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The slowly fading art of flying—and maintaining—Cold War fighter jets
Monday, 23 January 2017 10:00

JT3APrivately owned warbirds still soar because of the efforts of a few dedicated folks.

HOUSTON—My first thought was that I should have rented a wider lens. Sitting in front of me was a vintage two-seat Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk, and this aircraft dominated the space. It loomed like a temporarily grounded raptor, simultaneously enormous and oddly toy-like.

The Skyhawk sat poised on chocked gear with its nose cocked slightly upward, like it was ready to go, this very instant, decorate a jungle canopy with a long string of burning nape. A painted Playboy bunny perched impudently at the top of the empennage—the logo of Headquarters & Maintenance Squadron 11, based out of Danang, Vietnam.

No matter how far back I shuffled in the crowded hangar, I couldn’t quite fit the whole aircraft in frame. Let that be a lesson, would-be photographers: the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L is a hell of a lens, but sometimes, 24mm just isn’t wide enough.


Four, on the floor

The Skyhawk—the first of four vintage jets I got to see this day—holds Bureau Number 153524 and first saw service in 1967 in "Fast FAC" missions over Vietnam (that is, "Forward Air Control" missions into "hot" areas). It is now the property of the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation, an education nonprofit group that maintains a large number of historical aircraft from various eras. Several of the Foundation’s Vietnam-era aircraft are stabled in Ellington Field, southeast of Houston in Clear Lake and just a few miles away from the Johnson Space Center. The Foundation’s website features detailed write-ups on the provenance of each of its aircraft, including 153524, but my visit to the hangars in Ellington wasn’t an official Foundation activity—rather, it was the result of a personal request to professional pilot and family friend Rick Sharpe.

Sharpe might be a somewhat familiar name to Ars readers. A couple of years ago, he took me up in a Folland Gnat trainer for a quick acrobatic jaunt. At the time, he mentioned that he was busy working on several other jets, including a MiG-21, and invited me to come and see the aircraft when I had time.

As it turns out, Sharpe is a great fellow to know. He’s chief pilot for the Collings Foundation in Houston and for the World War II-focused Lone Star Flight Museum; he's also the president of the Vietnam War Flight Museum, which partners with the Collings Foundation and maintains its own stable of vintage aircraft (both display and flight-worthy). As we paced around the Skyhawk, Sharpe told us that the Collings Foundation and the Vietnam War Flight Museum together maintain the largest collection of flyable Vietnam-era aircraft in the world.

"It’s a beautiful aircraft to fly," Sharpe said as we stepped gingerly through the crowded hangar. Soon he talked us through the provenance of the A-4 (the Collings Foundation site has a detailed write-up of the aircraft’s history that is far more complete than anything I can provide). "But it is a delta wing airplane. It flies under power. If you pull the power off on landing, you’ll do it once—you won’t do it twice!" He continued giving us a quick lesson in aerodynamics and physics: the small wing area made the A-4 well-suited for service on an aircraft carrier, where hangar and deck space is at a premium, but it comes with penalties to the flight characteristics. In particular, a delta wing shape like the A-4 comes with a lot of drag, which means you need a lot of thrust to keep the wings generating lift.

"How many hours do you have on this particular aircraft?" I asked.

"Oh, I haven’t got that many in this one," Sharpe said modestly. "I’ve just got maybe about 50 hours in this aircraft."

Sharpe is a tall fellow, a silver-haired aviator with a ready smile who radiates a feeling of confidence and presence. He’s clearly in his element as he points out the aircraft’s features in a tour guide’s voice flavored with a bit of Texas twang. He knows what he’s doing because he’s been flying for longer than I’ve been alive—Sharpe went through flight training courtesy of the Navy in January 1976. When we ask how many aircraft he’s qualified in, he pauses for a moment and looks at the ceiling. "Um—I flew the T-33s, the Venom, the Vampire, the Casa, the Fouga, the F-86, the F-100, the A-4, the MiG-21, MiG-17, MiG-15…" He doesn’t mention the Folland Gnat I rode in, nor the Hawker and Citation jets he flies professionally for the aircraft management company he runs as a day job, nor the Huey and Cobra helicopters he gets to tool around in at the Vietnam War Flight Museum.

