I have never thought of myself as much of a warbird guy — at least until I went back in time to the summer I was unsuspectingly infected with a love for old military airplanes. It was during a summer volunteer job at the EAA Airshow in Rockford, Illinois, the precursor to AirVenture.
I worked the flight line with a pair of painted ping-pong paddles, pointing aircraft that passed in the grass to their parking spots. Hundreds of homebuilts, factory-builts and, of course, warbirds taxied past. I recall meeting a P-51 pilot late one afternoon who said he remembered passing me while taxiing in. “You were the kid with the green hat standing there with his mouth wide open, weren’t you?” he asked. I was.
Then there was my Air Force veteran cousin, who flew A-1 Skyraiders during the Vietnam War. He’d stop by our house when he was home on leave and quiz me about the airplanes I’d been watching or reading about. I learned much about that 20,000-pound single-engine piston fighter, facts I still remember. My interest in old airplanes never really made sense to most people I knew, not even to me, really, yet I hungered to see and touch a Corsair or a Mitchell bomber or an old Boeing whenever I could, even years later when I found myself surrounded by a flock of F-100s on my first Air Force base assignment.
Airplane aficionados come in all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes and nationalities, as do the airplanes they drool over. You might at first think the fan base for 70- or 80-year-old airplanes is small, but most crazies are like me, attracted to these historical artifacts by the romance of what once was — sprinkled with a dash of awe and respect for those who expertly flew and maintained them in combat. Around the world, warbirds are treated as senior citizens should be, with much reverence, love and care. For a few lucky pilots though, the chance to make that leap from observer to owner becomes reality.
A Look Under the Hood
By today’s standards, warbirds are clunky, noisy, dirty, inefficient and expensive to operate, not to mention almost completely impractical. Despite those drawbacks, Mark Clark, president of Courtesy Aircraft in Rockford, says some 6,000 or so warbirds are still on the FAA registry, although not all are in flying condition. Like me, Clark volunteered at the early Rockford airshows, although we only recently met. He too caught the warbird bug and now lives with dozens of them each year, although only until he can match them up with a new owner. Clark’s been selling warbirds for 40 years and knew early on he wanted to be part of the warbird community. He says these owners are really just caretakers of history.
By definition, a warbird is a vintage military aircraft that found its way into the hands of a civilian owner. With few examples of World War I aircraft in existence, the market primarily encompasses aircraft created just before World War II up through the end of Vietnam. Airplanes could range from a Boeing B-29 to a North American P-51 to a Cessna O-2 and dozens in between. Warbirds sprang from many countries, but primarily the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany and Japan. Warbirds flying today include no secret devices that could fall into the hands of nefarious individuals, hence the reason you don’t, for example, see a privately owned F-16. Clark says he also trades in warbird projects, airplanes no longer airworthy but still desperately searching for the right person to restore them to flying condition.
Warbird prices are set on an airplane-by-airplane basis, with the low end reserved for complete restoration projects. Multimillion-dollar price tags are common for some pristine fighters, such as a P-51. A Taylorcraft painted as an Army L-2M might run $27,000, while a North American T-28 could set you back around $300,000. A really nice flying P-51 easily demands north of $2 million today, while a project P-51 can be had for less. A new owner needs to plan on a million or so to make that P-51 flyable, experts say. A jet warbird such as a North American F-86 could run $550,000 to $800,000, while a good Lockheed T-33 demands less, somewhere between $75,000 and $130,000. Want a bomber? A nice B-25 costs about $800,000 to $1.5 million. But be forewarned: One warbird owner called the retail price just the entry into the financial end of the warbird universe.
Not all warbirds are found through dealers like Courtesy. Random finds do happen now and then, such as the Grumman Wildcat a warbird enthusiast fished out of Lake Michigan near Chicago. Word has it dozens more are sitting on the bottom of that lake too, waiting for someone willing to hire the divers to locate them and pay to retrieve them from the muck. No one knows yet just how many aircraft can or will be pulled out of the wreck of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, recently discovered on the ocean bottom east of Australia. In early March, the Smithsonian put the number of aircraft from the Lex discovered to date at 11 out of a possible 35 aboard. SBD Dauntlesses, F4F-3 Wildcats and TBD-1 Devastators are expected to be part of the find. There is an incredible trove for people who relish old airplanes and flock to any of a few hundred aviation museums around the United States just to be near one, or perhaps even touch the metal, knowing that decades earlier, that same airplane might have been part of a frenzied dogfight or early morning bombing raid.
Consider Doc for just a minute, one of the most famous of the 4,000 Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft that were built. Found abandoned in the Mojave Desert in 1987, the huge WWII bomber was lovingly restored by hundreds of volunteers over more than 15 years to “honor previous generations, educate current and future generations and connect the world to the rich heritage of aviation.” The hundreds of thousands of dollars required for Doc’s restoration were mostly donated. Now based in Wichita, Kansas, Doc will soon begin touring the United States as a flying museum.
There are just so many warbirds to love. Most are tied to those who love them through type associations. The North American Trainer Association, for instance, focuses primarily on the T-6, T-28, P-51 and, of course, the B-25. Other warbirds come in sizes and shapes some people might not even recognize, like an O-2, the military version of the Cessna Skymaster used in a forward air controller role in Vietnam, or an L-3 Army Bird Dog observation aircraft. Then there are Navy birds like the Vought F4U Corsair and the Grummans, including the F4F Wildcat, the F6F Hellcat and the TBF Avenger. While rare, some century-series fighters like the F-100 and the F-104 have begun appearing at warbird events.
