Hot Rides For Wannabe Private Fighter Jocks

Since shortly after World War I, civilian pilots have longed to recreate the exploits of famous aviators. Heroes and villains of the Great War, from the Red Baron to Eddie Rickenbacker, inspired people to fly and, in some cases, to fly like fighter pilots in military-inspired racing planes.

But it was in the three decades following World War II that wannabe fighter jocks had the opportunity to get their hands on private fighters — more so than they ever had before or ever would again.

Thanks to the march of aviation progress, some cutting-edge hardware has been relegated to the trash heap of history. With the advent of the jet age in the 1950s, tens of thousands of former piston fighters and trainers were made available on the used market, often for a pittance. There were easy pickings for pilots looking for P-51 Mustangs, T-6 Texans, Vultee BT-13s and even WWII bombers.

Today, the market for warbirds is still going strong. There are a number of good warbirds or faux-birds available that can give today's pilots the best parts of the experience of yesteryear's flying heroes. The vast majority are piston-powered models, but there are jet fighters and trainers, from Grumman Panthers to Cessna T-37 Tweety Birds, in private hands too. With the addition of former Eastern Bloc aircraft, liaison and training models from the Vietnam era, and military-inspired homebuilts, the warbird scene is in full swing today. — Robert Goyer

(Photo credit: JangSu Lee)


Nanchang CJ-6/Yak 52

You may not have the desire to imagine yourself as a communist fighter pilot, but the Nanchang CJ-6 and Yakovlev 52, or Yak 52 for short, are two terrific warbirds that are not only beautiful and fun to fly but also affordable. These former military trainers are popular on the airshow circuit, with groups such as the Aerostars performing formation aerobatics in Yak 52s. The Nanchang CJ-6 is a modified Chinese version of the Yak, which was produced in Russia and is still produced under license in Romania.

The low-wing configuration and full-window canopy of these airplanes provide terrific visibility around all quadrants, making both airplanes wonderful platforms for formation flying and aerobatics. Like the North American T-6, the Yak and CJ-6 are both equipped with roaring radial engines, though there is a difference in the amount of horsepower they each produce.

There are some fairly significant other differences between the Yak and the CJ-6 that you should consider before committing to a purchase. If you plan to do a lot of heavy-duty aerobatics, you may want to consider the Yak over the CJ-6, as the design has a higher load limit, greater horsepower and an inverted fuel system. The CJ-6 was also produced only in the tricycle configuration, so if you are looking for a taildragger, you should go with a Yak.

However, if your mission is focused more on cross-country flight, the CJ-6 is a better choice. Although the power plant has just 285 hp compared to the Yak’s 360, the CJ-6 cruises faster and has a greater range than its Russian sibling. With its bigger fuselage, the CJ-6 also provides more space for any gear you may want to take.

While the flight characteristics of the Yak and CJ-6 make them great warbirds, what makes them stand out as particularly good choices is their affordability. Nice examples of these fighters can be found for less than $100,000, and the cost of operation is economical, with a fuel burn of around 15 gph, about half that of a T-6. — Pia Bergqvist

The Yak 52 and Nanchang CJ-6 are highly capable but very affordable warbirds with low initial purchase costs and manageable fuel and maintenance bills. (Photo credit: Gavin Conroy)

Average Price: $70,000

Seats: 2

Primary Construction: Metal

Landing Gear: Retractable

Engine: Vendeneyev M14P

Horsepower: 360

Cruise Speed: 147 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 230 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 60 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 54 knots

Takeoff Distance: 585 feet

Landing Distance: 975 feet

Range: 280 nm

Usable Fuel: 30 gallons

Useful Load: 639 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +7/-5

Van's RV-4

Van’s lineup of kitplanes might lack the military pedigree of some other airplanes on our list, but the legion of loyal owners known as Van’s Air Force can tell you these sporting homebuilt models are all about pushing limits. And for the purest Van’s Aircraft experience that you can share with a friend, the tandem-seat RV-4 taildragger is the airplane to have.