We’ve got the hangar to ourselves on this mid-week early morning, and Sharpe lets us climb up into the A-4’s dual cockpit. There are dual controls, front and rear, and the rear seat would be occupied by either the instructor-pilot if the aircraft was on a training flight or by the forward air controller if the aircraft was flying a "Fast FAC" sortie. I step gingerly over the side and onto the seat and then lower myself into the cockpit. I feel like a banana being dressed back up in its peel—the fit is extremely snug. It’s obvious, sitting in the tight space, why pilots sometimes refer to the belting-in process as "strapping on the aircraft." It smells of oil, hydraulic fluid, fuel, and old canvas—it smells, I think, like war. It’s difficult to wedge my camera into the cockpit at an angle where I can get any of the instruments in frame and focused. Once again, I wish for that wider lens.

Sharpe tells me it’s OK to move the controls, so I push down on the rudder pedals. The force required to budge them is tremendous. I grunt, and he laughs. "The aircraft can actually be flown in manual reversion mode—you can actually fly the airplane without hydraulics. Whereas with the F-100, if you lose the hydraulics, you’re done."

Before we leave the A-4 to walk to the next aircraft, I ask him about power and thrust. The A-4 lacks an afterburner, but its dual-spool Pratt & Whitney J52 turbojet makes 9,600 lbs of thrust (about 42 kN), giving the approximately 11,000 lb (about 5,000kg) aircraft an extremely zippy thrust-to-weight ratio. "It’s got awesome acceleration," he said with a smile. "But the A-4 doesn’t have a flying tail—it’s got a conventional elevator, so it’s kind of like the MiG-17. It’s considered a transonic aircraft. Could they go supersonic? Yeah. Would you like it? No. You’re gonna lose some elevator control. It doesn’t have any q-gearing or the things that make a supersonic aircraft handle well in the high transonic range."

Bring me to life

The A-4 came to the Collings Foundation from the AMARC field at Davis-Monthan AFB. It had been mothballed after service and compared to other planes of its vintage, it didn’t have as many hours in the air and required comparatively less work to be restored to flyable status. Nonetheless, bringing the aircraft back to life cost the foundation about $200,000.

"There’s quite a bit of work to taking an airplane 'out of mothball,'" Sharpe explained. "And of course we couldn’t do it on the airbase, so the airplane had to be disassembled and shipped to a place where it could be reassembled."

Finding parts for this aircraft was also a lot easier than parts-scrounging for a typical Vietnam fighter. "They’d brought over a crew from New Zealand who were actively working on the airplane," Sharpe said. "They were able to get parts—the A-4 was still in service when this thing was put back together, even though used minimally. And there’s still some support for it—there’s a lot of surplus parts that are still around."

"Is there like an airplane eBay you go to?" I joked.

"There are a few services where people who have these surplus parts, they put it on a listing like PartsBase," Sharpe responded. "They’ll advertise that they have some and what condition they’re in."

For other aircraft that don’t include reactivation service as part of the purchase, the Collings Foundation and the Vietnam War Flight Museum rely mostly on volunteer labor—people who love to wrench on old aircraft and who have the skills to do so.

Each plane is quirky in its own way. And given the decades-old machines they are, they each have their own particular maintenance issues. "It’s always something," Sharpe chuckled. "We had a fuel gauge in the front cockpit here that wasn’t working earlier this year, and trying to find a contractor that can still rebuild the fuel gauge—well, even the smallest things take a lot of effort. And every once in a while, something’s just not available, and it has to be made or adapted."

Deal of the Century (series)

We walked through the chilly December air to the next hangar over and pushed the main doors wide, revealing the long shape of the Collings Foundation F-100F Super Sabre with its distinctive swept wings and oval nose intake, now capped with a faded red protective cover. The F-100 was the first of the so-called "Century Series" fighter aircraft, which represented the state of the art of US military aviation in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This aircraft, serial number 56-3844, has a wild and varied history—it served the US Air Force, the Danish Air Force, the Texas Air National Guard, and then had various civilian owners before being acquired by the Collings Foundation.

