I first met Jason at the 2007 Pacific Coast Dream Machines show. It was at the Saturday night Tri-Tip dinner at Eddie’s hanger. I was looking at a Japanese Zero fighter with my dad when Jason came up and asked me if I’d like to sit in it. “Sure,” I said and in I went. It still had all the Japanese writing in it and even had two real machine guns! This was the first time I’d ever sat in a real fighter and it was a Zero! There are only three flying Zero’s in the world, and Jason was flying one of them!
Jason in the CAF Zero
Jason was really nice and we talked a long time. He is a pilot for the Commemorative Air Force and gets to fly all kinds of cool planes.
A few weeks later we saw Jason again at the Watsonville Air Show in 2007 and he was flying the Zero with Mustangs and even a P-40 in the show. Jason remembered me and we had corn dogs together. Jason told me how he loves to eat corn dogs at airshows. Now, whenever I eat corn dogs at an air show, I always think of Jason!
At this year’s (2008) Watsonville Airshow I saw Jason again and this time he was flying a Grumman F6F Hellcat! The Hellcat was a top American carrier based fighter and shot down more Japanese aircraft than any other plane in the Pacific in WWII. It’s one of my favorite planes and this was the first time I’d ever seen one live. Jason let me sit in it!
Grumman Hellcat - what a plane!
So now that I’m an “Aviation Reporter”, I did an interview of my friend Jason!
Jason first was interested in flying model airplanes when he was about 15 years old. Just like me, he built plastic airplane models when he was younger, but then started flying radio control airplanes. “I met someone at the model airplane field that was a United Airlines Captain and he said ’Stop by the hanger some time’. He had great model airplanes but he also had a Pitts S2B aerobatic biplane in his hanger and he said, ‘Hey, I need some help around here, cleaning the airplanes and hanger and what not. I could pay you $8/hr, (which in 1986 was good money for a 16 year old kid) or I can teach you how to fly.’ “So I got my first 25 hours of dual instruction in that Pitts which is a really neat airplane to learn in. It’s quite an advanced airplane. So that got me started and he actually told me to get my mechanics license. He said, ‘Look, I’ve been flying forever. I never got my mechanics license and it’s the one thing I should have done. Do that first.’ And Jason continues, “It was the best advice that was ever given to me because working on airplanes is part of the reason why I’m flying the Hellcat, the Zero, the Bearcat and all the stuff in museums because of my ability to help maintain the airplanes. Because I can always fly and work on them, I’ll always have a career somewhere.”
“I didn’t get my pilots license until I was about 19. It took me a long time because all my friends were pilots at the airport and I flew tons of times, like 3-4 times a week so I didn’t need it. Finally I said it’s time to get it done. Then I got my A&P (airframe and power plant) and later my IA (inspection authorization). Then I got a job as a corporate mechanic. I actually started as an airplane cleaner. It paid more than I was getting as a mechanic but my friend told me to take this job and get in because it was a good company. So I took it and a few months into it I got a mechanic position. I’ve worked for them for 10 years as a mechanic. But sometimes I also occasionally fly the top line Gulfstream for them when they need a pilot.”
“I don’t enjoy flying for a living because I enjoy flying.”
“If you fly for a living, you might not enjoy flying anymore because it’s now your job. So I keep maintenance my job and flying my hobby.”
My dad was wondering why Jason didn’t go down a path to aerobatics since Jason started out in a Pitts. “I’ve been doing aerobatics since I was 16 years old but I’ve never wanted to do competitions. I’ve been to a few and watched but it’s not something I want to do because it’s so regimented. I never really wanted to be really good at it. I used to go out and get crazy and do lomchevoks, and tailslides, and torque rolls but now I just like to fly my Pitts and do rolls and shoot landings. I’ve always had hanger mates over the years who did aerobatics and they would train and train and train and they’d hire guys who critique them from the ground and they’d spend money and practice three times a day and they’d go to contests and come back disappointed. I’ve never been really competitive. I like doing something well but I don’t need to be competitive about it.”