With handling virtually identical to that of the single-seat RV-3 (the airplane that put Van’s on the map in 1972), the RV-4 is compact but comfortable inside, with fighter jet-like appeal. The flying is done from the front seat, although both occupants have controls — in the RV-4’s case, stick and rudder.

The typical engine for the RV-4 is in the 150 to 160 hp range, though Van’s says engines as small as 125 and as large as 180 hp have been tried since the first kits were sold in 1979. Cruise speed with a 160 hp Lycoming is estimated at 168 knots at 7,500 feet — blindingly fast compared with tricycle gear production airplanes that fly with the exact same engine.

If you plan on building your own RV-4, keep in mind it will take longer compared with Van’s more recent kit models that have parts that are pre-drilled and prefabricated to a higher degree. Van’s estimates an RV-4 will take about 2,000 to 2,200 hours to build versus about 1,500 or so for an RV-7, RV-8 or RV-9.

Another possible drawback of the RV-4 is the tight fit. If you’re taller than 6 feet, opt for the roomier RV-8, Van’s other tandem-seat taildragger. The advantage of the smaller RV-4 is in its handling, which is more likely to induce the famed “Van’s grin” than any other model, save the RV-3. The RV-4 also needs less room for takeoff and landing, a potentially important factor for pilots who fly out of their own small farm strips.

Buying a used RV-4 can be a real bargain, with prices averaging about half of a used RV-8. Asking prices are generally less than $50,000. You can also get a steal of a deal on an unfinished kit, but beware of missing or damaged parts. — Stephen Pope

While many of Van’s designs are configured with side-by-side seating, the RV-4 is a tandem-seat taildragger, making it a better platform for formation flight.

Average Price: $40,000

Seats: 2

Primary Construction: Metal

Landing Gear: Fixed

Engine: Builder's choice

Horsepower: 150-180 (typical)

Cruise Speed: 168 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 185 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 48 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 44 knots

Takeoff Distance: 450 feet

Landing Distance: 425 feet

Range: 685 nm

Usable Fuel: 32 gallons

Useful Load: 615 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +6/-3

Beechcraft T-34 Mentor

Developed as a derivative of the Beech Bonanza, the T-34 Mentor trainer might have been built with a V-tail if Walter Beech had his way. But with the military having the final say, the T-34 incorporated a conventional tail to go with a narrow fuselage, bubble canopy and tandem seating. The result is an enduring U.S. military primary trainer that occupies a place in history alongside icons such as the Piper L-4 Grasshopper and North American T-6 as the piston airplanes that taught fighting men to fly in both the Navy and Air Force.

Still, the T-34 almost didn’t make it off the drawing board. After a lengthy selection period during which the Air Force grappled with the decision to train new pilots in jets or piston airplanes, the T-34 finally won out, making its formal debut in 1953, five years after the prototype’s first flight. The Navy soon followed with a sizeable order for the more powerful T-34B and would eventually place an order for the turboprop T-34C Turbo Mentor after a 15-year production hiatus.

Today, the Mentor is prized among private owners for its maneuverability, comparative economy and striking looks. The original T-34 rolled off the production line with the 225 hp Continental O-470, although a number have since been upgraded with larger IO-520 and IO-550 engines. The difference between the A and B models generally center on the A model being certified in the Aerobatic Category and the B model in the Utility Category. Handling is superb, and thanks to its Beech pedigree, the T-34 Mentor lands like a baby carriage.

All told, Beech built more than 1,300 T-34s, about 100 of which remain in service with various militaries around the world and another 100 or so in the hands of private owners. Asking prices currently range from about $140,000 up to $350,000 for a fully restored example. Thanks to its commonality with the Beech Bonanza, parts are easy to come by, making this a warbird that's easier to live with than many. — S.P.

With fat exhaust stacks protruding from each side of its Pratt & Whitney PT-6 engine, the T-34C turbo mentor is easily distinguishable from its piston-powered predecessors.