After the compactness of the A-4, the Super Sabre feels like a much more substantial aircraft, with its long cigar-like fuselage stretching 50 feet (about 15 meters), 10 feet longer than the Skyhawk. It’s also an Air Force jet, sporting the US Air Force roundel but lacking the Marine A-4’s carrier-grade arresting gear. It’s a strangely graceful aircraft—the design is all curves and sharp angles, and, with its thin raked-back wings and single huge engine, it looks like a real-life version of every kid’s first drawing of a fighter jet.

"The F-100 flew 369,000 missions in Vietnam," Sharpe said as we admired the jet’s sweeping lines. "More missions were flown in F-100s in Vietnam than were flown in P-51s during World War II." Sharp extolled the aircraft’s virtues: when it was first built, the F-100 was a highly sophisticated multi-role aircraft capable of functioning as an air superiority fighter or a bomber (though, surprisingly, an F-100 has never downed another aircraft in air-to-air combat, nor has an F-100 been downed in air-to-air combat). It was, he explained, the first US military aircraft to exceed Mach 1 in level flight.

But by the time the aircraft reached active service in Vietnam, it had been surpassed by other designs (particularly the F-105 Thunderchief)—it wasn’t the fastest or the meanest thing in the sky, but the US built a lot of them. The Super Sabre was ubiquitous both overseas in active service and also stateside in US Air National Guard units. It was a relatively expendable plane, being so common, and the plane’s availability and popularity meant it was present for just about every aerial campaign of the Vietnam War. The Collings Foundation F-100 is a dual-seat version, which Sharpe explains was employed in the same kind of "Fast FAC" forward air control missions as the Skyhawk in the neighboring hangar.

I asked Sharpe if the larger, heavier F-100 cost more to operate than the light Skyhawk, and Sharpe paused. "I guess if you’re figuring on how much it burns, you can figure the A-4 about 3,000 pounds per hour," he responded, referring to the average quantity of fuel burned by the jets under normal flight conditions. "On this one [the F-100], you can figure about 4,500 pounds an hour… I know it holds 1,180 gallons internally, and if we do an internal flight on this airplane and you’re up for an hour, you’ll burn a good 900 gallons on a training sortie."

As I clambered up the ladder to the cockpit, I ask how the bigger F-100 flies. "You know, they were still experimenting with hydraulic controls—the F-86 has really good feedback and control feel, but this one does not have as good feedback, in my opinion," Sharpe said. "It’s a very sensitive airplane, and it’s extremely pitch sensitive. This thing is almost like flying a helicopter." That sensitivity, Sharpe elaborated, comes from the large horizontal stabilizers at the rear of the aircraft. Unlike the A-4, which has traditional fixed horizontal stabilizers with cut-out control surfaces (elevators), the F-100’s entire horizontal stabilizer moves with control input, making it a "stabilator" (a portmanteau of "stabilizer" and "elevator") or "flying tail." In this way, the F-100 is similar to the F/A-18 Super Hornet that I sort of flew last year.

Unlike the computer-controlled modern Super Hornet, though, the Super Sabre didn’t have decades of supersonic design experience behind it. When those big stabilators move, they divert a lot of air—which means even at landing speeds (which in the F-100 means at least 170 knots), F-100 pilots have to be careful not to over-control the aircraft. It’s apparently much more light-footed in the pitch axis than its size would suggest.

Compared to the Skyhawk, the F-100’s cockpit is like lounging in a couch—"it’s a Cadillac cockpit," Sharpe said. In the A-4, the cockpit hugged you closely; in the F-100, there was more than enough room to stretch my legs and wiggle around—something that would probably be appreciated by pilots after a couple of hours flying.

But with bigger jets come more complications. Sharpe explained that the foundation is in the process of getting an FAA Letter of Deviation Authority (a "LODA") on the aircraft, which would enable them to use the jet "for hire" to train prospective student pilots on it. Right now the F-100’s passenger can only be a passenger, not a student getting hours. Considering the small number of F-100s in civilian hands, this legal hiccup greatly complicates the process of certifying new F-100 pilots—and that’s a considerable obstacle to keeping the aircraft flying long-term.

