Saving Aircraft Inc.

A movie stunt pilot follows a boyhood dream

April 1, 2006

To find Chino Airport, drive an hour east of Los Angeles, turn south at Ontario, California, and when you reach the 1,000th Holstein milk cow on the right, you're there. A short distance from that cow is The Air Museum: Planes of Fame; some 25,000 people find it every year to attend shows on aviation history, see historic aircraft fly, and see aircraft from all eras in restoration.

Planes of Fame claims to be the first permanent aviation museum west of the Rocky Mountains, where 42 of the 150 exhibits fly to earn their keep and make possible the restoration of other rare aircraft. They appear in airshows, the movies (Hollywood is 30 minutes to the east), and advertisements. Museum visitors get an extra bonus: Fighter Rebuilders, located on the museum grounds, restores a variety of aircraft. During my visit last fall, restoration was in progress on a Russian-built Japanese Model 22 Zero for aircraft collector and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. The Zero was built long after World War II when the Russians had hoped to start a profitable industry in building warbird replicas. The Russian mafia got wind of it, took control, and for some reason the replica manufacturing ended.

Heading up the restoration efforts in California is the co-owner of Fighter Rebuilders, Steve Hinton, winner of six Gold-Unlimited air races (two at Reno, Nevada), holder of a world piston-engine speed record for a decade (499 mph), and the pilot who demonstrated Glacier Girl at airshows in 2005. Glacier Girl is the Lockheed P-38 Lightning recovered from 268 feet beneath the Greenland ice. In Hinton's 53 years he has flown in 54 movies, including Pearl Harbor, The Rocketeer, and 1941. Two of the museum's aircraft recently flew in Flags of Our Fathers, a Steven Spielberg film directed by Clint Eastwood that will be released this fall.

Finding Chino is a lot easier than finding Hinton, I discovered. As I was pulling into the museum parking lot at the airport, it was obvious that museum renovation was in progress. A new museum gift shop and three hangar bays had been completed, and nearby a roof was complete for another huge display hangar. The museum in Chino (there is a branch in Valle, Arizona) is in transition to a slick-looking facility comparable to the best aviation museums in the country. Construction is expected to be 85-percent complete in June. It was originally started by Ed Maloney, Hinton's father-in-law, in the 1950s.

As this was written the Planes of Fame museum at Chino was spread out across the airport with two large lots dedicated to parts and aircraft awaiting restoration, while a separate hangar hundreds of yards from the main museum housed jets and rocket planes. With new construction in progress the aircraft will be consolidated in one location.

Hinton, it turned out, was somewhere in that complex, but no one could say for sure just where. His brother, John, who also is an expert mechanic and movie stunt pilot, suggested searching the parts room of Fighter Rebuilders, then suggested I try the back lot where his brother was said to be looking for engine parts.

Stepping into the back lot, which nonaviation visitors might call a junkyard, I found a Curtiss C-46 Commando resting engineless, chicken wire on the cockpit to keep out birds; an old Hudson car; a fighter-jet trainer; airliner parts; engines; wheels; and props. But there was no sighting of Hinton, so I searched the display hangars. Just beyond the fenced entrance to the airport ramp, a Douglas DC-3 labored to start its uncowled right engine, puffing white smoke.

Attached to the Fighter Rebuilders shop are display areas containing a wide variety of artifacts, most of them collected in the 1950s, including dusty trophies from Unlimited Gold class air races at Reno. In other hangars I found a red Boeing Stearman that has appeared in numerous TV commercials and movies, including Police Academy, Pearl Harbor, The Kid, and Bubble Boy. There also was a Northrop N9MB Flying Wing and yes, it flies demonstrations today.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, all the aircraft have a story to tell. Sitting outside the museum awaiting restoration is the last Boeing B-17 operated by the U.S. Air Force, which was also used in filming the TV series Twelve O'clock High.

The museum's Japanese-built Mitsubishi Zero, one of three flying in the world, is the only one of the three to have its original engine and propeller. Captured in Saipan in 1944, it was flown by Charles Lindbergh for evaluation and was one of 16 aircraft barged to Hawaii and used in the filming of Pearl Harbor.

Another aircraft with combat experience is the museum's Supermarine Spitfire, which was one of the first to cross the English Channel after D-Day. The Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star trainer is used by Hinton each year as the pace plane to start the National Championship Air Races at Reno.

The current big project, mostly done by volunteers one Saturday at a time, is the restoration of America's first jet, the Bell YP-59 Air Comet. It has been in restoration nine years, and the fuselage and wing panels are nearly complete; three original engines have been overhauled — large turbines with tiny tail-pipes that generate 1,600 pounds of thrust. There are record setters as well, including a Curtiss R3C replica biplane like the one Jimmy Doolittle used that captured a world speed record, and a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, obviously rocket powered, that was the first aircraft to go Mach 2.005 with Scott Crossfield aboard in November 1953.

Having searched every building, I wandered over to the DC-3, where the right engine was now running smoothly (the left one had belched fire to protest an awakening from a months-long slumber). In the cockpit was the missing Steve Hinton, exercising the aircraft for the owner who keeps it in storage with Fighter Rebuilders.

Movie stunt flying

Only four or five pilots work full time in the movies, and the majority are helicopter pilots. "The rest of us help fill in," Hinton said. The Motion Picture Pilots Association (MPPA), although it does not include all movie pilots, has only 24 members. (Only one is a woman: Patty Wagstaff.) "If there is a movie specific to warbirds, that is where I get involved," Hinton said.

