If you know anything about warbirds, restoring warbirds, movie pilots, and Reno Air Racing, then you know the name Steve Hinton. When I first got into all this airplane stuff, my dad got some DVD's of "Roaring Glory Warbirds" and that's where I first heard of Steve Hinton. Those videos are really good too!
So I've been trying to meet Steve for a while and interview him and I finally got to at the 2011 California Capital Air Show, where Steve was not only flying a P-51 (the same one he checked out in when he was 19 years old) but also a beautiful P-40C that his team at Fighter Rebuilders just finished putting together.
So here's our interview!
What was the most challenging airplane you've ever restored?
Well, any restoration! We've been working on airplanes for a long time. We've done more than 40. So what was the most challenging? We did a P-38 years ago for the Fighter Collection in England and that was very challenging project because it was kind of left over crash and corroded parts and we were kind of able to piece it together. Memories come from that project. You know, people saying, “you shouldn't do it, or it's too much work, it's not worth it, or you're going to spend too much time”, and it just keeps you motivated. But once it was done, we flew it, and we delivered it to England. It was a great airplane, fun to fly it looked good, and of course, it's the
P-38, people love those planes.
Of course! It's a classic! What was your favorite airplane to restore?
Sigh, I like 'em all! Well most airplanes come with this story. That's the thing, you know when you restore a plane, you spend years. You spend a lot of time thinking about it. If you work with your fellow technicians and mechanics in the shop, and you work with the owner you work with historians, and you work with buying nuts and bolts. Picking paint, you know, it's a journey you go through.
Gosh, what was the most rewarding, and that's hard to explain. We just did a P-51 for the Friedkin family which was a restoration of an historic aircraft. It was a really fun project so I'd have to say that was like a lot of them, the end result is what focused the whole thing and what made it a really fun project.
Is there airplane you haven't restored yet that you'd love to get your hands on?
Well, there's a lot of airplanes that history tells us about it would be really cool. I think the industry is real healthy and I think that there's a lot of amazing airplanes that have been done, that people have done such the jobs on our restorations. But there is a missing era in my opinion right now, and to be complete to get some more jets going. The Korean War jets would be a really exciting. We all love F-86's and MiGs, and we've been involved with those, we've done a couple of F-86's our self, T-33's and things, but I think an F-84 would be really neat, or a Grumman F9F. You know that's a part of history that could be well displayed. Someday we might get a chance to do that.
I hope so!
Thanks, me too!
So you've done a lot of first flights in rebuilt planes. Have you had any close calls in them?
Um, no, I've had a few moments where there was a little excitement but I haven't really had any close calls. We go out of our way to make a test flight to be boring! The most vulnerable time you are is flying something that is new or untested, so we take special care and attention to try to have no surprises.
Can you tell me about the excitement?
Well I can take an airplane for instance that was a very exciting project that we built. There was a plane called Tsunami, that race plane. It was a plane that was designed but never flown. The metal it was made out of had never flown. We had the backing or the designer of the airplane and the people that made the choices for it's shape and it's systems were all highly qualified so we have a lot of confidence in it but like everything else, until it's tested it hasn't been proven. For instance, on the first flight on that airplane on take off the horizontal stabilizer, it was calculated to be at a certain angle but it needed an adjustment so the first flight was two hands on the stick pushing it forward and it wouldn't trim out, it was pretty heavy control, but it was controllable you just keep it cool and calm and everything was fine. And that whole project because it was a big effort and push to get it to the air races in 1986 and flight controls we had to do a lot of changes to them how the ailerons worked and the rudder with the shape of the rudder. Cautiously we're going faster and faster in the airplane and it experienced some control problems. Then we had cooling issues and landing gear issues, and so that was a lot of trying times!
So you've been a movie pilot in a lot of movies. Do you have any cool or exciting movie making stories you can share?
Well yes there's a lot of great ones. One of the first movies I worked on was a TV show called “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and it was the story of Greg “Pappy” Boyington and it was the Hollywood version of his book, which means it took a lot of liberties, but anyway I was 27 and being exposed to that part of the industry and I had a lot of really good experiences. Some amazing pilots as well as very famous guys, Frank Tallman and Art Scholl and also it was a neat group of pilots and that was kind of their start as well. From there you go on to do other things and I had a chance to do all sort of little movies. There was the warbirds and some TV shows We'd taken a B-25 and landed it for a movie called Forever Young, a Mel Gibson movie. We landed it out at a lighthouse near Point Arena north of San Francisco. They cleared a little spot, gave us about 800 feet of landing space, maybe 1000 feet. But the B-25 is a really easy airplane to land short and we had no problems at all but there’s all kind of stories that go with that movie.
There's even an air race story that goes with that movie because you'd be interested in this. Mel Gibson was a really big start at this time, he still is a big star but he was the star of the movie and during the early planning stages of the movie, we invited him, once we found out he was in this movie and it was a go, we invited him out to the Reno Air Races. He came as a visitor and this went around through the pits and he's a really nice guy, but all the women were absolutely just gaga over him! It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen just because a lot of these women I've known for years years and years and they are so cool and calm and then they get around a big star like Mel Gibson and they just had rubber knees. It was really funny to watch, So anyway, I took him up in the T-33 one of the race starts and we used the “Red Knight” for a couple of years there at Reno and he went along in that flight But I really enjoyed meeting him and getting to know him a little bit.