Phantom maintenance menace

I was unprepared for what sat in the next hangar over: a truly enormous F-4D Phantom II. The sheer size of the aircraft was boggling—it’s one thing to see pictures but another thing to actually stare at it with your eyes. The jet stretches 63 feet (19 meters) from tip to tail—longer again by half than a typical 40-foot (12 meter) metro bus, and that long humped fuselage seems to go on forever. The F-4’s 38-foot (11.5 meter) wings were folded up at the tips, the better to fit into the cramped confines of the hangar. It is an enormous, beefy jet—built, as Sharpe explained, to project power and to push the boundaries of the airborne battlefield.

Like the Collings A-4, the Collings F-4 was rescued from the AMARC boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB; unlike the A-4, it required considerably more effort to make it airworthy (this video has a good summary of the work). Most of the aircraft’s systems were stripped and replaced, including the expensive engines and avionics. In addition to being refurbished on the inside, Sharpe informed us that the aircraft was dressed in Robin Olds livery, sporting a red "kill" star on the left forward intake splitter. It’s the only civilian-owned F-4 in the world.

Maintenance specialist Alan Arrowood had been working in the hangar’s small office and walked out to meet us as we entered the hangar. Sharpe introduced us, calling Arrowood the "F-4 guru." Arrowood accepted the praise with a smile; a former F-4 mechanic for the Air Force, Arrowood has been spending his time working for the Collings Foundation and getting the aircraft flight-ready. "This F-4 actually came from the guard unit here," Arrowood explained, referring to the Air National Guard unit stationed at Ellington.

I considered this for a moment. Prior to being renamed the 147th Reconnaissance Wing and having its mission switched to UAVs, Ellington’s wing of fighters and pilots was known as the 147th Fighter Group (and later the 147th Fighter Wing), and they flew F-4Ds from 1986-1989. It’s possible, I thought, resting my hand on the aircraft’s camo-painted aluminum, that I saw this very aircraft flying over my head when I was a boy growing up nearby.

"This airplane is just about ready to fly, and we’ve got a waiting list of people to fly in this airplane," said Sharpe as we slowly circled the warbird. "It’s a $12,000 ride, but there’s a long list!"

"What do you get for your $12,000?" I asked. "You take 'em out to Galveston Bay, flip 'em upside down?"

"They get to ride in an F-4 Phantom!" laughed Sharpe. "But it depends. If it’s an exemption flight, where they don’t have a pilot’s license, then it makes it a little tougher. They can’t do any aerobatics, so it’s pretty much an experience flight."

"You mean the person sitting in the back—they have to have a pilot’s license?" I asked.

"Right," said Sharpe. "If he’s got a pilot’s license, multi-engine rating, that kind of stuff—then it’s a LODA flight. We do a training flight and you can do everything. On a LODA flight, you can do anything you want."

While I sprawled in the F-4’s cockpit—which, if anything, was even larger than the F-100’s—I asked Sharpe if he had a chance to take the F-4 up. He responded in the negative—it’s one of the few aircraft in the inventory that he’s not rated to fly. He explained that even someone with his level of experience and certification would need to go through a substantial process to qualify as a pilot on the F-4. The fuel costs alone would probably run between $30-40,000 (student pilots have to pay for the fuel used during training, and the supersonic F-4 is a very thirsty bird).

It creates a chicken-and-egg problem, even more so than with the F-100. There aren’t really any F-4 trainers available these days, with the last being at Holloman AFB for the QF-4 program. The Collings Foundation F-4D represents one of the last remaining planes in the US that can be used to certify new F-4 pilots, but due to the LODA training restrictions and the tremendous cost, only a vanishingly small pool of private pilots (almost exclusively former military) would even be able to get their foot in the door.

Queens of the sky—and the hangar

The jets are all "flyable" in that they’re airworthy, but when I asked Sharpe what it would take to get the F-100 or the F-4 off the ground that day, he shook his head. "This would take several weeks to get it back flying," he said of the F-100. The aircraft last flew a year prior, in November 2014, for an airshow. "You’d have to do a retraction test, you’d need to lubricate the aircraft, it would need—it would need pretty much an out-of-service inspection.

The obvious comparison is to a car that hasn’t been driven in a year—fluids need replacing, batteries need charging, tires and other consumables need looking after. Still, it’s much more complicated than that. Military aircraft are much more particular about their care and feeding than cars. With a reasonably modern car, an owner doesn’t have to do a great deal beyond following the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule and have services every few thousand miles. With a military aircraft—particularly one designed and built at the end of the 1950s—a tremendous amount of maintenance is required before and after every single flight.

