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Personal Warbirds

Civilianized military aircrafts, affectionately known as warbirds, represent the ultimate sports machines for speed connoisseurs who prefer to measure their velocity in knots, not miles per hour. These highly complex, maintenance intensive and fuel-thirsty beasts were designed to out fly, out run and out gun other aircrafts. They are fast, agile and do far more than just blow back your hair with the top down.

What does it take to collect the guys’ toy that makes a Corvette feel like a tricycle? According to warbird owners it takes, time, money and a willingness to sacrifice.

Yet, with the current recession, cost of acquisition is better than ever; warbird prices are forty percent off their highs of the past decade. Military jets can be had from between $125,000—$600,000, with seven-figure, big money still being commanded by vintage WWII planes. It’s easy to find warbirds for sale at established dealerships like Courtesy Aircraft and Raptor Aviation or by attending annual shows like the Experimental Aircraft Association Airventure.

Cost of acquisition is the smallest part of the investment however; fuel, maintenance, upgrades, inspections and insurance can easily run over $100,000 per year. Then there’s the certification: you can’t just jump into a plane, turn the key and take off, even if you own it.

Near Chicago

Greg Morris operates Gauntlet Warbirds, an acrobatic and tail wheel training center in Chicago. He helps private pilots make the transition into warbirds. He lives for warbirds and is typically found in his sage green Nomex flight suit wearing either a vintage Citizen Worldtimer or a new AirNautic AN-24M 24 hours watch.

To get behind the stick of a WWII warbird, someone with a private pilot’s license will require tail wheel training ($2,500-$5,000) plus 100 hours in a plane like a WWII trainer T6 Texan (at a cost of approximately $60,000). Morris’ personal fleet includes a vintage Texan warbird and two civilian aerobatic planes.

For a MiG, an L39 or most military jets you’ll also need an instrument rating ($8,000-$10,000), 1,000 hours total flying time ($150,000) and twenty hours in the jet ($2,000 or more per hour).

More pilots were killed in training than in combat in WWII, and that was supposed to be safe flying, so insurance is the big issue in this game, says Morris. Most companies want to see lots of hours logged before they write a policy on what could easily be a multimillion -dollar claim in a crash.

With an 80% dropout rate in private pilot training, what type of individual is drawn to the ultimate sports flying experience? According to Morris, People get into this because they have a passion for warbirds—there’s nothing logical about it. We’ll typically train someone who has been successful in their career and wants to take on one of the most challenging sports experiences in the world.

World War II fighters

Jeff Clyman is a consummate warbird collector who has professionalized his passion, building a business and ultimately a museum around his love of flying. Clyman is the CEO of Cockpit USA, a manufacturer of high-end leather aviation themed garments, and the founder and former CEO of Averix Corporation. He is also the founder of the American Airpower museum, located in Farmingdale, New York, where he keeps his collection of six WWII vintage warbirds and two L39 jets. The museum also houses his collection of well over 200 vintage to modern aviation watches. His daily wear is a mid 1970’s Rolex SubMariner.

Clyman acquired his first warbird, a WWII P17 Stearman primary trainer biplane, in the mid-1970s and flew it at air shows. He went through a series of planes, including a P51D Mustang and Grumman Eastern FM2 (F4F) Wildcat, among others. His current collection includes WWII fighters: Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk, Vought F4U-1D Corsair, Republic P-47; D-30 Thunderbolt; a Grumman TBM-3 Avenger Navy dive bomber; North American AT-6D Texan and WacoUPF-7 Biplane. His jets include a Czech Albatross L39-C fanjet trainer and Albatross L39ZA fanjet LCA/trainer. He says his collection is worth between $6 million to $7 million.

WWII fighters are pure nostalgia; the history that you hold in trust reeks from every rivet. The P40 with its AVG Flying Tiger Paint job is perhaps the most nostalgic plane I own, says Clyman.

Biplanes with open cockpits like the WAC require physical stamina and a gut feel for flying without looking at instruments. They’re all different and all challenging—and one is never enough.

The Mustang

Jon Vesely retired from private equity firm Code Hennessey and Simmons in Chicago and began indulging his passion for collecting warbirds. Vesely earned his private pilot’s license in his late 20’s and now owns eight planes. The pride of his fleet is one of the most recognizable of WWII and a name so famous that Ford adopted it for its own go-fast car: the P51 D Mustang. The Mustang is fast, strong and was pivotal in assuring Allied air superiority during WWII, actually seeing service globally well into the 1980s.

In the early 1960’s these planes were considered military surplus and mine was probably sold for $1,200, he says. It was later used in the famous Reno air races. I acquired it several years ago and began a three-year restoration. It took 12,000 hours of labor to bring it back to original specs and it’s worth around $2.5 million now.

