Badass Pilot Buys Own Fighter Jet

I’ve loved flying from the very first
time I had the chance to climb into a military airplane. I knew right
then and there that’s all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
It was extremely addictive. I had the great fortune in the
Marine Corps to fly Harriers. It was not my first choice. I wanted
to fly fighters, and the Harrier had a very bad reputation at the time,
but that’s what I was assigned to do. And after my first flight in a two-seater,
I was hooked. It was just amazing what the airplane could do,
compared to the other airplanes I had been flying,
which was the A-4. [♪ music ♫] For me the Harrier symbolizes
an iconic Marine Corps airplane. It’s flown by a couple other
countries, but the Marines recognized the potential of this airplane
back in the early ’70s. It was the first foreign-built
airplane in U.S. military inventory since World War I. Our whole focus
is on supporting that 19-year-old rifleman on the ground and
whatever he needs. That’s the center of the Marine Corps universe, is the
infantry. Everything else is support. After about three or four years in the
squadron and making deployments all over the world, I was selected
to be the single Marine to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.
You name it, I flew it. I retired from the military and became
a real estate investor-slash-developer, and I happened to hit it at the right time.
I worked hard, I’m not denying that, and I built up a pretty good company, but
I realized that my real passion was not unstopping toilets.
That’s not what drives me. I went to an air show. I saw the
airplanes and I got the bug again. I had all these
quals in the Marine Corps. What would it take me to
be a civilian pilot? I started doing some investigation
and I found that I could in fact get qual’d [qualified] to fly these
airplanes. And I ended up buying a Russian Yak-3. It’s kind of like
a P-51 Mustang. It’s a little bit smaller than the P-51 with a little bit bigger
engine, very, very hot World War II fighter. Because of that Russian
star on there, and a beginner in the air show business, I had a
tough time giving that airplane away at the air shows. I would go to an
air show just for a tankful of fuel, just to have fun, just to get the
experience, just to build the résumé. That’s not unusual: A lot of people
do that. But I saw that the real star of the air show was the
Harrier. The audience reacts differently to the Harrier than it does
to any other act. Differently to the Blue Angels, differently to the
Thunderbirds. People just absolutely stop what they’re doing and
they look at the airplane. I never knew what I was gonna
be doing at 61 years old, but it certainly didn’t include
flying a Harrier at air shows. Harrier Jump Jets have flown
in active service for the last time. After almost 40 years of service
they’ve been scrapped as part of the coalition spending cuts. I read an article that the Brits
were surplusing their C Harriers. I thought, this is our
opportunity to get one. I had some feelers out. On a Monday
morning I opened up my email. It says, “Hey, we found one. It’s
complete, it’s intact, it looks like it just flew in the other day. There’s another
bidder for it. If you’re interested you’d better get your money
together and get over here.” Before I actually bought the airplane,
I called the FAA up. I said, “What’s it take to get qualified
in a unique, one-of-a-kind jet airplane?” He says, “What is it?”
I said, “Well, it’s a Harrier.” And he starts laughing. And he goes,
“OK, what’s your background?” And I told him, “Well, I was in the
Marine Corps, I’ve got about 400 carrier landings. I was a test pilot, I did
B-52s, C-141s, F-15s, F-16s, A-7s.” And he goes, “OK. Hey, you’re the
right guy. I’m gonna let you fly the airplane. But I’ll tell you right now,
you’re operating a very hot airplane in close proximity to Washington, D.C.
We’re gonna be watching you like a hawk. And I’ve got no problems at all,
if you’re hot-rodding around the country and breaking some of
the regulations, I’ll shut you down.” And I said, “I understand loud and clear.” Went over to England.
It was in a big hangar, an abandoned military base,
and walk in and there’s this Harrier with one light
bulb hanging right over top of it. Gosh, it’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful.
I said, there’s no reason why this airplane can’t fly. The FAA
is gonna let me do it. So we worked the deal, wrote a
one-page contract in Sharpie because we only had one piece of
paper and we only had a Sharpie. We shook hands on it. I went
back to the hotel and this all took, this was four hours.
I can’t believe I just bought a Harrier. Now the real hard work starts. We’ve had our share of critics. There
were a lot of people that thought this would never happen. A very
few people said it to my face. And it didn’t matter what they
thought anyway, it only mattered what we thought, and we knew
we could do this. There’s only one time since getting
the airplane, getting it over here, putting it together, one time that
I had the least little bit of doubt as to if this is what we want to do,
and that’s just prior to the first flight. I hadn’t flown
a Harrier in over 18 years — an entire Marine Corps career
in some instances. We’re on a short runway,
it’s only 4,100 feet. So I’ve got limited options. Once
I push the throttle in the corner and once I accelerate past
100, 120 knots, I’ve got to go flying. It’s kind of like the launch
of the space shuttle: Once the solids go,
you’re gone. This is the first time that
anybody had ever flown an airplane with this kind of performance
in the civilian world, and I knew that the issue was not
gonna be whether the airplane was gonna fly, the issue was
gonna be: Am I able to fly it? Are my reflexes still good enough?
Or is my eyesight still good enough? What is gonna happen when
I jam this throttle into the corner? Do I really wanna do this? This is the point of no return, and
in that 10 seconds, I realized: I’ve spent multiple hours in this
cockpit. I know this airplane. I know where every switch is.
I can find them blindfolded. I know what it’s gonna do when
I put the nozzles down. I know what it’s gonna do when I
put the throttle in the corner. I know how it brakes. I know
how to fly this airplane. So 3, 2, 1, I slammed the throttle,
the airplane jumped ahead, and 3 or 4 seconds later I’m doing
a hundred miles an hour and I’m airborne. I was euphoric. There is no way
I could have done this by myself. It’s just like the military has a
whole team and a squadron to do things, and that’s what it’s
taken to get this airplane up. There are not many wives that
would support their husband a hundred percent on a project like this. But I wouldn’t
be here today if I didn’t have the complete support of my wife. Today, we have three Harriers.
One is fully operational and flying. Very soon we’ll have the two-seater
operational and flying, and in the future I suspect
that we’ll have a third Harrier flying. I’m the temporary custodian. This is
not the Art Nalls airplane, this is the Harrier. In five to 10 years, these will be
the only Harriers flying anywhere. With the supplies we have,
with the manuals we have, with the servicing equipment, this
airplane will far outlast my ability to be able to pass the flight physical
and safely fly it. Eventually my day is gonna come where I’m
not gonna be able to fly this airplane anymore. But hopefully
I will have passed it on to a younger generation who will
be able to safely fly this airplane. I am a small piece of preserving
this valuable piece of history.


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