And the more complex the jet, the more fiddly it is. The F-4, explained Sharpe, has been grounded for almost two years due to an engine issue. "Collings Foundation has spent over $200,000 on engine repair from small FOD damage…. And it’s got a small fuel cell leak, and it’s got a stab actuator problem that’s keeping it from flying right now," he said. "This has high priority, to get it back in the air—and it’s very close. It’s almost there. This airplane takes an incredible amount of resources, time, and effort to get it flying."

Fighter jets aren’t designed to operate long outside of a military supply chain, with an immediately available inventory of replacement parts and with the wear and usage time on hundreds—sometimes thousands—of components individually tracked. A single jet can be a huge logistical and paperwork burden; this is one of the major reasons why private ownership of old warbirds is so rare. There simply aren’t very many people who can afford the cost and the time to properly maintain a plane that was designed to be serviced by an army—sometimes by the actual literal Army—of clerks and technicians and maintenance workers.

But what about non-US jets? Conventional wisdom says that while the United States spends billions on high-tech solutions to problems, other countries—particularly those whose alphabets include backwards Rs and Ns—aim for the pragmatic rather than the fantastical. As the story goes, NASA spent millions developing a pen that astronauts could use in space, while the Soviets just shrugged and used a pencil, right? (In point of fact, no, that’s not even remotely close to the truth—but, hey, it makes a good segue!)

Red star

Across the street in a different set of hangars is one of Sharpe’s jets—this one of an entirely different provenance. It isn’t sheathed in camo livery; it isn’t even American. The faded stenciling on the jet’s bare, rough aluminum skin is Czech, and it bears the yellow-on-red roundel of the Không Quân Nhân Dân Việt Nam—the Vietnam People's Air Force, or more commonly, the North Vietnamese Air Force.

It is a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, NATO reporting name Fishbed. It is to fighter aircraft what the AK-47 is to rifles: a world-famous Soviet export that has shown up in countries across the globe. While the three aircraft we’d previously seen that day were instruments of American policy in Vietnam, the MiG-21 was one of the jets fielded by the North Vietnamese, tangling with F-4s and Century jets in aerial furballs over jungles and fields. Primary sources cited by Wikipedia credit the NVAF’s MiG-21 pilots with 56 US kills.

The aircraft looks like the blunt instrument it is—rough, unfinished skin, creased with irregularly spaced seams and with its rivets and bolts grimed with soot, like pockmarks. But there is a utilitarian beauty in its lines—the beauty of physics, showing how even a hammer must be streamlined in order to fly ("This is like a John Deere tractor that does Mach 2," Sharpe joked). And even though it’s about a meter longer and wider than the A-4 Skyhawk, the MiG-21’s low and squat landing gear makes it feel far, far smaller. Standing next to the MiG-21 feels almost like standing next to a large, winged car, while the smaller A-4 towers high above your head. The MiG’s compactness is due to its function: as a "home defense" aircraft, it was above all designed to be a fast interceptor that could race to meet incoming fighters and stand them off. This meant it needed a short and stubby delta wing to meet the Mach 2 design requirement. And as it turned out, the MiG-21 was exceedingly good at shooting down other jets.

"Without the MiG-21, the F-16 would never have been built," Sharpe said. "It had a lot of success—it’s a Mach 2 aircraft, and it became a formidable opponent for the F-4 Phantom. It really got US attention."

Sharpe’s F-16 comment is illuminating. The unglamorous MiG and its unexpected success in combat against F-4s and Century-series fighters had a lot to do with killing interest in the Northrop F-5 as the United States’ primary export fighter and forcing the US joint military to come up with something more capable. The result of that was the YF-16/YF-17 competition. The YF-16 went on to become the Air Force’s F-16, but the Navy liked the YF-17 design—so much so that it was developed into the F/A-18 Hornet.