Flying a Warbird
If only we could try our hand at flying one, much less own one. The idea of owning a warbird might not be as far-fetched as you might at first imagine. But where to start? “The majority of people I talk to the first time have an inkling of what they want,” Clark says. They might call and say, “I always wanted a P-51, and I’m in a position to do this now.” Clark says he’ll also ask about the pilot’s flying background since a “low-time private pilot isn’t going to get too far,” due in part to insurance requirements. Tailwheel experience is a must for most warbirds since conventional configurations were pretty standard.
Propellers with diameters that are often over 10 feet are tied to engines upward of 1,700 hp, so the torque created at takeoff power in a typical warbird demands understanding the need for plenty of right rudder. The gyroscopic effect as the tail leaves the ground demands even more. Clark says he’ll often tell new warbird buyers to “purchase a North American T-6 to begin getting used to taildraggers that demand lots of rudder to keep them straight on takeoff.” Much of this kind of experience is also demanded by any insurance company before it will agree to pilot solos. Clark suggests looking at warbird training specialists, such as Stallion 51 and Warbird Adventures, both based in Kissimmee, Florida, for some of that taildragger time.
Pilot Dan Schiffer remembers his first T-6 ride from a little strip in Ovid, Michigan. “The canopy was slid back, and I smelled the freshly mowed grass mixed with the fumes of aviation gas, not to mention the sound of that radial engine. I remember feeling it in the airframe, the power of that big radial’s vibrations and how substantial, how solid this T-6 was. My first warbird was purchased for my love of power and speed, and they sure satisfy that desire. However, it was an early morning T-6 fly-out with friends to a small airport in Ohio for breakfast that changed my warbird focus forever.”
He recalls approaching his airplane after breakfast to find a local farmer in well-worn overalls just staring at the T-6. “It wasn’t unusual to have admirers, but this was different. I saw tears running down his face as he slowly recited his Air Force training in WWII. He spoke of flying the T-6 and the loss of several friends during the war. He said he never forgot his time serving our country. I now humbly fly these historic aircraft in honor of our veterans past and present.”
If the purchase price is only the price of entry, the real cost of warbird ownership is maintaining the aircraft to military standards, including the constant training and operating costs. Some people can afford the purchase price but don’t quite understand what goes into maintaining a sophisticated aircraft that, when still owned by military, would have had an entire maintenance crew assigned to it. Military pilots would have received extensive training and continuous flight proficiency checks and currency. Commitment to the airplane and this kind of flying is pretty typical.
John Swartz graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy but became a doctor rather than a pilot. That didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in military flying though, especially after having logged some T-33 time during his early Air Force years. Now many years later, with his kids grown, Swartz knew it was time to find a warbird, but only after he’d earned some advanced pilot certificates and logged taildragger time in a Citabria. Based in Grove, Oklahoma, Swartz eventually purchased a pair of T-33s, both of which needed extensive restoration work. He also owns an F-86, the natural step up from a T-33. To Swartz, part of the joy of flying was formation flying, hence the second T-33. “I know other people who fly this airplane, and I got instruction in the T-33 over the course of about a year before I went out alone,” he says. The airplane flies with an experimental certificate, and because its airspeed is greater than 250 knots, Swartz had to take a check ride just like any other pilot.
Swartz offers potential T-33 owners a few tips, some of which might explain the vast price differences between it and an F-86. “Keep an eye on those Allison J33s because they’re prone to overheating,” he cautions. “There were no computerized engine controls in the 1950s. Add too much fuel while you’re spooling it up and you’ll actually melt the engine.”
He easily spends 20 hours of labor on the ground for every hour in the air. The T-33’s systems are ancient by most measures, so “the hydraulics need to be exercised. A T-33 also demands a lot of inspections and attention to detail.” He adds, “Warbirds are about the importance of these aircraft to our nation’s history that’s all but forgotten.” The government used to simply scrap old jets. “To me, they’re our national treasures. It is an honor and a privilege to be a steward of them for a while.”
While some people might not recognize Jim Thompson’s name, many in the warbird community will remember the P-51 he previously owned, Ain’t Misbehavin’. Thompson, a Birmingham, Alabama, attorney, cut his teeth flying Stearmans, T-6s, a Beech E-18 and a Citation 500 SP before stepping into the Mustang. Asked about warbird operating expenses, Thompson says, “I didn’t find the P-51 to be an unusually high-maintenance item. The Citation ran about $1,400 an hour, and the Mustang is in that same range since it burns 70 gallons of gas an hour alone. The T-6 operates for about half that price. I just do the annual, put fuel in it and go fly. I tell people interested in warbirds to get some taildragger time and then maybe 50 hours in a Stearman. That airplane will bite you if you’re not careful, but if you fly that, you can fly anything. Swartz tends not to answer questions about money. “You have to have a huge commitment of money and time. It is not for the faint of heart when you buy into a jet warbird.” Indeed, that commitment probably applies to any warbird.
Thompson says anyone interested in warbirds must “absolutely go to AirVenture. That’s mecca. Go talk to the pilots standing around the airplane you’re interested in. Warbirds of America has a house near the warbird area where there’s always someone to talk to.” He says there just might be something special to see at Oshkosh this year too, since it’s been 80 years since the first T-6 rolled off the manufacturing line.