Just about every American man carries a little sliver of air racing buried in the base of his brain, whether he knows it or not. The pilots of the first world war begat the biplane barnstormers, who begat fighter pilots of the second world war, who begat test pilots like Chuck Yeager, who begat the astronauts of today and the future.
Anybody with a little spare time and a thimbleful of courage can earn a pilot's license today. Some 600,000 ordinary civilians are currently zooming around the country's skies, and more than 12 million fans turn out for air shows around North America each year.
Back in the '50s racers flew warplanes like Mustangs and Bearcats and De Havillands because they were plentiful and cheap. If a pilot trashed a plane, he could pick up spare parts at practically any airport junkyard. Now only a handful of such planes survive. Though there are also categories in the Reno Air Races called Formula One and Sport (comprising generally inexpensive, home-built kit planes) the stars of the Unlimited class are multimillion-dollar treasures that only super-rich patrons can afford.
Reno's mid-September desert air races are the warbird culture's culminating event – the Kentucky Derby of the WWII-era thoroughbreds – but much of the year-round scene plays out farther west, in California. Pilots offer several reasons: the abundance of airports throughout the state, the uninterrupted flow of cloudless days, dry air that won't rust the planes, and so forth. But here's the truth: Only in California will you find great numbers of men with the necessary qualities that being a warbird pilot requires – substantial wealth combined with a touch of insanity.
I met Steve Maiman at the Santa Monica Airport. He made his money in apparel, and owns a hangarful of motorcycles and exotic warplanes – everything from a Czech jet on down. Maiman's hangar is near Jerry Seinfeld's, and is not far from where Tom Cruise is said to keep his own priceless P-51 Mustang, called Montana Miss. A race-worthy Mustang cranks 3,800 horsepower through its V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. During a 15-minute run a plane like that consumes more than 300 pounds of fuel.
Several other puggish old warplanes dot the tarmac, sitting alongside cushy business jets like swollen-eyed, tape-fisted prizefighters who have wandered into a tea party, ambassadors from historic eras in American aviation: Mustangs, fierce Grumman Bearcats, diminutive Bird Dogs, a T-6 Texan, on and on.
The biggest problem with owning one is that nobody makes them anymore. Owners have to comb the globe for orphaned engines and spare parts. Federal regulations make it difficult to import newer warplanes, driving some desperate buyers into the embrace of sometimes shady international sources. Who else can sell you a used Yugoslavian fighter jet these days? One California pilot bought a whole fleet of airframes from the Philippines air force, and now waits for the necessary paperwork to be processed before he can ship them here for restoration.
You can pick up an old biplane for around 30 grand. For more money – starting at a quarter million – you can pick up a single-engine warplane, sometimes with hardware mounts for bombs and machine guns intact. The guy who's dealing with the Philippines air force keeps three camouflaged fighters in his hangar now, and flies them in simulated dogfights over the desert with a group of ex-fighter pilots.
I looked forward to climbing into one of Maiman's planes. Would we blast off in his Cold War-era Czech jet? Or the T-34, a fighter-training plane?
Maiman tapped the body of a yellow Stearman biplane trainer left over from World War II. "The covering is made of fabric, you know," he said. "Go ahead. Poke it with your finger. See? I survived my last crash in one of these."
He whipped a photo from his wallet, like a proud papa. In the picture he grinned woozily, standing beside a fresh pile of red biplane. "See?"
I sat in the biplane's front seat, with a Snoopy cap buckled under my chin. Steve cranked up the engine and hollered over the roar: "Oh, one little thing. I'm going to need you to keep an eye on your oil temperature gauge." His had been acting up lately.
Now, women may love puppies, and they adore babies, but puppies and babies won't be able to get the time of day if there's an old biplane looping around nearby. As we zoomed along the Pacific coast I saw women run waving at the plane, blowing kisses, clutching their hands to their hearts like silent-film starlets. Maiman grinned in my tiny rearview mirror. "Great feeling, isn't it?"
I thought we were clipping along nicely, but then a flash of red appeared out of the south and blew by, rolling wing over wing. The radio in my cap crackled. "Afternoon, fellas."
Maiman keyed his radio. "Hi'ya, Todd."
Todd Robinson, a film director, acquired his red SIAI-Marchetti SF-260 warplane, once flown by the Burmese air force, through an airplane broker.
Robinson pulled into formation on our left, with his wingtip no more than five feet from ours, and gave a little nod. I asked him later about the appeal of flying warplanes. "It's twofold," he said. "It's ultimate control, and calculated risk. So it's one of the few things in my life that truly puts me in the moment. I'm certainly not thinking about what's happening on the ground."
Maiman pushed down the nose of the biplane and we dove hard toward the Pacific, like a roller-coaster escaped from its rails. Later I talked to a woman who saw us in the air that day who had listened for the sound of an explosion as we disappeared below the cliff line.
Men who make a hobby of warplanes tend to ignore boundaries. A couple of years ago Maiman took a little joyride through downtown Los Angeles, in among the buildings, happily whoopty-dooing in his little red biplane. Unbeknownst to him, he had attracted the attention of local law enforcement and television news choppers. They tracked him back to touchdown at the airport. The news footage shows Maiman climbing out of his plane just as the cop cars screech up. Later that night he listened to phone messages from his buddies, congratulating him on how stylish he looked on TV.
And now here we were again, bearing down on the downtown area. I reminded him of the other time. "Nah," he said. "That got blown out of proportion."
We curled safely around the high-rises, then finally touched down back at the airport. "That was fun, right?" Steve said. I thanked him – but as we climbed out of the plane and I turned to place my Snoopy cap in the cockpit, I felt a chill grip my gut: I hadn't looked at the oil temperature once.