Sharpe’s MiG-21 (which was actually built in 1974 and served in the Czechoslovak Air Force—hence all the Czech stenciling on the skin) is one of only two currently flyable MiG-21s in the US, though Sharpe said he only had the opportunity to fly it on a single jaunt in 2015. Even though it’s a relatively robust aircraft to maintain (at least compared to the US fighters), it’s still a Mach-2 capable interceptor with all the complexity of maintenance that entails. Of course, the MiG is if anything even more profligate with its fuel consumption than the US jets. Efficiency was not a design priority in the 1950s for the engineers at the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau; according to Sharpe, the aircraft can maintain its max rated speed of Mach 2 for about eight minutes at full afterburner before exhausting almost all of its fuel even with an external drop tank. "And the drop tank—that center fuel tank, by the time I taxi out, take off in burner, and clear the pattern—it’s empty," Sharpe said.

Everything about the MiG is a contrast to the other aircraft we’d seen that day. The cockpit canopies are hinged on the right and lack counterweighting or any kind of stops, and these have to be manhandled up. Once past their midpoint, they have to be handled very carefully and pinned with a safety arm, or they’ll flop all the way open and crack against the side of the aircraft. The rear cockpit has zero direct forward visibility—to see ahead, the rear-seater has to manually deploy a small double-mirror mechanism that peers over the top of the canopy. The instrument panel is that striking signature shade of bluish-green, almost turquoise shade—that, above almost everything else, shouts "BUILT IN RUSSIA." And the instrumentation itself, of course, is overflowing with Cyrillic (though Sharpe’s MiG has had most of its switches and gauges re-labeled in English).

Yet for all its foreignness, the MiG-21 is ironically easy to procure parts for. Sharpe told us that the US State Department makes it extremely difficult to deal with acquiring and making airworthy a US fighter—getting the F-4 actually required an act of Congress. On the other hand, far fewer rules and regulations apply to Soviet fighters—if you can afford one, you can simply buy one.

This MiG-21 was donated to the Vietnam War Flight Museum by former commercial pilot Oscar Vickery, who was unable to restore it to flight status himself. Getting it operational required about a year of work, including a full engine swap. In fact, in the hangar next to the Sharpe’s operational MiG-21 sits a second non-flying MiG-21 from a different donor. The second MiG has an airworthiness certificate, but it's being slowly cannibalized for parts and spares to keep the operational aircraft in the air (Sharpe joked that his wife calls the second plane "Tom," which stands for "The Other MiG"). For parts that can’t be scavenged from "Tom," Sharpe has to get creative—including recently placing a custom order with a Chinese rubber manufacturer for 10 sets of tires that would fit the MiG-21’s wheels.

As I stepped gingerly around the hangar with my tripod, trying to get some long exposure shots and almost slipping and falling in a thin puddle of oil next to "Tom," I asked Sharpe if the aircraft was fun to fly. "Oh, it is," he responded quickly. "And it’s a piece of history! The MiG-21 was the most widely produced jet fighter ever—and even today, this is the mainstay for the North Korean air force."

"Yeah, but having flown many different types of jets, though, what’s your opinion of this jet’s combat survivability today, in any kind of modern air engagement?" I asked.

"All wars are wars of attrition," he responded. "And all wars are numbers games. Can an F-22 beat this? Every day of the week. But if you put a 5-to-1 ratio, you’re going to have losses in an F-22. So, how many F-22s at—what are they, $125-$150 million dollars? How many F-22s at a $150 million are you willing to give up and lose to an obsolete $200,000 MiG-21?"

The obvious rejoinder to that was drones; I asked Sharpe how he felt about the increasing use of unmanned aircraft in combat roles, including the possibility of dogfighting.

"Drones can take more Gs, they can operate in more hostile environments. When you lose one you don’t have the thought of losing life—you don’t have rescue missions. That’s the upside of it," he said, speaking quickly. "The downside of it is that the way we’ve always been able to convince people to annihilate other people is we dehumanize them. It was done with the Japanese—they don’t look like us, they don’t have the same values we have… when you have a drone, you’ve actually removed the horror of war. It becomes a video game." I’d completed my circuit of the hangar, and we stood back in front of the angular Cold War fighter. "And I think that’s—militarily, it may be a good step, but for humanity I think it’s bad."

War stories

As we packed up the camera gear and got ready to shut the MiG’s hangar and walk back to our cars, Sharpe talked about the mission of groups like the Collings Foundation and his own Vietnam War Flight Museum: it’s certainly fun to take those supersonic trips into the blue, but each trip requires a massive amount of time and money. Owning a '60s- or '70s-era warbird yourself just isn’t terribly practical unless you can also afford to pay people to keep it operational. The kinds of people who individually own jets like this tend to be few and far between (though Sharpe points out that billionaire Paul Allen reportedly owns his own modern MiG-29).