Average Price: $265,000

Seats: 2

Primary Construction: Metal

Landing Gear: Retractable

Engine: Continental O-470-4

Horsepower: 225

Cruise Speed: 150 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 243 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 63 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 53 knots

Takeoff Distance: 820 feet

Landing Distance: 420 feet

Range: 670 nm

Usable Fuel: 50 gallons

Useful Load: 740 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +6/-3

Cessna L-19/O-1 Bird Dog

While it might lack some of the conventional flair of more notable warbirds, there’s no denying that the Cessna L-19/O-1 Bird Dog is a wolf in olive-drab clothing. Based on Cessna’s 170, which was introduced to the civilian market in 1948, the Bird Dog has a more powerful Continental O-470 flat six that gives it Super Cub-like performance. One L-19 owner we spoke with joked that his airplane could just about fly itself out of a well.

With the Bird Dog, Cessna gave the U.S. Army exactly what it wanted: a rough-and-ready observation platform constructed of all metal with tandem seats and big, angled side windows — all attributes that today’s owners appreciate. The Bird Dog name was chosen as a nod to the L-19’s primary role of flying low and close to the battlefield to spot enemy positions. Cessna built almost 3,500 from 1950 until 1963. The Army, Air Force and Marines flew them extensively in Vietnam, where the Bird Dog fulfilled its most important operational role sniffing out the Viet Cong.

Although it’s based on the Cessna 170, the Bird Dog incorporates several notable changes. Apart from an increase in power from 145 hp in the 170 to 213 hp in the L-19, the military version also came fitted with 60-degree flaps for setting down in tight spots.

The change from four seats to two provides for a comfortable cabin complemented by great visibility. While not built for speed, Bird Dogs upgraded with constant speed propellers can shorten ETAs. In the 1970s and 1980s, a company out of Texas called Ector Aircraft remanufactured Bird Dogs under the Mountaineer name with constant speed props and bush STOL kits. Ector even offered a model called the Super Mountaineer with a 240 hp Lycoming IO-540.

Asking prices for L-19s on the used market range from about $50,000 to $100,000. We saw one gorgeously restored California 305F model going for $137,900 (including reproduction wing-mounted rockets). If you've always dreamed of owning a budget warbird, this one's certainly affordable and a hoot to fly to boot. — S.P.

Cessna’s L-19/O-1 Bird dog is a derivative of the 170 taildragger and the predecessor to the immensely popular C-172 Skyhawk. while not a speedster, the l-19 offers plenty of affordable fun. (Photo credit: Gavin Conroy)

Average Price: $80,000

Seats: 2

Primary Construction: Metal

Landing Gear: Fixed

Engine: Continental O-470-11

Horsepower: 213

Cruise Speed: 90 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 137 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 51 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 47 knots

Takeoff Distance: 400 feet

Landing Distance: 300 feet

Range: 460 nm

Usable Fuel: 41 gallons

Useful Load: 786 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +4.4/-1.76

SIAI-Marchetti SF.260

An Italian piece of art, the SIAI-Marchetti SF.260, commonly known simply as the Marchetti, is one of the coolest looking affordable fighter airplanes available. About 1,000 of these high-performance, single-engine propeller airplanes have been produced since they were introduced in the mid 1960s.

While the S in SF.260 stands for the name of the initial manufacturer, the F is for its designer, Stelio Frati. Before his death in 2010, the Italian engineer designed a long list of wondrous machines, many for the experimental market, including the F.8L Falco. The SF.260 is, however, his most widely produced model. The number 260 is the number of horses under the cowling, where a Lycoming O-540 can be found.

The small wing area makes the handling of the Marchetti nearly jetlike but gives it an unforgiving stall speed of 69 knots with a sharp buffet if pushed to the limit. Twenty degrees of flaps are necessary to achieve a reasonable takeoff distance. But as long as the airplane is kept above the stall, it behaves beautifully, responding swiftly and precisely to the control inputs of a skilled pilot.

In addition to its swift handling qualities, the Marchetti is a terrific cross-country platform. Sixty-five percent power in cruise will produce around 165 knots, with the engine sipping as little as 12 gph. However, with four separate fuel tanks, good fuel management is essential.