Hinton was chief pilot and supervised 13 or 14 pilots for the movie Pearl Harbor, while fellow MPPA member Alan Purwin was aerial coordinator. "We had a really good show," Hinton said. "We had one mishap where one guy got a little too low and hit a cement palm tree. He crashed, ripped his wing off, flipped upside down, and came down as a bunch of parts. He didn't get hurt, though, and nobody on the ground got hurt." It happened out of camera range.

The movie pilots are less daredevils than the public might imagine, and many of the scenes that look scary are created by careful camera angles. "Nobody wants to die doing this. People might be in their seat eating popcorn while you're killing yourself," Hinton said. He recalls a safe "movie crash" involving a Beechcraft V35 Bonanza. Hinton recalled that it was a nice aircraft inside and out, and ran well, but the script called for a gear-up landing on a road, so he did it. "I felt bad," Hinton recalled. "I could hear the airplane cursing me out as I skidded down the road."

Hinton is known in the movie industry as a can-do guy, and if he says can't-do, then movie executives understand it really can't be done. Mostly Hinton has to talk with directors not about danger, but about cost. What directors want would easily break the budget of even the biggest films ( Pearl Harbor directors spent $2 million on aircraft). That's not to say movie flying is guaranteed risk free. Pearl Harbor required duplicating the feat of then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle — fly a North American B-25 off the deck of a carrier — twice. Hinton took the B-25J from his museum, costing $2,500 per day plus $2,500 per hour, and joined two other B-25 pilots and their aircraft in Texas.

"Two of our guys had experience taking off from a carrier. We briefed and practiced until we could do it. We demonstrated it, and then took three B-25s down to Corpus Christi, put the planes on barges, and hauled them over to the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay. We launched off the Lexington with about 10 mph of wind over the deck," Hinton said.

"The carrier was awfully short. We had about 700 feet [of deck]. We used about 690 feet of it. Even if you rolled off the end you would have been OK. But if you lost an engine you would have gone swimming. It was exciting as hell. Once you let go of the brakes you're on your way.

"Then we launched off the USS Constellation, which is an active carrier. We went to sea in it from San Diego and launched off that [for additional filming]."

Racing career

Hinton's career hasn't been mishap free, however. At age 22 in the mid-1970s he was racing a North American P-51 Mustang named Red Baron. A modified engine and counterrotating propellers powered him to Unlimited- Gold class victories in California, Florida, and Reno. With it he captured a piston-engine world speed record. But in 1979 the engine quit on the last lap at Reno and the airplane crashed short of the runway, badly injuring Hinton.

He recovered by 1981 and, with his childhood friend and business partner Jim Maloney (a son of museum founder Ed Maloney), he raced a Corsair F2G called the Super Corsair that was built at Fighter Rebuilders. "There's a thrill in taking a pile of parts and making it fly," Hinton said. He won Reno with that aircraft, too. He raced in 1986 in an original design by Lockheed engineer Bruce Boland called Tsunami. At about that same time, there was another accident.

"I was injured flying a little race plane [a Miles and Atwood Special Racer] for a movie called Rocketeer. It was actually in preparation for the movie. I had an engine failure here at Chino and landed in a field, hurting my back again. I felt like an egg again — really fragile. My injuries from the Red Baron accident had been pretty severe — I had broken my back, my leg, and my ankle. It had taken a lot of surgery and a lot of hardware to feel like a human again. So I decided not to continue to race Tsunami and started doing the pace plane at Reno that year," Hinton said.

Photo flight

After lunch Hinton arranged for a photo flight for the pictures with this article. But first the aircraft had to arrive back from a weekend airshow at Edwards Air Force Base, where they had been on display.

Then Hinton disappeared again. The U.S. Navy fighters had to be serviced and moved into position for a photo shoot the next day. He was spotted later fixing something in the cockpit of a Grumman/GM TBM-3 Avenger like the one former President George H.W. Bush flew.

By midafternoon the aircraft appeared in the Chino traffic pattern, a Japanese Mitsubishi Zeke 54 (Zero) and a Curtiss P-40N Warhawk. But the Zero wouldn't be joining us. A Douglass SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber offered the photographer a better place to sit, in the rear-facing gunner's seat with the canopy removed. The museum's Dauntless is one of three flying in the world; yet despite its rarity, our attention was focused on the Pearl Harbor movie star, the P-40.

Hinton used only 45 inches of the 60 inches of manifold pressure available for takeoff from the Allison 12-cylinder, 1,475-horsepower engine. Still we easily caught, and could have shot down, the Dauntless. Photographer Chad Slattery said later that the vibration from the 1,200-horsepower Wright R-1820-60 radial engine in the Dauntless caused him to use higher camera shutter speeds to stop blur. Yet the Allison was as smooth as today's piston engines, although I could tell it was a noisy environment for a World War II fighter pilot. That's why Planes of Fame aircraft still fly, to experience history.

"It compares to going to a wax museum or going to the zoo," Hinton said. "Some people have different interests, and say you shouldn't fly them. On the other hand, we take pride in flying these aircraft and providing the sights and sounds. People look at these beautiful airplanes and say, 'Wow!' But if you start it up, take off, and fly back, it's a triple, 'Wow!'"

Hinton met Jim Maloney (who died in 1983 in an aircraft accident) as a second-grader after discovering that Maloney could draw better airplanes on the blackboard than he could. He admits that today he is still that second-grader with a passion for airplanes. It's just that now, as the unpaid president of the Planes of Fame museum, he's in a position to do something about it.

"It's kinda in our hearts," Hinton said. "We're all passionate for the museum."


E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.


Links to additional information about Steve Hinton and The Museum: Planes of Fame may be found on AOPA Online.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.