"It takes a certain amount of commitment and a certain amount of dedication to keep these things going," Sharpe said. "It’s kind of like owning a Rembrandt—I think a lot of the guys that own some of the World War II equipment have sort of abused it. Just because you have enough money to buy a Rembrandt doesn’t mean you put it in your garage and throw darts at it. These are history pieces."

"But as far as a private pilot goes—someone who is just a regular average private pilot wouldn’t be able to aspire to fly something like this—" I waved my hand at the F-4, which we were walking past, "—without enlisting in the Air Force or the Navy for a stint, right?"

"Yeah, this is about as far out as it gets," he responded. "The MiG, the F-100, the F-4—you’re at the real fringes of what civil aviation can actually operate." And, as mentioned earlier, it becomes a catch-22: you need "time in type" to be rated on an aircraft. As far as the FAA is concerned, the only way to be allowed to fly an F-4 or a MiG-21 is to learn in an F-4 or a MiG-21. That can be ridiculously expensive and logistically complicated. The folks who stand the best chance of being able to fly old warbirds are military pilots—and even then things are chancy.

"It’s very hard even for military pilots to fly this kind of airplane as a civilian," he continued. "You’re not being spoon-fed. You’re on your own. You have to watch out for your own airspace, and you’re not traveling at the same speed as the rest of the aircraft. There’s a lot of things to take into account, and it takes a lot of specialized training—even more so than military training."

I asked Sharpe how he deals with it when flying the various fast-moving warbirds he has access to. Ideally, a pilot is able to handle the myriad tasks required without losing awareness of the surroundings and the plane—much of a pilot’s training is given over to knowing exactly what to do in any given flight situation at almost an intuitive level, something that pilots call being "ahead of the aircraft." The more complex and demanding the aircraft, the more difficult it is to master. And at the edge of civil aviation, as he put it, the demands are extreme.

"I try to get mentally squared away before I fly the airplane," said Sharpe. "I come out the day before I’m going to fly and sit in the cockpit, and I’ll go through a little dress rehearsal so I know exactly what I’m going to do. Because you—really, you almost need to get it where it’s all rote, because it’s happening quick. Things are going to happen really, really quick. It’s very hard to use a checklist—you don’t want to be coming into the pattern at 300 knots indicated and be like, okay, let’s see here, what’s next? You need to have the flow down—decide what you’re going to do and be mentally ready, and have it all planned out before you take off."

There’s simply no getting around the sheer expense and time involved in keeping these four birds up and boring holes through the sky, but most of the labor is provided by volunteers—folks who have aircraft maintenance experience and who do it to help preserve the jets. But the kinds of people who have the skills to wrench on these kinds of old aircraft are getting rather old themselves. At some point, new pilots and new maintenance folks have to be trained to do the work. Sharpe is still in fine condition, but age eventually catches us all.

"I’ve tried to entice some people to get checked out in the MiG—simply because it is going to be tough. What happens if I lose my medical, or whatever?" He shook his head. "But it’s really hard. It probably cost me—oh, just about $22,000-$23,000 in fuel to get checked out in the MiG. And we can’t afford to pay for the fuel for them to train in—so yeah, it’s hard."

The Collins Foundation is in a bit of a better position—Sharpe admits that they assisted with the fuel costs for getting him checked out on the F-100—but even then there were logistical issues. "When I was trained in the F-100, there were no instructors," he explained. "There was one guy who was capable of being an instructor, but he was 73 years old when I got typed. With the piston airplanes, you’ve got a bunch of younger guys that are flying them—and hopefully that’ll happen here, but these are so much more expensive, just in fuel operating costs."

The outcome here, in a few years, is that the old jets might actually outlive their masters—an odd twist for a mismatched flock of warbirds. And I have to admit I’ve been eyeing the clock on Saturdays, wondering if I might grab some work gloves and stick my name on the maintenance volunteer list. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than learning how to keep a piece of history flying.

(arstechnica.com)

Photo credit:arstechnica.com

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