I asked Jason how he ever got to the point where he could get to fly all these incredible warbirds. “This was a byproduct of Reno Air races. I wanted to race the Unlimited class, which is Mustangs, Sea Furys, and I’m like ‘ok, I can’t afford to buy one so how can I get the experience to fly one of these.’ It’s not like I can go up to someone and say ‘gimme the keys to your Mustang!’ So I know I need to get some warbird experience. Where can I get that? Well about a 35 minute drive from me is the Commemorative Air Force and they have the Bearcat, the Hellcat, and the Zero so I basically walked in and said ‘Hey, I’d like to volunteer my time to help you out and this is what I have to offer, but I’m here to fly your fighters! And they said ‘No problem. This is what you need to have, this is what you can do for us, and this is what we will do for you.’ “And it went step by step exactly as they said it would be.” I would continually have meeting with them about every three months and I’d pull the head of the organization aside into his hanger and say ‘look, I’ve been doing this, how’re we doing on that.’ He said, “we’re on track, don’t worry about it, you’ll fly the fighters”. Then one day he goes, “Let’s go fly”. So we jump into my T-6 and he says, ‘Let’s make it an evaluation flight’.” After the flight he says, “You fly good, you don’t quite fly the way we fly, but this is what I want you to work on’ “So can I fly fighters?” ‘Absolutely’ he said.
I’d worked for them for a year and a half before I flew a fighter and that was the Zero. Then they said they need me to fly the Bearcat, then shortly after that the Hellcat and the Spitfire. I also fly the big C-46 “China Doll”, the worlds largest tail-dragger because I got a multi-engine commercial rating when I was a kid.”
“I love the Commemorative Air Force Museum. It’s a great organization. I tell everybody that for every hour of work I’ve put in, I get 3 hours of fun. Now I don’t want to race at Reno Reno is one weekend a year and this is a lot of weekends a year.” anymore, so the reason I got into this has gone away, but I’m having more fun doing this.
One question I always ask pilots is if their parents were okay with them flying. Jason told me, “My mom was always weary of it and racing was for her was a real worry. Mt dad was okay with it and he’s the one that got me started in model airplanes. But my mom wasn’t. She has a calendar I’ve seen at their house where she has every airshow where I’m at marked so she knows where I’m at. She’s feeling pretty confident because she knows what kind of training I’ve gotten, that I’d learned from a very good pilot, and she’s heard some good things from pretty high up. But I’m their only child so she still worries.”
“I started racing at Reno in 2003 with my Pitts. I’d gone there with my friend and crew chief in 2002 and we were walking around enjoying the races when I said ‘I want to do this’. I did rookie school in June of 2003 and raced my Pitts that year. I had the best time. The camaraderie, the flying, it was just super, super fun. I thought, ‘I gotta get more of this!” So I bought a formula racer called “Alley Cat” and for 2004 I had two planes. I had so much fun I came back the next year with a T-6 so I had three planes. But now it had become a giant where I was chasing down sponsors all year. I had to get three planes to Reno, I had 14 people on a crew, I was spending a lot of money, and I was running ragged. Last year I backed down to two airplanes, the formula one and the Pitts, and my plan was to go down to one airplane in 2008. But unfortunately my sponsorships were so good that I almost couldn’t stop.”
“Last year at Reno was going really well. I had a great race in my first race of the weekend and the second race was where I had the midair, which kinda shut me down for the rest of the weekend. (He hurt his eye in the midair but is ok now) So I then made a decision that I was going to retire from racing in my fifth year. It was a huge passion of mine but I’m very fortunate to come out the other side of that midair with very little damage. So I’ve decided to stand down from racing for now but I still want to support it and I’ll be an instructor in rookie school this year in June, and in Reno I’ll be there hanging out with my friends. I just don’t have any desire to race at the moment. I may want to fly something in Unlimited one day.”
I had a really good time interviewing Jason and watching him fly that Hellcat was amazing! I look forward to eating corn dogs with him again soon!
Interview and some photos by Evan Isenstein-Brand. 5/24/08
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