Department drawings. They're now on display at the 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 measured up to 100 feet in length and 20 feet in height. He just finished one for us at the museum of the Battle of Midway, showing a Dauntless diving down from 10,000 feet and sinking two carriers 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 in the collection?

Well, I think the P-51 Mustang is such a fabulous airplane. It's wonderful to fly. It's got the longest range and it's also the fastest of our fighters, so that's certainly a favorite. The next favorite would be the B-25 Mitchell bomber because I've got several hundred hours in that and then, of course the B-17. It flies like a 1930s airplane but it's so dependable and so capable of getting the pilots home that we've seen B-17s with a third of the wing shot off, with the tail half gone, and still very capable of flying and bringing 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 the Smithsonian and we have an F-14 and a Navy version of the F-16 that the Navy has lent to us, we hope in perpetuity. These are displayed on the outside of the museum and will hopefully draw people in to see our collection, which is principally World War II. The museum has a maintenance staff, and we have 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 what we'd do without him. He has not only the background of 20 years rebuilding those airplanes but also flying them, and he is a most competent pilot, helicopter pilot, and jet fighter pilot. 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, but I've never really been interested in the jet end of it, other than for a static display out in front of the museum. At the museum we're propeller folks; it's got to have a propeller and a reciprocating engine to get us excited.

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

(Laughs) I'd say that if Kermit Weeks decides he wants to buy something, there's no competition. He's a young man who has built a wonderful museum in the Orlando area, and it's more of a Walt Disney-type attraction than it is a museum, but it is a wonderful place to visit and he's got a wonderful collection of all types of airplanes. Anything that 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 particularly automobiles, so I got an early start. I was driving regularly when I was 12. Back in those days you didn't even have to have a license, but you were supposed to be 15. I would sit tall in the seat and drive on behalf of my sister, who was 15. I always had three cars when I needed one, and six cars when I needed two, and now today I have 100 cars and I need 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 18 Ferraris, four non-Ferrari race cars, two Eagles, and one Nissan that won 8 of the 10 races it entered in 1988. We're still driving those cars but we're driving them in vintage racing. 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 the record 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 Chrysler AirFlow, 1935; another is a 1948 Tucker that drives as well as it did when Tucker was trying 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, and several others of lesser renown. I've also been a Lincoln man. I bought my first Lincoln as 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 Continental Mark II. All of these cars are of the highest quality and I, until actually owning these cars, didn't realize how dominant Ford Lincoln was in those years with this Lincoln automobile. I'm sure they never made any money, and I think the last year they built the Mark II they only sold 44 of them at $10,000 a copy. We have Maseratis, Lamborghinis, a Chevy Bel-Air, beautiful car, and several Thunderbirds. The '57 T-Bird is a magnificent car that you could inspect in any place and you won't find a drop of oil or grease except in 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 to drive a different car every day. It doesn't always work out that way because we run into dead batteries and sometimes run out of gas because the gas gauge doesn't work and we didn'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 the million-dollar range and I've got so many other cars in that same class like LaSalles and Cadillacs and Rolls Royces, and to pay that kind of money for just one more car in that class has just always been out of the question. I think I have everything else that I'd love 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 first time 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 sponsoring cars and enjoying the racing scene, I decided to build a racer that would compete with these WWII airplanes that were being destroyed throught both the racing itself and the severe use of the engines. The engine we liked was a Nissan engine that had been changed from 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 record for propeller and reciprocal engine aircraft. This was sad but we kind of gave up on the project after having a major accident in the mid-'90s. I still love the car racing but I kind of lost interest in the aircraft racing due to the destruction of so many wonderful historic aircraft such as the Mustang and the Bearcat, and the failure of being able to perform with present-day designs. Burt Rutan designed the Racer and the difficulty was not in 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 met all of our objectives. Number one objective, of course, was the world speed record. [The Racer 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 learning to fly. That's assuming they've got the proper physical attributes which are not really as extensive as what the non-flying public might imagine. Almost anybody can learn to fly and it would be the thrill of a lifetime. Many people have no need for flying, but I still think they ought to have the exhilaration and the great thrill that comes with soloing an aircraft. Soloing is something that can be done in about the same length of time as it takes to learn to drive a car well. Now, there's a great deal more to flying than just soloing the airplane, but self-esteem rises about ten points when someone realizes they're up there alone in the sky. I've also parachuted out of airplane, but that doesn't compare with 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 think it's a Sukhoi engine. We have access to a flying SBD Dauntless, which was actually in battle at Rabaul in the Pacific, and we have access to the Flying Wing. All of these are thanks 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 important milestone. We completed the building as originally designed and now we're working on the expansion, about another 30,000 square feet where we can display exhibits and memorabilia to teach young people about WWII. Our two objectives at the museum are to educate the children and to honor the veterans of the various wars, particularly those that are living in the Cochella Valley.

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

It's very difficult to get original engines and cylinders. People are actually making the cylinders in a foundry and machining them like they came off of the original assembly line. The thing is they're terribly expensive. Where it used to cost maybe $20,000 to overhaul an R-28 engine, it probably costs $60,000 now, so that's one of the concerns, but the skills of the people that are flying and maintaining those airplanes today are very great. They've had a lot of experience in repairing and replacing wing spars because of rust. In our B-17 we've replaced a couple of spars in the horizontal stabilizer. We compare notes with other war bird operators and that's been a very important part of keeping these airplanes flying safely. The airplanes, no matter how old they are, don't seem 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 Avanti turboprop. 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 the project because of the length of time before it's going to be delivered and that is a Bell TiltRotor 609. They now have a civilian version which I'm acquiring it with my partner, Phil Hixon, who is one of the most competent helicopter pilots that I've ever met. I just sold my J-3 Cub to him and 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 interesting potentials. General aviation is healthy thanks to our current economic prosperity which has driven the big increases in jet sales, and I just hope that during the next slowing up of our economy people won't just forget about the advantages of GA in business and medical services and rescue work. All we need is just one trip to the airport, standing in line at both the ticket counter and the baggage counter to understand why we must keep our private aviation industry strong.

What challenges lie ahead for you?

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