Speaking of the chase plane what's your responsibility when you're flying it?
The pace plane is a plane that leads the racers. We all brief really well, everybody knows what they're supposed to do. I take off in the T-33 and all the racers is join on me and it's my job to smoothly lead them around, keep them all in one flight and so we have a fair start and a safe start. Once the race is underway, I pull up overhead and observe the race from a birds eye view and I'm looking down. Using the T-33 for that and I can take a person in the back seat who can help me keep track of what's going on. As I mentioned earlier about taking Mel Gibson, that was a practice race when I took him, but during the real races, I have our race people people that are involved with it because there's a lot going on. Sometimes you can't see them because they're spread out across the race course so we'll talk ahead of time and that I can keep track of the first four and you take care of the last four and we'll talk back and forth in the airplane and as we watch if someone has a problem we'll head his way and if he needs our help we'll try to be there for him. Sometimes they don't know what's wrong with the airplane or sometimes they get occupied in the cockpit and might need a little encouragement. Sometimes they have oil on the windshield and can't see where they're going. Pretty exciting at times especially when there's two or three things going on at once. You get to see things that you really can't see any other place but from above the race course.
How was it watching Steve Junior win the Reno races from up above?
It was fabulous! Yeah, it was great! In his first race in Strega there, his very first race, was on a Friday and we had had an oil leak the day before on Thursday. So that first race on Friday I was pretty nervous about that because the engine appeared to be okay but until you really start pushing it you don't know if it was damaged at all. But it wasn't. He went and did a great job flying that. He's got a great crew, it's a great airplane and he's learning how to fly it really well so I really smile every time I think about it!
You must have been really proud!
So I really want to rebuild and fly warbirds like you do when I grow up. Do you have any advice for me to make that happen?
Life is full of opportunities and like you're doing now, like I've been following you a little bit for the last year or so and making your way through the aviation community. Your relationships you build with the people and the opportunities that you take is what's going to dictate what you do. If that's something you want to do, then I think you're on the right track because people will know you and you'll get those opportunities.
Yeah I'm trying to open as many doors as possible right now.
That's good and just to sound like your dad, don't waste time at school, and I'm saying that when you're in school, learn how to do what you're supposed to do because sometime you won't think it's going to be worth much to you but as you get older you'll realize it's so much easier to learn now at your age, I promise you, the older you get, the harder things are to learn. You never quit learning. I mean right now, it's a snap for you, it's so easy. Just hang in there and keep that smile and make a lot of friends and stick to your word.
You must have had of a lot of veterans come up and talk to you about the planes you fly at airshows. It must make you feel very happy because it means a lot to those guys. Is there a special story like that you remember?
Well yeah, you meet lot of really great people and yes I admire all these people that have done so many things, most of them are bashful about it. That was just their job, that what you did. But especially in World War II for instance, there was no question in their mind, there was a war, a world war. What they did they knew there was risk but they didn't do it for any glory because that's what you do.
But there is a couple of stories I think are really interesting because they relate to something on a personal level. Just to pick one out of the blue, one that came to mind is we have our friend John Paul from Boise and John's got a big group of friends, and he knows everybody and I went to one of his parties, and I'm embarrassed to tell you that I can't remember the gentleman I was talking to, I can't remember his name. Super good guy, he's a retired general. We got on the subject of talking about the F-86 and that's my favorite plane, and that was his favorite plane too. He was telling me that story about the very first F-86 that he flew and he got a check out and off he went and used a little too much trim and he was doing some loops and he bent the fuselage. And then he said, coincidentally he just got a letter from a museum in England that had that his F-86 on display and I said “wow, that's cool”. And I got to thinking, you know what, we just traded an F-86 that we had that had a bent fuselage to a Museum in England. And so we got to talking and I’ll be darned, this is the same F-86 fuselage. We had an F-86 display fuselage and we put wings on it and we traded it to The Imperial War Museum in England. And that just happened to be the same Saber the he flew and that was the last time it flew was when he flew it.
I myself personally have spent hundreds of hours in that cockpit when I was your age because it was at the Museum and I used to sit in that thing all the time and flip all the switches! So that was a cool story that I smile at that all the time!
Just remember too, everything we know about these planes, we read in book right? But when you meet a veteran and you start talking, all of a sudden you know, all this really is true, it's not just words.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Just that I admire what you're doing!
I admire what you're doing!
So I think you ought to keep it up and I always look forward to your little newsletters you send out, and keep a smile on your face and I really wish you good luck.
Thank you Steve!
Steve Hinton is a great guy and I'm so glad I was finally in the right place at the right time to get to interview him
Also, if you ever get a chance, you HAVE to visit the Planes of Fame Air Museum. Steve is the President of it and it is an amazing museum!