Unlike most fighter airplanes, the SF.260 has a side-by-side seating configuration and can fit up to four people. However, unlike most similarly configured airplanes, the pilot in command flies from the right seat with the throttle in the left hand and control stick in the right. The bubble canopy provides great visibility for all occupants.

The SF.260 has been used in various military functions — mostly training but also some light combat. About 10 percent of the airplanes were originally delivered to civilian customers. However, most of them have a military paint scheme, providing the desirable fighter look. There is not an abundance of Marchettis available, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you can get lucky. Marchettis fetch around $200,000. — P.B.

If you want to play dog fight, Air Combat USA out of Fullerton, California, offers training with former Navy and Air Force pilots in Marchettis. Just don’t try this at home.

Average Price: $215,000

Seats: 3-4

Primary Construction: Metal

Landing Gear: Retractable/tricycle

Engine: Lycoming O-540-D or AEIO-540-D

Horsepower: 260

Cruise Speed: 186 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 236 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 69 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 60 knots

Takeoff Distance: 820 feet

Landing Distance: 790 feet

Range: 1,040 nm

Usable Fuel: 62 gallons

Useful Load: 766 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +6/-3

Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros

If the roaring engines that power most warbirds give you a headache, you can play aerial combat games in peace and quiet in a fighter jet trainer, such as the Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros. This single-engine, tandem-seat jet was designed and developed as a fighter trainer in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. More than 2,800 L-39s were produced before Aero Vodochody, which still exists today, ceased production. Most L-39s are employed in air force programs around the world, but around 250 of these sleek airplanes are registered for civilian use in the United States.

You may think that fighter jet ownership is out of reach, but a decent L-39 can be found for less than $200,000. However, you will need to consider other costs, such as the fuel burn and annual inspection, which at an average of around $350 per hour and $13,000 annually, according to the group known as L-39 Enthusiasts, could run up the bills quite quickly.

Part of the reason for the high annual inspection cost is the maintenance of the ejection seats. While the cost may be a nuisance, the bragging rights of having ejection seats in your airplane may be worth it.

Because the L-39 is jet powered, you will need to go through a training program and a check ride similar to a type rating. At least 10 operators around the country are available for such training. Once trained, however, you are restricted to using the airplane under the Experimental Exhibition Category, which technically means you can only use it for the purpose of flying to and from places where the airplane will be exhibited, to and from maintenance facilities and for training purposes.

The quiet cabin and lack of vibration in the L-39 doesn’t mean you need to stick with straight and level, smooth flying. With a wide-load factor envelope from 8 to -4 G, the L-39 will allow you to go beyond many pilots’ comfort levels, something you should only do as an expert pilot or with a highly experienced instructor. But it is certainly nice to have the option. _**— P.B. **_

The Aero Vodochody L-39 provides almost limitless possibilities for combatlike flying without the noise and vibration of a high-powered piston engine up front. (Photo credit: Tom Hedlund)

Average Price: $225,000

Seats: 2

Primary Construction: Metal

Landing Gear: Retractable/tricycle

Engine: Ivchenko AI-25 TL

Thrust: 3,792 pounds

Cruise Speed: 367 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 491 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 103 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 88 knots

Takeoff Distance: 1,476 feet

Landing Distance: 2,034 feet

Range: 593 nm

Usable Fuel: 340 gallons

Useful Load: 1,245 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +8/-4

North American T-6 Texan

With a wildly roaring Pratt & Whitney radial engine, you will definitely make your presence known in the North American T-6 Texan. The high noise level is perhaps also a reason why the airplane is a popular airshow platform. Spectators are forced to stop their conversations and turn their attention to the sky when performers like the AeroShell Aerobatic Team begin their spectacular performances or when the T-6 heats are taking place at Reno Air Races.

The T-6 Texan was widely used in World War II as an advanced trainer for the Navy, where it was called the SNJ, and for Air Force pilots in more than 30 countries, constituting a transition between simpler platforms and actual combat airplanes. It was also flown under the designation AT-6 by the United States Army Air Corps and Army Air Forces (the predecessors to the U.S. Air Force), and British Commonwealth countries commonly referred to the airplane as the Harvard. While mostly used as a trainer, some countries employed the T-6 in various combat missions.