But bringing the P-51D up to spec is just one part of the ownership equation. The plane is thirsty and burns around sixty-five gallons of fuel per hour. Under typical usage a P-51D will require a top end engine rebuild every 400 hours, at a cost of $200,000. His North American P-51D Mustang, N5482V, called Live Bait, was judged at the Reserve Grand Champion: World War II during 2010 EAA AirVenture.

Navy Steel

Brad Deckert of Eureka, Illinois, runs an electrical contracting company, and, while a privately trained pilot, never dreamed that he’d actually own a warbird. He inherited a vintage TBM Avenger when a close friend who owned it was killed.

This fistful of Navy steel was designed as a bomber, with room for a crew of three; it has a 1,900 HP engine and cruises at 275 knots.

This particular Avenger saw action during WWII; I began a $750,000 restoration process after acquiring it and keep it running with a crew of volunteers. For a warbird it’s a fairly reasonable $600 an hour to operate, says Deckert. A no-frills pilot, Deckert relies on the manual wound clock in the Avenger to keep time while flying. And while not flying? I don’t wear watches!

Part II: Joys of the Jet

Virtually any WWII vintage warbird will be propeller driven. While fast, they’re no match for the jet set. For sheer power, speed and the closest experience you can get to sitting on top of a rocket, nothing beats military jets. Anyone who has flown a military jet knows what Iron Man feels like when he suits up. Nestled within a no nonsense cockpit, a pilot is surrounded by arrays of instruments designed to get you in and out of danger quickly, including from the plane itself, if necessary.

The planes flown by these pilots are so responsive they make typical civilian rides like a Piper Warrior or Cessna 172 feel like they’re moving through Jell-O, coated with molasses. To move from one to five Gs in virtually any direction with the flick of the wrist and twitch of the throttle is what makes the jet warbird an experience with no match in the world of ground-based locomotion.

War Veteran

Jeff Kaney is the founder and CEO of the Kaney Group, an aerospace consultancy located in Rockford, Illinois.

I joined the USAF and learned to fly jets because that was a lifelong dream, logging many hours during the first Gulf War. I rotated into commercial airlines and found it was too boring, so I went into business for myself, found success and treated myself to the best part of my military experience: warbirds.

Kaney flies an Aero L-39 Albatross, a high performance 1970s Czechoslovakian jet aircraft designed for training. There are nearly 3,000 still used in more than thirty air forces around the world and it’s also one of the most popular privately owned jets in the world, with over 200 registered.

The L39 is surprisingly easy to fly and maintain. It’s one of the most forgiving military jets you can own, says Kaney, who spent nearly $300,000 to acquire the 1977 model that he flies. He spends roughly $10,000 a year on maintenance, inspections and insurance. The plane burns about 180 gallons in one flight and can travel roughly 600 nautical miles between fuelings. Clyman, who owns two, observes that the L39 reaches .80 mach (609 MPH) which is plenty fast.

They’re either a gateway plane or the one you settle on after going through all the hardcore options, he says.

The L39 is like flying a Lexus, observes Kaney. But the plane that separates the men from the boys in this game is the MiG. Kaney does not take chances in business or in the air, which is why his watch of choice is a Breitling Emergency.

MiG Pilot

Will Ward works for Spirit Airlines, on the weekends he trades in his pilot’s wings and neat blue suit for Nomex coveralls and a helmet and straps himself into one of the hottest rides in the sky: a 1975 MiG 21 MF. He received his flight training at the University of North Dakota and has worked his way up through the ranks as a civilian pilot. He has been flying warbirds for twenty years. The original MiG was designed more than fifty years ago and instantly won a reputation as a Spartan powerhouse. It’s basically an engine with guns developed to go toe to toe with the U.S. FU 86 Sabers in the skies over Korea.

In keeping with the Cold War tradition of his plane Ward wears a Tutima Grand Classic Chronograph F2.

The MiG is a supersonic interceptor, it’s like flying a quarter-mile dragster. The climb will peel your face back, and punch you in the chest. I’ll hit 400 knots by the end of the runway, says Ward, Ward’s third generation MiG-21F was manufactured in Russia in 1975 and is capable of Mach 2.3—nearly 1,350 mph.

Ward acquired his MiG from fighter pilot Oscar Vickery of Houston Texas for about $250,000 and today it could sell for nearly $350,000. It costs Ward $5,000 to $6,000 per hour to operate, depending on what he does with the throttle. But that’s just the beginning of his ownership costs.

I don’t have a wife or kids. These are things that I sacrificed to fly because once a jet warbird gets into your blood, it’s a hard addiction to kick, he observes.

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