The Texan is a pilot’s airplane, with a large center stick smoothly moving the control surfaces through push rods and cables. As long as you apply proper control technique, the airplane will go where you want it to go. If you don’t, it won’t, which is why the airplane became such a terrific trainer. With its great visibility and the centered tandem-seat arrangement, the T-6 is also a terrific formation platform. And the retractable tailwheel configuration is very effective at teaching pilots how to put the gear down and land straight.

Like many military trainers, the T-6 interior is bare-bones, with the fuselage framework exposed along with tubes, cables, complete trim wheels and knobs. Getting into the deep cockpit from the wing can be a bit tricky.

The airplane was developed in the late 1930s and more than 15,000 T-6s of different variants were produced until production ceased in the mid 1950s. Thanks to the rugged design, many of those airplanes are still flying today. While they share a common name, the North American T-6 Texan and the T-6 Texan produced today by Beechcraft are very different animals, with the latter being a turboprop developed from Pilatus’ PC-9. _**— P.B. **_

The T-6 Texan was known to some as the “pilot maker” and trained many squadrons of fighter pilots in World War II, including the famous Tuskegee Airmen. (Photo credit: Jon Whittle)

Average Price: $155,000

Seats: 2

Primary Construction: Metal

Landing Gear: Retractable/Tailwheel

Engine: Pratt & Whitney R-1340

Horsepower: 600

Cruise Speed: 155 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 175 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 62 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 52 knots

Takeoff Distance: 900 feet

Landing Distance: 700 feet

Range: 540 nm

Usable Fuel: 111 gallons

Useful Load: 1,150 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +5.67/-2.33 G

Thunder Mustang

The North American P-51 Mustang is a legendary fighter airplane that saved the day for the Allied countries in World War II. It is many pilots’ dream to fly a Mustang. While rides in two seat version are fairly easy to come by, owning a Mustang is way out of reach for most people as prices have skyrocketed in the past two decades.

However, if you have some time on your hands and a few hundred thousand dollars to spare, rather than a couple of million you can get a similar experience by purchasing a Thunder Mustang kit. The Thunder Mustang is a ¾-scale version of the P-51 designed by Kitfox creator Dan Denney. The kit itself sells for $297,000, not including the avionics, interior or paint. A decked out Thunder Mustang with builder assistance runs for $675,000. Completed airplanes can be found for right around $600,000.

The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that powers most P-51s has been out of production for more than 50 years. In the Thunder Mustang, the Merlin is replaced by a 640 hp Falconer V-12 engine — a fairly new engine that powers not only airplanes but also watercraft and cars. The Falconer is in some regards a lighter, modern version of the Merlin, though it is normally aspirated and has dual FADEC systems.

While the Thunder Mustang is not quite as swift as the P-51, its 295-knot cruise speed is nothing to balk at. In fact, the Thunder Mustang claims that the airplane outperforms the P-51 because of its greater power to weight ratio. In addition to providing swift performance, the carbon fiber fuselage of the Thunder Mustang has a load factor limit of +9/-6 G, which means you can go out and practice any fighter-style maneuvers you wish to do, as long as you know how to get yourself out of them. _**— P.B. **_

A smaller version of the immensely popular P-51 Mustang, the Thunder Mustang is a swift airplane with modern touches such as a fadec-equipped engine and carbon fiber structures.

Average Price: $600,000

Seats: 2

Primary Construction: Carbon Fiber/Graphite

Landing Gear: Retractable/Tailwheel

Engine: Falconer V-12

Horsepower: 640

Cruise Speed: 295 knots

Never Exceed Speed: 439 knots

Stall Speed (Clean): 78 knots

Stall Speed (Dirty): 69 knots

Takeoff Distance: 1,000 feet

Landing Distance: 2,500 feet

Range: 1,000 nm

Usable Fuel: 102 gallons

Useful Load: 1,100 pounds

Limit Load Factor: +9/-6 G

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